Speech given at the Interfaith Service of Solidarity, at the Nur Islamic Center of St. Thomas:
On May 19, 1939, the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner, set sail from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba. The ship carried 937 passengers, almost all of whom were Jewish men, women, and children fleeing the Third Reich. Cuba was meant only to be a temporary stopover, where passengers could stay until the US visas they’d applied for had been granted. Instead, passengers were forbidden from disembarking in Cuba, victims of bitter feuding within the Cuban government. For many Cubans, the Jewish refugees were seen as unwanted competition for scarce jobs. Others labeled the incoming Jews unwanted communists. By the time the St. Louis landed in Cuba, only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark. The rest were left relatively powerless, begging any who would listen to grant them the necessary paperwork to be able to enter the United States. Their pleas for amnesty, sadly, were ignored. Despite intense media coverage, President Roosevelt denied the ship passengers their visas. At the time, the United States had strict German-Austrian immigration quotas. To have granted visas to the passengers of the St. Louis would have meant skipping over many who were on a years’ long waiting list. And, it was not like the American public was ready to greet these weary Jews with open arms. Like their counterparts in Cuba, most Americans saw Jewish refugees as competition for jobs in an already depressed economy. The refugees had no choice but to return to Europe. Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France all agreed to take refugees. Those who managed to immigrate to Great Britain were the lucky ones. All but one survived the war. Of those who landed in the other countries, only half survived. Only half.
As with so many events throughout history, I wish we could say we learned our lesson. If you have ever visited the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, you know that staff members proudly wear pins stating “Never Again.” Never again will we allow the brutal massacre of millions of people. “Not on our watch” will men, women, and children be marched to their deaths. And yet it happens again, and again, and again. And today, we see the tragedy of the St. Louis unfold in epic proportions. President Trump’s Executive Order limiting entry to the U.S. of non-citizens from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen; barring Syrian refugees indefinitely; and suspending entry of all refugees for 120 days has sown bitter confusion and upended innocent lives. It goes against every value the Jewish people hold, and every value on which this great nation was founded.
For too many Americans, it has been easy to turn a blind eye. Indeed, for most Americans, the executive order has no effect on their daily lives, other than to offer a false promise of increased safety. For Jews around the world, however, this executive order is a rallying call. In the Torah we read, tzedek, tzedek tirdoff–justice, justice you shall pursue. I am here today because together with millions of Jews around the world, I strongly proclaim that what President Trump has done with this executive order is a severe injustice. It is an order that is discriminatory, detrimental to the national interests of the United States, and imposes an undue burden on members of our community. And we will not stand for it.
As a rabbi, I have had the honor of studying Islam and working with imams in my community. I know, and you know, that Islam is a religion of peace and that Muslims are a peaceful people. Those who carry out acts of terror do not act in the spirit of Islam and to therefore target the Islamic people in this way is a grave injustice. That is why we are here. That is why we stand together. Why we pray together. To my Muslim friends, and all those impacted by this immigration ban, the powers in government may have turned their backs on you, and on rationale and logic. But we have not. Today, friends, I am here to remind you that you are not alone. That you are welcome here. That you belong with us in what used to be the land of the free, and the home of the brave. I am here because I welcome your brethren out there, aboard the new St. Louis, immigrants and refugees hoping to add their intellect, their kindness, their generosity, their strength to our nation, as immigrants have for so many generations. Around the world there are protests for you; laws being written in defense of you; lobbyists and organizations fighting for you. President Trump’s executive order does not represent the American people, nor does it represent the American spirit. We will fight endlessly for you.
In the Talmud, one of Judaism’s sacred texts, we read: “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Every life is precious. Every life holds value, meaning, and purpose. No life–Jew, Christian, Muslim, citizen, immigrant, refugee–is more deserving than another. No child more innocent or more entitled than another. These are the laws of humanity, and we will not rest until these are the laws of our nation.