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Devarim.  August 10, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom
As we returned from our trip to Great Britain, we had a selection of movies to help us pass the time on the long flight across the Atlantic. In the classics section was the famous movie, “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It was a good opportunity to connect with a favorite movie, so Michelle and I settled in to “play it again.”
There is a long set at the beginning of the movie where the narrator explains that in the early days of World War II, refugees from Europe would cross the Mediterranean Sea and gather in Casablanca to wait for permission to fly to Lisbon and from there travel to the United States. One needed to pay a great deal of money to get the transit papers and thus the plot of the movie (no spoilers from me – in case anyone here has never seen the movie).
This transit situation, of course, did not include Jews. Long before Casablanca was a transit stop, the St. Louis, with almost 1000 Jews aboard, was denied permission to dock anywhere in the United States. Millions of Jews were trapped in Nazi Europe and six million of them would die, killed like vermin with a gas rat poison called Zyklon B. There was no country in the world that would take in the Jews that Nazi Germany did not want thus giving the Nazis permission to kill the Jews that nobody else wanted. It is for this reason that, after the war, the nations that had turned Jews away, finally offered the Jews what they had wanted for the past 2000 years, a land of their own in Palestine. Two years later, the State of Israel was born.
We forget that Israel was won because of the illegal immigration of Jews during and after the war. There was a network of kibbutzim and Jews in Palestine who worked hard to smuggle in Jews who were in danger and Jews with no place else to go. The first mission of the State of Israel after she was born, was to empty the displaced person’s camps in Europe where Jews had languished after the war and bring them to their new home.
We forget that two million Jews came to the United States between 1890 and 1920, and then our government shut down Jewish immigration. Ironically, South Americans were welcome here but not Jews. The Jewish communities in Buenos Aries and Montreal owe their existence to the Jews who went there when they could not get into the United States and who went to other countries to become citizens, later to migrate to this country. The Jews who came were mostly economic refugees, fleeing the poverty and the anti-Semitism in Poland and Russia. The Jews were hardly welcome here. In the United States, they found many universities closed to Jews, many professions closed to Jews and many neighborhoods closed to Jews. Anti-Semitism was so violent that Jewish soldiers coming home from the war were paid to stand on street corners in many cities, so that Jewish children going to school or to Hebrew school, would not be attacked as they walked down the street.
And yet, no matter how misused our people have been by almost every nation in the world, we never forgot the importance of welcoming the stranger. Thirty-six times Scripture reminds us to love the stranger because we were once abused strangers in the land of Egypt. We were enslaved in Egypt because the Egyptians were told we were a danger to the country; we would possibly join forces with their enemies and overthrow the government.
There are people today who have nothing but contempt for the stranger. This list of fears is long. They will take away jobs. They will take away our culture. They will intermarry with us and stain the purity of our DNA. They smell. They don’t know English. They don’t understand our “culture”. They are too clannish. They are murderers. They are drug dealers. They are terrorists trying to overthrow our government. They worship strange gods. They are welfare cheats.  I am sure that you have heard these stories and more about those who come here from other countries.
These old tropes were once said about Jews. They were once said about the Irish who came as economic refugees. They were once applied to Italians who were also economic refugees. You could even hear people say it about Blacks who were forcibly brought here as slaves, and Native Americans who were inconveniently living in places White Americans, nee Europeans, wanted to live. Today this derision is turned on Muslim refugees from war in the Middle East, and Hispanics, many of whom are economic refugees.
In the beginning of our country’s history, we were a land that welcomed refugees. The Pilgrims were religious refugees and the state of Georgia was founded by convicted felons. The first Jews came to this country fleeing the war between Holland and Spain. And from the beginning of our history, each group of refugees found a way to adapt to this country, using their culture to make America stronger and using American culture to make their own communities stronger. The list of immigrants who came to this country and made our nation better through their hard work, their talents, their ideas and their determination is long and illustrious. The slurs heaped on refugees turned out to be bigotry plain and simple. The accusations were all fabricated. Immigrants were more likely to have jobs, pay taxes and live exemplary lives; far more likely to be model citizens than those who were born here.
But the fact is that this country from time to time has not treated immigrants well. Despite the words of the poem engraved on the side of the Statue of Liberty, each group has had to climb out of the poverty and hatred by themselves. Each ethnic group can point to people who gave their lives for this country and who worked tirelessly on behalf of others who were worse off than they were. If we know about evil people who were immigrants, we know it because there were so few, not because there were so many.
Tomorrow is Tisha b’Av; the great black fast in Judaism; the day we remember when we lost our state, lost our Temple and almost lost our faith and our religion. Sarah Bloomfield, who is the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote this week, “Destruction can teach us why freedom, justice, and human dignity are important—and fragile. And, that when freedom and justice are denied and dignity is threatened, we still retain certain powers over our own humanity.” The way we treat immigrants should NOT be a political decision; it is a MORAL choice we must make. Will we follow the commands of our God and our teachers and love the stranger? Will we remember that once our people were enslaved in Egypt because of the lies told about us and so not be quick to judge and accuse those who are weak and helpless.
Freedom, Justice and Human dignity are the foundations of our country’s culture. They are the values that make us a great Nation. No other country in the world has ever tried to build their society on bringing kindness and compassion to others, rather than hatred and bigotry. The great experiment of the United States was to welcome those who were cast aside from other countries.  For over 200 years this is the value that has made us strong. We must not forget this in the heat of our current struggle between political parties. Without the freedom, justice and dignity for all, our country will face the same destruction we Jews know from so long ago. These values are critically important and always fragile. It is never the outside enemy that destroys a country. The fall of a country is usually an inside job.
We have nothing to fear from refugees. In fact, as our country grows ever older, we need today, as we have needed in the past, the youthful energy and determination that these refugees bring to our shores. We need, of course, people to take the jobs other Americans believe is beneath their dignity, but we also need the resourcefulness, the inventiveness and the gumption that comes to our shores in the guise of immigration. When we close our doors to refugees, our economy stagnates. When we welcome the stranger, we welcome prosperity as well. We must not let anyone tell us that immigrants are bad for this county. We must not let anyone convince us not to love the stranger because once upon a time we were the strangers. Citizens and immigrants working together, this is the equation for success in the next century, and clearly when we work together, it can be the “beginning of a great friendship”.
May we learn that when we love those who are different, we teach them to learn to love just like us.  May we build this country together, the citizen and the stranger as we say ….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, August 10, 2019.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782