For me, it was those little blue shoes. In the picture of little Alan Kurdi, laying there like he was sleeping on the beach in Turkey. Only he wasn’t sleeping, I had been sleeping, we have been sleeping.
It was the shoes that woke me from my slumber, from my disregard for the suffering of the Syrian people in the midst of the greatest humanitarian refugee crisis since the Second World War. More than 10 million people have fled from chaos … into chaos. There are 360,000 refugee children under the age of 11 in Turkey alone.
But it only took one. It was those tiny shoes, on those tiny feet, with their tiny toes. I know those shoes, those feet, those toes, my own children have them. They should not be laying there lifeless on the beach – they should be running through sandcastles, stomping in puddles, chasing the tide in and out.
Two hundred thousand people have died in the fighting, or while running or swimming for their lives, many of them children like Alan and his brother Galib. Millions of children are suffering from trauma and ill health. A quarter of Syria’s schools have been damaged, destroyed or taken over for shelter. More than half of Syria’s hospitals are destroyed.
But “it’s the children that catch us,” wrote Sarah Wildman for the Jewish Daily Forward. It’s the children who “bring those dizzying numbers into full focus. Their eyes round, their faces tired or hidden behind a parent’s legs. They are asleep on their parents’ shoulders; they walk beside them or are strapped to their bellies, legs dangling, as their mothers or fathers stride ever forward.
“They are far younger than the Syrian conflict so many of them flee. They have been trapped the entirety of their young lives, and now we see them, lying lifeless on beaches.”
Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, wrote: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard – is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers’ resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”
Sacks suggests a modern-day kindertransport, like that which was organized to save Jewish children on the eve of the Shoah.
But “save the children” is not “love the stranger.” To love the stranger, you have to take the parents, too. To love the stranger, you have to love the Syrians, who were taught to fear and hate Israel, to fear and hate Jews.
“Love the stranger” does not mean you have to open wide the borders to Islamists, fundamentalists or terrorists. But, in these numbers the world is dealing with, how many innocents will die while we carefully screen for the next Osama bin Laden?
I hear the concern, the alarm, the plaintive note of caution in our community and beyond.
“Think before acting.”
“It’s a Muslim problem, let those countries come to their aid. They hate us anyway.”
“Allowing millions of Syrians and others from the Muslim Middle East into Europe will end up as a catastrophe for Europe and, therefore, for the West.”
I read these statements and I can’t help swapping the word Muslim for Jew. Re-read them that way and they are indistinguishable from the statements that were issued when it was our people, the Jewish people, trying desperately to get out of Europe ahead of the Nazi menace.
Jews were desperate to leave. Yet country after country shut its doors. Nation after nation, in effect, said it wasn’t their problem. Or, more precisely, said they didn’t want it to be their problem.
We know well the tragedy of the St. Louis, one of the last ships to leave Nazi Germany in 1939 before Europe became involved in the Second World War. Denied entry at every port from Cuba, to the United States, to Canada, the ship sailed back to Europe and the Jewish passengers ended up in Nazi concentration camps, a third of them died there.
We know the infamous response of an unidentified Canadian immigration agent who, in early 1945, was asked how many Jews would be allowed in Canada after the war. He replied, “None is too many.”
This is not the Shoah, thank God.
What’s happening in Europe is a humanitarian crisis of the first order, but it’s not genocide. It shouldn’t need to be said that the Holocaust was the determined effort by one of the world’s leading industrialized powers to murder all the world’s Jews in the course of a nearly successful effort to conquer the globe.
Raising images of the Holocaust may help draw attention to the crisis. But it also shuts down reasoned discourse, and thus drowns out urgent questions that need airing.
“If the borders are opened wide, how many millions will want to flee the world’s no-longer-liveable regions for the safe haven of a continent that works?”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, rightfully, reminds us that Israel is a small country that lacks geographic and demographic depth – it cannot take in masses of Syrian refugees. Yet Israel is not standing idly by. Quietly, so as not to endanger those it is helping, Israel is treating hundreds of Syrian wounded on its northern border.
“But,” as J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward, “in an atmosphere where every dinghy is the St. Louis, where refrigerator trucks smuggling migrants into Austria become boxcars transporting Jews to the gas chambers, where numbers thoughtlessly scrawled on refugees’ forearms in felt-tip pen by Czech police frantically trying to keep track of the human tidal wave are transformed into numbers tattooed on death-camp inmates – in such an atmosphere, there’s nothing left to discuss.”
Is Canada the best place for Syrian refugees? No, it would be better to keep them near their homeland so that, when troubles are over, they are in position to return to rebuild. Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have taken in two million; the rest of the oil-rich Gulf States have refused – they need to do their part.
But, as Irwin Cotler reminded us at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver campaign launch, quoting Rabbi Tarfon from the Mishnah (2:16): “It is not our responsibility to finish the work [of repairing the world], but we are not free to desist from it either.”
On the Thursday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Sept. 17), five Vancouver synagogues, their rabbis and lay leaders met with the Jewish Federation and our interfaith partners in the Anglican Diocese and the immigrant aid service agency
MOSAIC to explore the possibility of each synagogue sponsoring a refugee family. We will meet again after the federal elections to continue our planning and due diligence in preparation for family sponsorships.
This will not be a small project. We will be responsible not only for raising enough money to show the Canadian government that we can support a family for a year; we will also be responsible for everything from meeting them at the airport to finding them a place to live, from helping them learn English to helping them find work and schools. If you are interested in getting involved, I urge you to contact your rabbi or the Jewish Federation and offer your support to those who are in desperate need.
We will be responsible long after their images and stories have disappeared from the headlines of our news. But we will stand together with other synagogues – and people of other faiths – across North America, stepping forward to do what we can, to love the stranger because we were once strangers.
This is an excerpt from a sermon delivered by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz on Kol Nidrei 5776 at Temple Sholom. The full sermon can be viewed at youtu.be/2cHd_FV2MWs.