Perspectives on Syrian refugees: Is the Holocaust comparison inappropriate?

A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany. | By Mstyslav Chernov [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Read the first part in our series of Jewish perspectives on Syrian refugees, “Finding commonality in Jewish history.

For the last few months, I’ve seen the comparison of today’s Syrian refugees to the plight of European Jews during the Holocaust trending on social media. This is an ignorant comparison with no real critical analysis behind it. These cases have different historical and political contexts — and ramifications.

In November, Amram Altzman wrote on the need for the United States to accept Syrian refugees. Altzman wrote, “While so much has already been said about what the Jewish position (owing either to religious or historical obligation) on accepting Syrian refugees should be, factions within the Jewish community who are wary of — or outright reject — support for Syrian refugees in the United States still remain, further fueled by so much of the political fear-mongering from right-wing political figures today.”

To remark that I, as someone who is on the right-wing side of the political spectrum, am fear-mongering is naive. I care about those who are fleeing civil war and Assad’s chemical warfare against his own citizens. I care about the roughly two million Syrian children who are deprived of a warm bed.

But citing “shall love thy stranger” and quoting Exodus does not imply that states should accept refugees regardless of whether there is a massive security concern. These days in political discourse we need to think and analyze less emotionally and more critically. Loving a stranger does not mean people must accept foreigners regardless of who they are, especially if they pose a security risk. Protecting life (Pikuach Nefesh) is Judaism’s foremost mitzvah.

During the Shoah, Europe’s Jews had no place to flee from Adolf Hitler’s Reich. Every country either closed or heavily restricted its borders. One place with restrictive immigration quotas was British-controlled Mandatory Palestine, the closest thing they had to a homeland. Today’s refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War have several Middle East countries in which to take refuge. However, Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia are unwelcoming to the refugees. The number of countries, particularly Muslim ones, that have accepted the 4.1 million refugees is insufficient and unacceptable.

The real dilemma should not be whether or not to let the refugees seek shelter in the U.S., but rather how best to enable them to return to their initial shelter. I believe the latter can only be accomplished through a drastically improved combat strategy against ISIS. Dropping only eight bombs a day while rejecting 75% of proposed strikes against ISIS is ineffective to defeat the group — we may be doing the most out of the states that support the Syrian opposition, but we can do more, and so can the rest of the world.

Muslim countries need to develop a joint program wherein Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states must accept minimum quotas of Syrian refugees. While Muslim countries are accepting some refugees, there is no known joint program in place. Finally, the U.S. and other nations must develop an aggressive strategy to fight radical Islamic terror and end the Syrian Civil War so that these four million refugees can return to a safe haven.

I am not for risking America’s national security when there’s a concern that any refugee could be a member of ISIS or another radical Islamic terrorist network. In November, according to the Daily Mail, the FBI arrested 66 people affiliated with ISIS, some of whom were disguised as non-Syrian refugees. In response to a House bill calling for his, and the Secretary of Homeland Security’s as well as the Director of National Intelligence’s, personal inspection of every application for asylum, FBI director James Comey said it would be impractical for him to personally vet every individual Syrian refugee applying for asylum in the U.S. Comey’s concern should be the end of discussion.

The world stood silent in the 1930s as Jewish refugees fled Nazi-occupied European countries. Today there is worldwide outcry regarding the plight of Syrian refugees. And there’s another way in which global response is disappointingly different from World War II: The U.S., known as the world’s superpower, has yet to lead a coalition of states to defeat, as former presidential candidate Rand Paul once called them, “these haters of mankind.”


Jackson Richman is a student at The George Washington University.

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