The United States has responded to the images of huddled masses desperate to enter Europe and of bodies washed up on Mediterranean shores with lots of sympathy and little leadership.
Our nation, now accepting 70,000 refugees a year from around the world, plans to take in 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017. Only 33,000 of the 70,000 are allocated to the Near East and South Asia.
Syria accounts for 4 million of the world’s estimated 20 million refugees, the biggest wave of displaced people since World War II. President Barack Obama has pledged to take in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees next year; by comparison, Germany has offered to absorb 800,000.
We’re told that the United States, the world’s richest and strongest nation, can’t do more because of a lack of government money or because the process of screening refugees is so complicated and time-consuming or because we have to be on guard for terrorist infiltration.
Let’s put aside the financial concerns, which are insignificant in a life-and-death situation, particularly for a federal government that routinely spends half a trillion dollars a year more than it collects and can count on many nonprofit organizations, including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Catholic Church, to pitch in.
What stands in the way of accepting 100,000 Syrians on top of the current quota of 70,000 refugees, as HIAS recommends, is American fear overwhelming American compassion.
Our process for accepting refugees is long and complex, even in this digital age, because we’re afraid someone in a large group escaping war and oppression might fool us. What if a person just claims refugee status to access our opportunities and freedoms without struggling through our byzantine immigration system?
That worry turns into paranoia when it comes to Middle Eastern refugees pounding on the gates of Europe to escape the chaos wrought by the killing machines of Bashar Assad, Islamic State, and armed groups affiliated with bad actors ranging from Al-Qaida to Iran.
We’ve convinced ourselves that the people risking and too often losing their lives to escape to the West are part of a vicious Islamist plot. Best case, we envision hundreds of thousands of Muslims changing U.S. culture and politics with their strange ways; worst case, we see the next 9/11.
In what seems to be an increasingly anti-immigrant mood in this nation, it’s far better that thousands should be turned away and suffer than that even one person should beat our system. Nothing is more important than protecting ourselves.
As Jews, we can’t accept that attitude. Such thinking afflicted a scared United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The United States feared that an influx of the strange Jews would change U.S. culture, introduce extreme political ideas and even provide cover for German saboteurs. So 6 million Jews and millions of other civilians were condemned to death at the hands of the Nazis.
That’s why the SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, a son of a Holocaust survivor, has offered to employ 1,000 Syrian refugees at his company’s new factory in Rahat, if only Israel will take them in.
As Americans, we can’t waste the chance to demonstrate unequivocally that we are not anti-Muslim but only anti-Muslim-extremist.
It’s an overused phrase, but if the United States is too afraid to lead the world with decisive, compassionate action in this time of humanitarian crisis, the terrorists truly have won.