An Ex-Soviet Jew Looks at Syrian Refugees and America – by Margaret Litvin

Margaret Litvin on why there are no chosen peoples, only people making choices.

If you embrace neither religion nor nationalism, you aren’t left many holidays to celebrate. Your own birthdays; New Year’s Eve. (My Soviet immigrant family didn’t know about solstice gatherings yet.) But tough-minded and hypocrisy-averse though we tried to be, we made room for two: Passover in the spring, Thanksgiving in the fall. These occasions were functionally identical. Both celebrated emigration, immigration, and their results. We were slaves, now we are free people. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God (or maybe the U.S. Congress) had intervened to get us the hell out of the USSR. Pass the cranberry sauce – but first, cue the large family gathering, table full of smoked fish and little Russian salads, and my grandfathers’ solemn toasts to the country that had taken us in and made all this possible.

We weren’t the first to think of conflating the Pilgrims with the mythical Exodus and ourselves with both. The Promised Land imagery was heavy throughout New England, where I grew up: English settlers had seen “New Canaan” in Connecticut, “Providence” in Rhode Island. Early waves of Jewish migrants from Europe, too, had identified America as “The Promised Land.” A century later, the 1970s-80s American movement to extricate Soviet Jews shouted “Let my people go!” borrowing the language of the Exodus story. One artifact of our first American years (we were resettled in Montgomery, Alabama, in September 1979, and welcomed by its warm and generous Jewish community) is a children’s Haggadah that urged us to put an extra Hillel sandwich on the seder plate, “in honor of the Soviet Jews, who are not free, as we are, to celebrate Passover tonight.”

Soviet Jews and their American supporters had engaged in some brave nonviolent activism leading up to 1979, but my own family’s claim to refugee status was not dramatic. To be blunt: we left because we could. We and the rest of the 34,000 ex-Soviet Jews accepted by the U.S. that year (another 17,000 opted to go to Israel) were not fleeing a failed state, terrorism, barrel bombs, ethnic cleansing, routine state torture, potential enslavement by militants, or the other Syrian or Iraqi or Afghan horrors you and I can barely stand to read about. We had physical security, decent housing – and even advanced degrees, interesting jobs, math magnet high schools. It is not even entirely true that we fled sectarian persecution. Yes, the USSR had practiced and condoned anti-Semitism, along with many other kinds of ethnic discrimination. It was not a great place to be Jewish. But above all, it was not a great place to be human.

My parents understood their role in Soviet and American policy, and they were grateful for the chance. Like many other families, we also benefitted from a diplomatic tug-of-war over where we would claim asylum. My parents wanted no part of Israel; they had endured enough “socialism.” The U.S.-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), rejecting the of-course-Jews-should-go-to-Israel logic shared by Soviet nationality policy and Zionism, intervened to give us a choice of where to build our lives, and I grew up grateful for that, too.

This Thanksgiving, on a fellowship in Sweden, I missed my family’s feast. Instead I watched from afar as The New York Times’ cooking tips sat in bewildering juxtaposition with reports on the ongoing “refugee crisis,” the largest movement of human beings across borders, we are constantly told, since World War II. I could understand why my friends in Sweden and Germany felt baffled and stuck. But Americans? American Jews? Even post-Soviet American Jews? The lack of constructive debate was strange.

Syrian Refugees at Keleti railway station in Budapest via Wikimedia Commons.
Syrian Refugees at Keleti railway station in Budapest

You can probably guess where I’m going. I’m about to say, if either Thanksgiving or Passover means anything to you, then consider that the right to leave one’s country and find refuge elsewhere is a universal human right. Consider that Syria’s murderous Assad regime learned more from the USSR than from any other model. Send a big check to HIAS, still spreading its nonsectarian goodness. Pressure your congresspeople and the executive branch to expand U.S. refugee quotas. Next Passover, put a stuffed grape leaf on your seder plate. The following November, when hundreds of thousands if not millions still sit in refugee camps, serve some muhammara beside your Thanksgiving turkey. Before then, find a way to share a dinner, or more, with a resettled Syrian family. Absolutely, do those things. That is my first message. But there is more.

To be a secular humanist and celebrate Thanksgiving or Passover only makes sense if you try to intervene in the complicated legacies of each. The Red Sea, OK, but what about the drowned Egyptians on one side, the battle of Jericho on the other? European migration to the New World first brought Manifest Destiny and genocide and slavery, only later Mark Twain and Ellis Island and jazz (and later still, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Reaper drones, and the Camp Bucca prison). There is beauty in the idea of Providence, but awful ugliness and danger too.

I want to continue to believe in America as a land of promise. But to be coherent and humane, this belief now needs to be truly secularized, stripped of its mystique, rebuilt on humble conscious striving rather than faith. There are no chosen peoples, only people making choices. First, let’s try again to understand our political community as political, not providential: a tough human work-in-progress, not a fulfillment of God’s plan for some sect, tribe, or nation. Providential communities (holders of “Promised” lands) require an outsider to exclude and demonize. But political communities can be constructed; they can be reshaped and opened wider to accommodate anyone who has a vision of how society can be organized and will engage in civil debate about it. Second, bracketing even pity, let us try to respect each other’s individuality as rational. In the catastrophe of Syria there are villains and victims, but no saviors. Immigrant (and yes, even refugee) families decide when and where to go, working within the limited parameters of freedom they have; destination countries decide whom to admit, when, and how, for their own reasons. Our country’s economic and moral health may be two of our best reasons.

Americans, facing asylum applicants from Syria and elsewhere, have not been as welcoming as Europeans – but ironically, if only we could see it, our polity is better structured than Europe’s to help these newcomers integrate and succeed. The idea that political discussion is humanity’s distinctive talent comes from Aristotle, part of the Western intellectual heritage and the Muslim world’s heritage too. Alongside (and in some tension with) Aristotle’s insight that we are “social and political animals,” a further idea grounds American liberalism: the idea that humans are free individuals, able to transcend our backgrounds. The American political instinct is to treat people as individuals and families, even while we struggle to accommodate the fact that they may not think of themselves as individuals only, but as part of larger units. This attitude has given us an ability to incorporate our successive waves of migrants that perhaps no European country can claim. Seeing immigrants as individuals, our society can accept them as full participants, not as outside groups precariously hosted inside; this is harder for ethno-nationalist nation-states like Europe’s.

I wish I had a more ringing ideal to offer. Liberal individualism has smart critics in theory; it is very difficult in practice; it is often caricatured and abused to rationalize injustices. However, as we Americans deliberate over how many would-be Middle Eastern refugees to admit and how, I still think this approach is our last, best, and only chance to produce a polity we can respect. Today’s would-be refugees are neither groups, sects, tribes, nor the wretched refuse of some teeming shore. They are simply (and complexly) people, awaiting a chance to live their personhood fully. So are we.