Over 4.1 million Syrians have fled their war torn country in search of a safe life for their families. The world’s response to this latest refugee problem has been mixed at best and dismissive at worse. Countries like Germany and Turkey have honored their humanitarian role, with Germany scheduled to take in 800,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end and Turkey approximately 260,000. The rest of Europe is glaringly deficient, with wealthy countries like Great Britain accepting about 20,000 and France 24,000 Syrian refugees this year. The United States has far from an open door for refugees with its promise to accept just 10,000 Syrians in 2016. However, despite their poor record as safe havens for refugees, the U.S. and Europe shine as humanitarian beacons compared to the Muslim countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, who have accepted no Syrian refugees – none.
Jews can lay claim as being the world’s most experienced refugees. We have had 2,000 years of – unwanted – experience of being refugees during the Jewish Diaspora. When it comes to refugees in crisis, the world can learn from Jews – we have been there, done that.
The lesson began in 1950 when Israel had just won its right to exist by defeating the national armies of five Arab nations. In July of that year Ben Gurion fulfilled the Zionist vision of what a Jewish homeland meant with his announcement of the Law of Return. The Law that gave every Jew the right to move to Israel was both straightforward and profound. Straightforward because just being a Jew was sufficient to immigrate to Israel; profound because this right had been denied Jews through 2,000 years of the Jewish Diaspora.
Following the announcement of the Return, the response was overwhelming. Sephardic Jews in North Africa and Mizrachi Jews in the countries of the Middle East who had lived securely among Muslims for centuries now were considered enemies by their neighbors. Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews were faced with a stark choice: stay at their peril or use the Law of Return to move to Israel. The overwhelming response was 550,000 Jews who moved to Israel.
The promise of the Law of Return to bring Jews to Israel was not limited to the 1950 refugees. The Law remained a beacon of welcome, an open summons to the Jews of the world. The promise of the Return was kept again in 1984 and 1991 when Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel on “wings of eagles.” The promise was kept yet again in the 1980’s when Russian Jews learned they could end their repressed lives under czars and Communism, and 1.2 million of them found new freedom in Israel. The promise of the Return was clear, the money to pay for it was not. In 1950 Israel’s economy was just starting and the cost of feeding, housing and educating thousands of new Jewish immigrants was staggering. In addition, Israel was still in the middle of a hostile Arab world and large amounts had to be spent on defense. It was the sacrifice of Israelis who let themselves be taxed heavily and financial support from American Jews that made the homecoming of hundreds of thousands of Jews possible.
It is 65 years after the Israelis began to bring Jews home. In these subsequent years millions of refugees have fled oppression, appealing to countries for new homes and freedom. Israel has shown the world that embracing refugees benefits both refugees and the host country. The world should learn this lesson from Israel: humanitarian relief requires sacrifice, but it is the true measure of civilized society.