Breathe, and Act: Save Syrian Lives

In the morning you shall say, “If it were only evening!” and in the evening you shall say, “If it were only morning!” – because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see (Deut. 28: 67)

Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi died 500 meters from the Greek shoreline. His five-year-old brother, Ghalib, died with him, as did his mother, Rehan.

Seven and a half million Syrian children, inside and outside Syria, are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Two million are living as refugees. These days, Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world if you happen to be a child. Syrian children

If you saw the pictures of refugees packed into a train in Hungary, desperate and hungry and without a modicum of food or water, or the images of Syrians lying packed side-by-side on the floors of Hungarian prison cells and, if you happen to be Jewish (or just plain human) – you might be finding it a little hard to breathe.

All the images we are seeing now, images we have been seeing for some time, are pictures that are familiar, terrifying.

Some have known that terror.

Alyth Synogogue was founded in London during the 1930s. Many of the first congregants were refugees themselves, fleeing Nazi Germany.

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith is the synagogue’s rabbi. Recently, he published an article in The Guardian entitled: ”In the spirit of the Kindertransport we want to extend a warm welcome to Syria’s refugees.”

The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) program of 1938 and 1939 saved about 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi gas chambers.

Those children are now elderly. Some went with Rabbi Goldsmith to a meeting at Parliament – together with young Syrian refugees.

One million Jewish children died in the Shoah. There was little to nothing done by the Allies to save them.

But these men and women, among the very few who were saved, are convinced that Great Britain can act on behalf of Syrian families, and help rescue Syrian children.

Here, in America, there are Jewish institutions trying to open our doors to Syrian refugees. One of them is HIAS (once the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society), the oldest voluntary resettlement program in the world. Some of our grandparents were the beneficiaries of the work of HIAS did around the turn of the twentieth century.

On September 4, NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed HIAS President and CEO Mark J. Hetfield on All Things Considered. “We have 200,000 dead in Syria,” Hetfield said. “We have people fleeing not once, but twice from the conflict.”

But the United States and many countries in Europe, Hetfield added, are assuming a “business as usual” approach to the crisis.

The United States, he pointed out, managed to take in 200,000 human beings during the 1980 Indochina boat crisis with absolutely no infrastructure in place. So far, we’ve offered safety to some 1,800 Syrians.

We might as well be offering Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who openly insists that his country does not want Muslims in his country, a warm handshake and a pat on the back.

If we go on like this, we can certainly expect to see the bodies of more children washed up on Europe’s shorelines.

Or we could do this instead: We could look for each and every opportunity to act and to give.

This High Holy Day season, every dollar we offer HIAS will be matched. We can sign petitions. We can insist that our representatives open the doors to Syrian refugees. We can ask presidential candidates where they stand and we can insist on specific and detailed responses.

This morning, during Torah study at Temple Or Olam, we remarked on the way in which Parshat Ki Tavo depicted the kind of horrors we were seeing in the media. In the text, they are a threat; for Syrians, those horrors are real.

We know what happens in an indifferent world to those no one wants to save.

None of us believe that what we are seeing in this refugee crisis is God’s work. But since God created both weal and woe, humanity has been given the chance to choose: We can make either into reality.

We can act. We can save lives. In the memory of Aylan, Ghalib, and Rehan Kurdi, let us do exactly that.


Elie Wiesel – From Witness to Lobbyist

Hedy Epstein
Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years.

When I knew her, university classes did not include semester-long studies of the Holocaust. Holocaust centers and museums were yet to become natural aspects to the way Americans memorialized twentieth-century history.

Hedy lived through the terrors of Nazi Germany. She escaped via the Kindertransport. She spoke often of the last moments with her parents – watching as their figures grew smaller and smaller as the train pulled away from the station.

They did not survive.

Hedy went back to Germany after World War II ended – to translate documents and records needed to prosecute the architects of medical experiments (read: crimes) at Dachau. Eventually, she moved to America.

During the mid 1980’s, she visited my classes on the Holocaust at the University of Missouri-Columbia, bringing small remnants of her past with her. I remember that she had a tin cup that relatives used while interned in a Vichy concentration camp.  The cup was used for all liquids, she explained. Eventually my students understood that the cup was used as a toilet as well as a drinking vessel.

She described each tormented aspect of her young life — being forced out of school, the breaking and plundering and torching of Jewish stores and synagogues during Kristallnacht, her father’s internment at Dachau, her parents’ justified fears for her survival, the finality of their murder.

A picture of Hedy Epstein was in The Charlotte Observer just days ago. She was one of hundreds of children of Holocaust victims and Holocaust survivors to sign an enraged condemnation of the ad Elie Wiesel took out in the New York Times on August 1.

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and a towering presence, a prolific author and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, began his ad by referring to the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The biblical narrative that rejected child sacrifice, he wrote, should be understood as the start of monotheism and western civilization.

This claim alone is deeply disturbing. It reflects a terrible and astonishing ignorance of the history of the Ancient Near East and Israel that I find hard to associate with Wiesel.

There is much, much worse here than clichés about the origins of civilization. Wiesel compares the deliberate annihilation of one million children by Nazi Germany to the use of children as human shields in the recent weeks of war between Israel and Hamas. But genocide is not the same thing as the long-standing and historical capacity of human beings to make civilians — especially children — pay the terrible costs of war.

I am not minimizing the latter. But equating all things violent with the Holocaust is a horror of our times. Wiesel should know better than to engage in the appropriation of the Holocaust to fight a political battle.

Further, one simply has to wonder how Wiesel manages to exonerate Israel from any guilt whatsoever in the death of Palestinian children. He writes that it is “the terrorists who have taken away all choice from the Palestinian children of Gaza.”

Wait, what? Nothing Israel has ever done has contributed to the debased conditions so many Palestinian children endure? Does Israel bear no responsibility whatsoever for the lack of access to anything from food to water to medical care that has been part and parcel of life for so many Palestinian children? Nothing about the wall or checkpoints influences the lives of Palestinian children and the choices they can make about their future?

Is nothing about the way Prime Minister Netanyahu parlayed the death of three Israeli teens to gain support to, as the Israeli military calls it, “mow the grass” relevant to the choices Palestinian children have?

Wiesel paints the conflict as a “battle of civilization versus barbarism.” Is every aspect of the terrible destruction we have witnessed the product of “civilization” at war with “barbarism”? How could Elie Wiesel produce this simple-minded sound bite?

Barbarism is not simply the product of uncivilized descendants of the ancient world. Ordained rabbis in Israel have openly called for the wholesale destruction of the Palestinian people.

I think of Hedy, describing that scene at the station, watching her parents faces as the train pulled away.

The sources of barbaric, brutal, evil behaviors and evil outcomes are many and varied. No one will be served by denying that Jews, too, are capable of them.