You may have seen an article in the current issue of the Washington Jewish Week asking “Is It Just Like the Holocaust?” While the entire organized Jewish community has condemned the policy of separating children and parents at the border, a debate has now broken out over whether comparisons to the Holocaust are accurate or not.
When I say the “entire organized Jewish community”, it’s worth bearing in mind how unprecedented this is. Obviously individual Jews may have different opinions, but 350 national and local organizations issued a statement saying that “our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today and compels our commitment to an immigration system in this country that is compassionate and just.” Our local JCRC and the Washington Board of Rabbis issued a similar statement and even the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel called for the policy to be rescinded and for families to be immediately reunited. For a broader view of the organized community’s perspective on immigration, take a look at the JCRC’s comprehensive policy adopted last year. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the JCRC board representing the Conservative congregations and rabbinate of the greater Washington area.)
On a certain level my main issue with Holocaust comparisons to the current situation is that they are unhelpful if they divert our attention. While the policy of deliberately separating families has at least on paper been reversed, there are still hundreds if not thousands of children who have been separated from their parents and many families may never be reunited. As Federal Judge Dana Sabraw wrote in his ruling earlier this week ordering the Federal government to reunite children and parents as quickly as possible, "The practice of separating these families was implemented without any effective system or procedure for (1) tracking the children after they were separated from their parents, (2) enabling communication between the parents and their children after separation, and (3) reuniting the parents and children after the parents are returned to immigration custody following completion of their criminal sentence. This is a startling reality," the judge wrote. "The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings. Money, important documents, and automobiles, to name a few, are routinely catalogued, stored, tracked and produced upon a detainees' release, at all levels—state and federal, citizen and alien. Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process."
No, it is not “just like” the Holocaust in the sense that there are no death camps or gas chambers. But many Holocaust survivors who were hidden as children or survived the Kindertransport, and their children and grandchildren, do see parallels in the trauma that separation of children from parents can cause, as well as the dehumanizing language (“infest, animals”) and scapegoating being used.
In January 1993 I was part of a group of ten rabbis who spent a week in Haiti. We went there because while he was running for President, Bill Clinton criticized the first Bush Administration’s policy of returning Haitian “boat people” to Haiti, but then announced after winning the election that he would keep it in place.
There were ten of us in that group and most of us didn’t know each other before we met at JFK airport. Our first night in Haiti we met at our hotel with some of the Catholic clergy who were our hosts, and they asked us to go around the room, introduce ourselves and tell why we had come. All ten of us cited precisely the same reason: the story of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 with 908 Jewish refugees. The ship docked first in Cuba, where the Jews were denied entry; they then came to New York, were denied entry once again, then sailed to Canada, which also refused to allow them in. The St. Louis went back to Germany and most of its passengers died in the concentration camps. Seeing refugees fleeing persecution and being sent back by the United States to possible death was not something we as Jews could sit by and watch. So we came to Haiti to see what could be done.
“Never Again” is the rallying cry of our generation. We remember the suffering and murder of our people and we vow “Never Again.” But what exactly does “Never Again” mean? Is our mandate as Jews simply to make sure that what happened to us once will never happen to us again? Or is it to make sure that what happened to us, never happens to anyone ever again?
Jews are a people of memory. We are commanded to remember Shabbat; we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt, attacking the weak and the stragglers; and 36 times in the Torah, we are commanded not to mistreat the stranger, because we are to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. The Torah is quite clear. The purpose of memory is not simply to enable us to better look out for ourselves. It is to give us guidance in how we are to treat others as well. Otherwise, the commandment not to mistreat a stranger is meaningless.
Something need not be “just like the Holocaust” for me to know that it is unjust. As long as children remain separated from their parents, the Jewish community will continue to raise its voice. As Hillel said: “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary.”