Last week, I attended an event hosted by HIAS, the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S. and the only Jewish agency that does this work. Titled #JewsForRefugees Assembly: A Jewish Call for U.S. Leadership at the UN Summit, the event was aimed at mobilizing the NYC Jewish community to call on the US Delegation to the UN to take leadership to protect the safety and dignity of millions of refugees worldwide. The gathering featured HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield and Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First. But perhaps the most powerful speakers were Manny Lindenbaum, who was made a refugee during the Holocaust and Sana Mustafa, a Syrian women seeking refuge in the United States.
During the event, I shared two innocent tweets, shown below:
Innocent tweets, straight to the point, right?
While I received a few likes and a few more retweets, all tweet responses were critical. Perhaps to be expected. But slightly less expected was the overwhelming focus on Israel and their refugee policies.
A couple of sample responses are shown below:
So, what’s up with this focus on Israel?
Despite the many issues surrounding Israel, one of the things I am most embarrassed by is its refugee policy. How can a nation that is literally made up of refugees be so cruel and racist to those desperately seeking safety from some of the most unimaginable conditions in the world?
But this post is not an anti- Israel rant. Regardless of what Israel does, it will continue to exist and will continue to be a nation that does some bad things and some good things, so that discussion isn’t important to me right now.
What I am interested in, however, is the responsibility that all Jews hold for the actions of Israel. Is this a fair burden to place on Jews across the world? Why would people on twitter immediately turn to my responsibility for Israel’s actions rather than my responsibilities as a US citizen?
All of these questions don’t have precise answers for all Jews. How could they? There is not a single Jewish entity that tells us all how to think and how to act (and when somebody tries to become that entity, Jews across the world stand against it.)
But I’m going to answer these questions from my perspective. I welcome anybody to respond with their own.
Am I responsible for Israel’s actions concerning refugees?
I don’t know. I would love to emphatically say that I am not– that I have no control over the government of Israel, that I don’t feel a strong connection to Israel, and that I’m healthily critical of Israel while also not ignoring the positive things that the nation has contributed to the world in general as well as the fact that it was conceived as a refugee nation– a nation made to support people who faced similar conditions to those that refugees face today. But then why am I so embarrassed by Israel’s policies concerning refugees?
This summer, Netanyahu traveled to Rwanda to, among other things, negotiate a deal with the Rwandan government to send 45,000 refugees currently residing in Israel to Rwanda and Uganda. As a Jew in Rwanda at the time, I was totally infuriated. How could Israel be so hypocritical? And fundamentally racist? And why did I feel so personally embarrassed that Netanyahu went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial and compared the experiences of the Jews during the Holocaust to that of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi on the same trip that he brokered this deal?
This question will continue to be an unanswerable question for me, that will probably never truly be resolved, or will only be resolved in the way that I look at the world.
Is this a fair burden to place on Jews across the world?
Again, this question is up to interpretation, but my opinion is no, unless we look at this question in the light of the fact that everybody in the entire world should be responsible for other people’s actions, and that we should focus on places where we have leverage or unavoidable cultural ties. While this is, of course, an ideal and mythical approach, if we entertain the idea, then I’m responsible for the treatment of refugees in Israel, but I’m also to some extent responsible for Brexit, for the conflict in Burundi, and for murders committed by ISIS. By being bystanders, we are in some way responsible for atrocities committed across the world. But I don’t think that many people, and particularly the people who sent those tweets would think the same way (if you disagree, please feel free to start a conversation with me about this!).
Why would people on twitter immediately turn to my responsibility for Israel’s actions rather than my responsibilities as a US citizen?
This question really gets to the central issue of these tweets and of my motivation to write this piece. The people at the #JewsForRefugees assembly, regardless of their feelings on Israel, were there to encourage the United States to take action to support refugees worldwide. I am proud to be Jewish and while I’m not very patriotic, I am very proud that I can stand up to our American society and try to force it to be better. I also have more leverage in the US than I do in Israel. I am a voting citizen, I have Senators and Congresspeople who directly represent me and who are responsible for sharing my voice. While I do have some power in issues concerning Israel, especially because the US has such a strong relationship with Israel and because American jews have given significant funds to support Israel and their policies, I simply don’t have the same political power that I have in the United States. And yet these tweeters immediately turn to hold Israel against me instead of the detrimental policies upheld in the US.
Despite my complex feelings on Israel, my commitment to genocide prevention and refugee support is deeply rooted in my Jewish identity and in the stories of my family from a few generations back. My family tried to escape antisemitism in Eastern Europe, and many of them did, but when they arrive in the United States, it was discovered that my great aunt Rachel had tuberculosis and they would not let her into the country. They forced her to return to her home in Eastern Europe. While she was in the hospital after her return, Rachel wrote letters to my family regularly . But one day the letters stopped coming and they never heard from her again. It was later discovered that around the same time the Nazis had invaded the town my great aunt Rachel had been living in. We can only assume that she was taken by the Nazis and killed in a concentration camp.
So whether or not I am specifically responsible for Israel’s actions, I know that I am responsible to make up for the actions of those in the United States before me. The people who sent my great aunt Rachel back to Europe destroyed a piece of the world that will never exist.
I cannot be responsible for my generation committing the same injustice.