September 10th, 2015

‘We Jews understand the hardship the refugees are going through’

Op-Ed by Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, and Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, in "Die Welt", september, 10th, 2015

Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany

The contrast between the images could hardly be more stark: On the one hand, we see citizens welcoming exhausted refugees arriving in Germany with true enthusiasm, lending them a helping hand. Whilst on the other hand, we see images of neo-Nazis screaming “Foreigners out!” and throwing Molotov cocktails at building where refugees are housed.

It is with relief that we note that there are far more people who are welcoming the refugees than there are people who reject them openly. We are witnessing a huge wave of spontaneous civic involvement, and administrative decisions are being taken much more quickly than used to be the case in Germany.

This has won Germany new sympathies world-wide. For many years, there were complaints about the country’s unwillingness to become a country of immigration, and about a lack of a ‘culture of welcome’. Given what we saw over the last weeks, that’s obviously not the case at all.

The Jewish community, both in Germany and world-wide, welcomes this evolution towards an open society. It is the right thing. So many Jews in the past had to flee their homeland, were expelled and had to settle elsewhere to save their lives. During the 20th century, Jews often faced borders that were closed – the 1938 conference in Evian is still a haunting memory for many of us, as is President Roosevelt’s refusal in 1939 to let the more than 900 mostly Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis land in America.

Nowadays, many people flee Syria and Iraq because they fear for their lives because of their religion. These refugees have gone through a lot of hardship. Who should understand them better than we Jews?

People should also realize that most Syrian or Iraqi refugees don’t make it as far as Europe. The main host country is not Germany. It’s Turkey and Jordan who have let in around four million refugees. More than half of them are in Turkey.

In the past, the Ottoman Empire let in Jews expelled from Spain. During the Nazi era, many Jews also found refuge in Turkey. This country is thus continuing a great humane tradition and deserves not just praise for that, but also support.

The huge numbers of refugees are of course a big challenge for Europe. What is needed now is not only a just allocation to the various countries, but also longer-term support. Winter is around the country, and the refugees need good housing. It won’t suffice to provide them with tents, or pretzels, or teddy bears.

It’s also important that those who at present can’t return to their home countries will become familiar with our Western values. In Germany, that means respect for the values enshrined in the Constitution and also an acceptance that support for Israel is part of the political DNA of this country. Moreover, society by and large agrees that the Holocaust must be remembered.

Both the politicians and the citizens currently providing support to refugees will need to be tenacious. However, the images of the Good Germany we are currently seeing should not hide certain negative aspects: There are still attacks on asylum seekers’ homes, and there could be a backlash at the next elections in favour of certain political parties seeking to capitalize on fears in regard to the refugee crisis.

The majority of refugees are courageous people. They are grateful to be permitted to live in safety here, and in turn they are willing to contribute to their host country. We should give them the chance to do so.

In the Talmud, it is written: “He who saves a single life saves the whole world.”

Last Sunday, Pope Francis called on every Catholic parish to host one refugee family as a gesture of goodwill. The message is the same: We need to stand together to rise to this challenge.

If every one of us accepts our responsibility, we will not only be able to help the refugees, but will contribute to a better understanding between different peoples and religions.