Keeping Our Hearts Open: A Message from Our CEO

By Gil Preuss

“Action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all.” – Elie Wiesel

My wife and I joined our son, Yoni, for a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of his Jewish Day School class on Modern Jewish History. The framing for this visit asked him to consider the implications of the Holocaust as an American Jew today. What does it mean to him as an American? What does it mean to him as a Jew? What are the lessons and actions for today’s world that he might take from the Holocaust?

Walking through the exhibit, we stopped to discuss the section addressing the Nuremberg Laws. “Why,” he wondered, “didn’t more Jews leave Germany as one anti-Semitic law after another was enacted?”

We considered how some believed that these laws were simply a repeat of historical, anti-Semitic patterns and that the cycle would reverse in a few years. For others, they perhaps had too much at stake financially, culturally or socially to leave. And for many, there was simply no other country that would take them in. As the Nuremberg Laws were being enacted, country after country closed their borders to refugees. People who were seen as less desirable for one reason or another, including economic, ethnic or religious background, were simply closed out from immigration.

As we looked at those few countries around the world who did take refugees, I reminded Yoni of our own family history. Even though Germany allowed Jews to leave for many years, few countries allowed Jews to enter. Bolivia, where my father was born, was the only country that would accept both of my grandparents as they fled Germany. Though they applied to 20 countries for a visa, no country would grant visas. On July 29, 1939 – one month before the start of World War II – they finally left for Bolivia. A great-uncle escaped to Shanghai, where visas were not required, and a great-aunt went to Singapore and then Manila. We sadly thought about how so many others were never able to escape Germany for any other country.

Much has been written over the past year about immigration and the challenges facing the United States, Europe and other parts of the world today. People write about “desirable” or “undesirable” immigrants, whether due to financial resources, education or home countries. They consider security risks posed by new immigrants or economic impact on existing citizens.  These are not new questions. For decades, the United States has had policies favoring certain kinds of immigrants and people from certain countries over others.

Professor Michael Sandel, an American political philosopher, suggests that a country’s immigration policies reflect its core values. “Immigration,” he notes, “is so passionately debated precisely because it lays bare our idea of citizenship.” As American Jews, the questions we need to ask ourselves are: what values should be reflected in our immigration policies? What lessons might we learn from our history? What are our hopes and dreams for our community and our country?  What values do we impart to our children that might shape the policies of the future?

A Federation is a forum and not a platform for political discourse. We do not espouse any political partisanship. We celebrate the diversity within our community that is a reflection of the diversity of our country. And yet, there are fundamental values that transcend the politics of the day. I hope that in our community, we seek to live by the best of our American and Jewish ideals, and hold fast to the belief that all people are created equal and in the image of God. I hope that in our country, we respect human life for its own value and not for the sake of some other goal. We may not always agree on the policies that will get us there, but getting there should continue to be the goal towards which we strive as a society.

As I stood with my son, Yonatan Ezra, I reminded him that he is named in honor of my grandfather and great aunt – and owes his very existence to the few countries that did not close off their borders to our family as they fled Nazi Germany. How can we not speak out on behalf of others who are in need of refuge today?

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex.22:20).