November 17, 2018

#WeAreNext

The campaign to keep Syrian refugees out of the United States represents a complete lack of faith — not just in Syrian refugees, and not just in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but in America itself.

I would like to be able to say such a campaign is un-American, but there has always been a fearful, xenophobic strain infecting the U.S. body politic. The anti-Chinese movement of the 19th century, the calls to keep Jewish refugees out on the eve of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and now the move to block people suffering from the horrors of Bashar Assad and radical Islam in Syria.

Just before Thanksgiving — the holiday that celebrates our Pilgrim immigrant forebears — Donald Trump, grandson of immigrants, brought the debate to a new low calling for a registry of Muslim Americans.

“Singling out any ethnic or faith group to register with the government is morally repugnant, not to mention unconstitutional,” American Jewish Committee (AJC) Executive Director David Harris said in a statement. “What Mr. Trump proposes, in this case targeting all Muslims, is a horror movie that we Jews are quite familiar with.”

In response to the latest round of xenophobia, non-Muslims have adopted the Twitter hashtag #IAmMuslim. And why not? Once it becomes acceptable to single out people based on their ethnicity or religion, all of us are vulnerable, Jews more than others. Perhaps a more accurate protest would be #WeAreNext.

America was founded by, and to a great degree for, immigrants. Without immigrants, our great country would be just above average, an oversized Scotland. No offense to Scotland.

The fact that both these insights are cliché just makes them easier to ignore and take for granted. Immigration is an economic and cultural driver. Europe didn’t fling its doors open to Muslims solely out of the goodness of its heart. Old Europe needs young blood. Otherwise it can never compete with countries like, say, America.

It is no coincidence that the governors of the states thriving the least economically are the most steadfast against admitting the Syrian refugees. States that welcome immigrants, like California, do better.  

I get that the Republican and Democratic representatives who voted to support a bill putting a hold on the processing of 10,000 Syrian refugees don’t understand the nature of civil war, Islamic extremism or Islam.

But more disturbing is that they don’t seem to understand America.

America does immigration so well, because America does assimilation so well. America does integration like Jews do shivah. We just excel at it. The banlieues of Paris are festering sores of isolated Muslim youth who feel, justly, as French officials readily admit, that they don’t belong in France.

But America at its best and most commonplace accepts all comers and enables them to become proud hyphenates. That’s why the elevator in the Journal’s Koreatown office building is filled with Ethiopians, Koreans, Sri Lankans, Salvadorans — Muslim, Jewish, Christian — it makes the United Nations look homogeneous. 

America has a race problem, but it never has an immigration problem — until some people try to foment one.

And keep in mind, the facts do not support their arguments.

“If a potential terrorist is determined to enter America to do harm,” an Oct. 18 article in the Economist says, “there are easier and faster ways to get there than by going through the complex refugee resettlement process. Of the almost 750,000 refugees who have been admitted to America since 9/11, only two Iraqis have been arrested on terrorist charges; they had not planned an attack in America, but aided al-Qaeda at home.”

The threat to America’s wellbeing from 10,000 Syrian refugees pales in comparison to the threat of turning into a hateful, closed-door society where any of our families could be the next ones kept out, and any of us could be the next ones forced to register.

That fear is why the Anti-Defamation League, AJC and nine other Jewish organizations have joined with 81 other groups in sending a letter to Congressmembers urging them not to roll back plans to accept Syrian refugees into the United States.

“It would send a demoralizing and dangerous message to the world that the United States makes judgments about people based on the country they come from and their religion,” the letter states.

This is one appropriate response to the surge in one of America’s ugliest and most forgetful impulses. Another is to join with groups such as the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief and the Democracy Council, which is holding a fundraiser Dec. 13 in Los Angeles to help bring teachers and services to the Syrian refugees.

On the list of supporters for the fundraiser are Christians, Jews and Muslims. 

But what else would you expect? That’s America.

And for that we can all be very grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving

Rob Eshman is on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

For more information on the Democracy Council fundraiser for Syrian relief, click here.