On Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated an 11-year-old girl named Rena, my mother, from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Spared from the gas chambers, her dream of living freely without constant fear of persecution or death suddenly was no longer a fantasy; she now had hope that dream might soon be realized.
But the gates of the United States did not swing open for Jewish refugees at the end of World War II, even for those with relatives in the U.S., just as they had been tightly guarded in 1939 when it was clear the Jews of Europe were in great danger and in 1942 when Washington learned the Nazis were perpetrating mass murder.
It would take her nearly five years of struggle, enduring more humiliation and persecution in Poland and Germany, before she would have the opportunity to live in complete freedom with her family in the United States, even after the Nazis had forced her into slave labor; starved and tortured her; and murdered her father, brother, and dozens of relatives.
My family history, similar to that of many first and second generation Americans, is why the plight of today’s Syrian refugees, fleeing a government that is murdering its own people, strikes such a resonant chord with American Jews.
Wear a yellow crescent in solidarity with American Muslims
The families of Holocaust survivors know what it is to seek refuge. After a millennia-long history of being singled out for our religious beliefs, Jews know what it is to dream of freedom without fear of persecution.
This is why we so deeply treasure America and its promise of liberty. And this is why we are so outspoken in opposition to President Trump’s executive order banning Muslims of certain countries from entering the United States, halting immigration from war-torn Syria, and suspending all refugee admissions.
That it was done on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which my mother celebrates as her “second birthday,” the date she was given a second chance at life, makes it even more painful, a tragic irony.
There are few words sweeter to American Jews than the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It says we are all equal, we are all respected and accepted. It says the government, including the President, may not discriminate against people of any religion.
This is why every denomination of American Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — is in agreement, a rarity, that the President’s seven-nation immigration ban is wrong. Never mind the fact that Muslim leaders in some of the targeted countries have condemned Jews and threatened Israel. Even so, Jews will fiercely defend the right of Muslims to enter the United States and be protected by its constitution.
We are doing more than just protesting. My synagogue, in partnership with two other neighboring congregations, has just proudly resettled a family of Syrian Muslims in our New Jersey community, as other synagogues have done across the U.S. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, is among the leading refugee agencies that have been working on behalf of Syrians, Muslims and Christians since Bashar Assad declared war on his people.
For Jews, “Never Again!” is more than a pledge against mass murder. It is a commitment to fight discrimination and persecution against people of any background, not just those of the Jewish faith.
Of course everyone wants protection from terrorism. But the President’s immigration ban is no way to secure our nation. To the contrary, it is only serving to confirm our enemies’ false claims that America is at war with Islam. The world’s Muslims need to know that American Jews are standing with them.
In his effort to prevent terrorism, Trump must remain cognizant of the need to both respect the constitution, and maintain humanity in his heart. Just as American Jews are acutely aware of the perilous existence refugees confront, our President should know that the next refugee from Syria seeking to enter the United States may be an 11-year-old girl trying to survive, who simply dreams of a life free from persecution and the constant fear of death.