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“Let us not make the same mistake”: a letter from more than 1,000 rabbis on refugees

A Syrian refugee child in a tent in Turkey.
A Syrian refugee child in a tent in Turkey.
(Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, a group of more than 1,000 American rabbis sent a letter to Congress. Their message was simple: American Jews remember when we were refugees and America wouldn't let us in. The same thing must not be allowed to happen to refugees today.

"In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy," the rabbis write. "In 2015, let us not make the same mistake."

The reference is to the SS St. Louis, a boat loaded with 900 Jews that arrived on American shores in 1939. The St. Louis was turned away amid widespread American opposition to taking in more Jewish refugees. The rabbis see something similar today, as the full text of the letter (organized by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS) shows:

We, Rabbis from across the country, call on our elected officials to exercise moral leadership for the protection of the US Refugee Admissions Program.

Since its founding, the United States has offered refuge and protection to the world’s most vulnerable. Time and time again, those refugees were Jews. Whether they were fleeing pogroms in Tzarist Russia, the horrors of the Holocaust or persecution in Soviet Russia or Iran, our relatives and friends found safety on these shores.

We are therefore alarmed to see so many politicians declaring their opposition to welcoming refugees.

Last month’s heartbreaking attacks in Paris and Beirut are being cited as reasons to deny entry to people who are themselves victims of terror. And in those comments, we, as Jewish leaders, see one of the darker moments of our history repeating itself.

In 1939, the United States refused to let the SS St. Louis dock in our country, sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe, where many died in concentration camps. That moment was a stain on the history of our country – a tragic decision made in a political climate of deep fear, suspicion and antisemitism. The Washington Post released public opinion polling from the early 1940’s, showing that the majority of U.S. citizens did not want to welcome Jewish refugees to this country in those years.

In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. In 2015, let us not make the same mistake.

We therefore urge our elected officials to support refugee resettlement and to oppose any measures that would actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.

This kind of emotional support for refugees is widespread in the American Jewish community. In November, 11 of the country's biggest Jewish organizations (including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee) signed on to a letter calling on Congress to allow more Syrian refugees into the country.

Why the strong Jewish support for letting in more refugees, including Syrians? It's hard to say for sure, as there haven't been a lot of polls on the question. But the rabbis' letter points to a clear explanation: Memories of persecution aren't that far from any American Jew's memory.

We — and I use "we" here very intentionally — know what it's like to be stateless, to be forced from your home by a brutal government. After the photo of the drowned 3-year-old refugee Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the Turkish shore shocked in the world in August, the Jewish community mobilized to help the refugees.

"It's really been amazing," Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, told Vox's Dara Lind in November. "We're able to drive an advocacy agenda, because we really do have many American Jews behind us."

The letter from the rabbis, then, is part of a broader campaign on behalf of American Jews — a particularly organized and engaged constituency— aimed at countering the nasty anti-refugee sentiment coming from some governors and leading Republican candidates for president.