Georgette Bennett was born in Hungary to Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust. Bennett and her family escaped from Hungary to France in 1948, hoping to obtain visas that would allow them to immigrate to the United States. But the U.S. was hesitant to accept Jewish refugees due to concerns of overcrowding and fears that they could be political threats. Bennett’s family had to wait five years before they could start a new life in America.
More than 50 years later, Bennett is fighting for Syrian refugees to receive better treatment than she did when she first came to the United States as a young child.
“I was so stunned by the scale of this crisis, I could not stand by idly, I felt I had to do something,” Bennett said, describing the first time she learned that millions of Syrians were being uprooted from their homes by violence in the region. “My story absolutely undergirds my passion for this issue. Having been a refugee myself, having known the losses that my family experienced, having known the loss of parents and siblings, known the loss of livelihood and property -- that’s what the Syrians have lost also.”
A growing number of politicians this week have taken a stand against Syrian refugees coming to the United States after it was reported that one of the suicide bombers in Friday's deadly attacks in Paris held a Syrian passport. But much of the American Jewish community is pushing back, saying that the opposition to Syrian refugees is reminiscent of the discrimination Jews faced after World War II.
That is just what some Republicans want to do, however. Most of the nation’s governors said they would not accept Syrian refugees in their states, despite President Barack Obama’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrians next year. Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have said the U.S. should accept Christian refugees, but not Muslim ones.
“Those kinds of comments are shameful and disgusting,” Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. said. “The problem is not with Islam; it is with extremist people, it is with hateful people, that’s the problem.”
Steinlauf said his congregants have closely followed the Syrian refugee crisis and most of them believe that Jews have a responsibility to help other communities in need.
“We must not forget our values as a Jewish people, things that we learn from tradition and from our historical memory,” he said. “That includes the charge that comes from the Torah that we were once strangers in Egypt, and we must think of refugees that are homeless and displaced. We have been a people in exile and were wandering for millennia. Justice for those who are homeless overrides other factors.”
While the Jewish community in the U.S. has become more influential in the decades since World War II, it still represents just 1.9 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. Christians make up 70 percent of the U.S. population, while Muslims account for 0.9 percent.
Some Jewish leaders have spoken out against accepting Syrian refugees after the Paris killings. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, the only Jewish Republican currently in Congress, spoke on the House floor on Monday and said he wants tougher security measures to ensure terrorists do not sneak in among refugees coming to the U.S.
“There is but one mandatory function constitutionally of the federal government, that is to provide for our national defense. This is a constitutional duty and a moral imperative that trumps any day of the week the charity of opening our doors to a Syrian who will blow himself or herself up on our streets in the name of Allah,” Zeldin said. “We must not move forward with the president’s plan to bring in tens of thousands of refugees, especially and so importantly, because we cannot identify who the bad ones are.”
But for many Americans Jews, the idea of turning away people in need potentially because of their religion has sent an alarming message. The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that works to protect civil rights for Jews and other minorities, issued a statement Tuesday condemning the governors who said they would reject Syrian refugees.
“The people fleeing Syria are fleeing the same types of terrorists that did these attacks in France last week,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of ADL said Wednesday. “We need to have effective screenings for refugees, we need to look at the multi-layered process to make sure it works. But ADL works on behalf of all people regardless of how they look, where they’re from, who they love. The idea of discriminating against refugees based on their faith strikes us as very un-American.”
Because of the connection some American Jews say they feel to other oppressed communities, a number of Jewish aid organizations such as HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) have been working to help Syrian refugees for years. Bennett founded the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees in 2013, and her group has worked with the JDC to provide humanitarian aid to refugees, as well as other Jewish organizations to help resettle Syrians in the U.S. and raise awareness of the Syrian refugee situation around the world.
“If we don’t address this problem now, if we don’t save the children, who have now gone without schooling for years, and if we don’t house them, don’t educate them, then we are laying the ground for problems in the future, because they will be vulnerable to radicalism,” Bennett said. “We have an obligation to repair the world.”