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Why World Refugee Day is a Jewish Holiday

Jun 20, 2015

Blog Post

Mark Hetfield - President and CEO

This article was published in The Huffington PostWashington Jewish Week and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

It is impossible to avoid the stories of massive human displacement from Burma, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and Afghanistan, and hordes of boat migrants dying in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. There was a time when refugees were a front-page issue for the American Jewish community. That is no longer the case, and we must do better.

The UN Refugee Agency announced last week that the number of refugees and displaced persons in the world has reached a staggering 59.5 million, almost double what it was in 2005, and higher than at any time since World War II. Yet the U.S. refugee resettlement ceiling has remained the same—70,000. That’s one refugee for every 4,557 Americans. Last year, each American citizen spent $4.39 in taxpayer money to help refugees overseas.

The refugee crisis today seems overwhelming. Neither American Jews nor the United States can solve the world’s refugee problems by ourselves. We cannot stop the hatred that causes refugees to flee. We cannot resettle all refugees to the Unites States. In fact, only one percent of the world’s refugees are resettled.

We can, however, demand that Congress and the President provide significantly more assistance to refugees to keep them safe where they are, welcome more refugees to our shores who are not safe where they are, and sanction those countries that fail in their duty to protect refugees.

A refugee is a person like anyone else—but a person who felt he or she had no better option than to flee his or her homeland or face persecution due to religion, political opinion, ethnicity, nationality, or social group.

The Jewish community is all too familiar with the plight of refugees. 76 years ago this month, the St. Louis, which The New York Times called “the saddest ship afloat,” returned 915 Jewish refugees to Germany after they were turned away by the governments of Cuba and the United States. 254 of them perished in Europe at the hands of the Nazis.

The St. Louis was a tragic symbol, but it served as an inspiration to ensure that never again would refugees be turned away. Ultimately, the horrid memory of the St. Louis helped inspire the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which at long last made it clear that refugees have a right to be protected from return.

In 2001, fifty years after the Refugee Convention was drafted in Geneva, the United Nations General Assembly commemorated this landmark by proclaiming that every June 20 would be “World Refugee Day.”

World Refugee Day, which we commemorated this past Saturday, must become a Jewish holiday because the Jewish story is the refugee story. But it is not just about us remembering that we were once refugees. It is about us fulfilling the solemn pledge that never again will refugees be turned over to their persecutors.

As Jews, we can relate to the current plight of the Rohingya, whom the Financial Times recently referred to as the “Jews of Asia.” Unlike the Rohingya, the 915 Jews who were returned aboard the St. Louis did not have the benefit of the protection of the Refugee Convention. Today’s Rohingya have had great difficulty exercising their right to seek and enjoy asylum. In the first three months of 2015, desperately seeking safety and freedom, approximately 25,000 were forced to rickety boats far less seaworthy than the St. Louis. Hundreds perished at sea. In May, more than 100 human lives were lost on a single vessel off the coast of Aceh in Indonesia.

How should we think about the global refugee crisis? Let’s start by showing that we truly care about refugees. Before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, American Jews werefocused on refugees. When Congress slammed shut the United States’ golden door to immigrants, the American Jewish population had soared from 250,000 to 3.5 million. The growth is due to Jewish refugees – your parents, grandparents and great grandparents. With the refugee issues “solved” for Jews, we moved on.

At Passover every year, we remember the Jewish refugee Exodus from Egypt, and the Torah reminds us 36 times to love the stranger, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt. But Jews do not have to look back thousands of years to remember that we were refugees.

Let’s pledge to commemorate World Refugee Day every June 20 by showing that, as a country founded by refugees, and as a people who know what it is like to be refugees, we can and should do much better. Because we were refugees too.