I am a Russian-born American Jew, and this week some of my fellow escapees from the Soviet Union — there are around 800,000 of us in the United States — have broken my heart. With the indifference many of us have expressed toward the plight of Syrian refugees, we’re breaking faith with our values and forgetting our history.
By and large, the American Jewish community has been on the right side of history on the question of Syrian refugees. Recognizing the obvious humanity of the hundreds of thousands fleeing the twin horrors of the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, American Jews have remembered that, barely a generation ago, our own people were unwelcome on these shores — and that, in many cases, inhospitality meant death. It’s no wonder that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which typically does not take positions on specific policies, has publicly urged Americans to remember this ugly history as we wrestle with the latest crisis.
As the museum’s Cameron Hudson explained, “we have a mandate to be the voice that the Jews of the 1930s did not have.”
But in the ex-Soviet corner of Jewish American life, the picture looks different. With growing despair, I have fought on Facebook this week with a parade of Mishas, Sergeis, Galinas and Julias — individuals who share my background. In their opposition to President Obama’s proposal that Americans accept 10,000 Syrian refugees (even as countries with fewer resources, like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, take in hundreds of thousands) they’ve seldom bothered to hide their prejudiced justifications.
I suppose I hoped that the shared experiences of my fellow Soviet exiles would serve as some kind of inoculation against bigotry. I remember reading the brilliant “Maus” as a child and, perhaps beyond anything else, being shocked by the sequence in which the narrator’s father, a Holocaust survivor, refuses to pick up a black hitchhiker. The concept of a racist Holocaust survivor made no sense to me then. Of course, I was young and naïve — I understand now that suffering does not necessarily inspire empathy for others.
But shouldn’t our experience count for more? We, too, were refugees. Unlike our American cousins who’ve been here for generations, we know what it means to have to leave your homeland. For many of us, the words “visa” and “green card” still hold emotional, almost totemic significance. Even now, over 25 years after my own (relatively painless) immigration, these words bring forth a reverential shudder. It was in this bureaucratic language that our futures were written.
So it has been wrenching to see my people react with such a startling lack of empathy. Many have called it insulting to compare Jewish and Syrian waves of immigration. The Syrians are not like us, they say. They are too poor, too fanatical. “Do they have a culture of contributing to society or taking from it?” one Facebook commenter asked, as if one’s worth as a human being is not a given, and must be earned. Never mind that many European Jews turned away from the United States during the Holocaust — particularly those with Eastern European origins — would also have been poor, religious and relatively uneducated.
Moreover, questioning Syrians’ ability to assimilate to American society overlooks the perennial debate over assimilation that all immigrant communities face — including our own.
I’ve never felt as helpless, indignant or exasperated with my people as I have as this debate has progressed. I’ve heard Syrian refugees described as savages, animals and roaches. I’ve seen Jews who I know have Holocaust survivors in their families, perhaps still living, use this language — the language, yes, of fascism — without any sense of self-awareness. As Jews, we ought to know, and feel viscerally in our guts and bones, which way that road lies.
After I posted my dissent from this ugly trend, one commenter on my Facebook page objected, saying, “There is nothing racist about not wanting Syrian refugees here.” Perhaps sensing that some qualification was necessary, he added: “I mean, it’s ‘racist’ in the same sense as being afraid to go to a high crime and predominantly black area at night. … it’s driven by reasonable fear and common sense.” Would a high crime white area make him feel any safer?
This attitude is not uncommon. A quick scroll through the Russian Jews Facebook page, where a picture of Obama is captioned with “leader” of ISIS, and where blanket comparisons are made between Muslims and Nazis, is sadly instructive.
This racism that is all too common among Jews of Soviet origin is a painful topic — seldom discussed openly, but commonly acknowledged. Current events have brought it to the surface. Many of my American Jewish friends have noted (in private) that Russian Jews, particularly older generations, seem, well, un-liberal. In Israel, too, the community of Soviet émigrés — a large and powerful block of voters — leans hard to the right. Their views are aptly expressed by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a Soviet-born politician, who has called for compulsory loyalty oaths for all Israeli citizens and openly supported Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There’s no particularly Jewish reason for these attitudes. The Soviets failed at creating Homo Sovieticus — a new species of human dedicated to communism and destined for global domination — but even now, 25 years after the empire’s fall, the legacy of growing up in a paranoid, undemocratic society remains. And, given the path Russia has trod since 1991, I suspect these views will be with us for years, perhaps generations, to come.
We ex-Soviet Jews have learned to exult in our liberation by pointing to our achievements. We are doctors, lawyers, scientists and engineers. We are patriotic, tax-paying Americans. But I can’t accept that my community’s conception of who is and isn’t deserving of compassion is so contingent on material achievements.
Observant or secular, I believe we Jews are called, by God or by history, to help repair the world. The desperate Syrians fleeing war and death are not our enemies. They are our brothers and sisters in exile. We should understand, more than most, that the only real, unforgivable obscenity is to deny the inherent dignity of all human beings. And, conversely, that there is nothing more righteous and beautiful than to affirm human dignity, everywhere and always. I hope those of us who have forgotten this, no matter where we’re from, will one day remember it.