February 19, 2017

If neutrality was a sin during WWII, what is acquiescence today?

Observing the unfolding dystopia known as President Trump's immigration regime, I am reminded of my experiences in Switzerland. That country's "neutrality" throughout World War II also serves as a warning against acquiescence and indifference. 

On my first visit to Stein am Rhein over 25 years ago, I wandered about that medieval walled city northeast of Zurich. I overpaid for an eyeglass case, marveled at the outdoor frescos along the main square, hiked through the vineyards up to the Hohenklingen castle, gazed out upon the Swiss landscape and across into Germany. I followed a winding road along the Untersee, past lakeside villas, and reached the border with Germany. I passed the border post, which resembled a toll plaza without gates or payment, and now I was in Germany. 

I have been to Germany many times over the years, originally crossing between the Communist East and the free West, including divided Berlin, which in its reunified form has become one of my favorite cities. Knowing we could cross through the Berlin Wall while East Germans were risking their lives for the same chance was a formative experience for a five-year-old lucky enough to have been born in freedom. On one visit in the 1970s, I was already old enough -- and it was still early enough -- that I could reasonably imagine any middle-aged man on the street as a young soldier in Hitler's army. In our new millennium, I was fortunate to work very closely with the German government to come to terms with that past, and to lead the fight against a newer surge of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. 

Back to Stein am Rhein, I found a bench on the German side and sat there for a few minutes, casting an eye back to the border. I imagined myself as a Jew in the 1930s, surrounded by German guards rounding up Jews like myself within sight of free, neutral Switzerland and yet unable to escape -- Nazi Germany wouldn't permit Jews to leave, and Switzerland would only send them back. Back in the safe, post-War present, I took a deep breath, stood up, and walked unimpeded into Switzerland. 

Some years later, living in Geneva, I prayed regularly at a synagogue along the banks of Lac Leman. Every time I left the building, I could look up and see the cliffs of the Saleve in nearby France. Not once did I forget that -- during World War II -- neutral Geneva was under the eye of Nazi-occupied France, what is today a local tourist attraction. Ironically, every few weeks I would cross into the French suburbs -- just like that -- in order to buy kosher meat, because kosher slaughter is banned in Switzerland.

Even more recently, a colleague of mine caused some controversy by calling Swiss "neutrality" during World War II "a crime". In our makeup session with a very senior Swiss official -- why alienate them if we don't need to -- he tried his best to explain without apologizing. I used the opportunity to complain about today's Swiss neutrality: Since joining the United Nations, Switzerland was working to water down anti-Israel resolutions just enough so some European Union members would break ranks and vote in favor, or abstain. Don't do us any more favors, I asked. At least I slept well that night.

So here is the photo which shocked me, the photo that six months ago would have seemed contrived, even farcical: Refugees escaping the United States into Canada, where they will receive asylum rather than being sent back to Sudan. Are we any better than wartime Switzerland, which strictly limited entry and readily shipped Jewish refugees back to almost certain death?

And what of this latter-day neutrality, this acquiescence, by any American who sees this and fails to speak out? If not a crime, then it's a failure to sound the alarm. At the very least, no Jew should be welcoming this turn of events, no Jew should be able to see this photo without feeling very raw and almost dizzy. Such images should be seared into the Jewish psyche, and we should be reminding and sensitizing our fellow Americans to their meaning.

I am grateful that so many Jews and Jewish organizations are marching and protesting, and filing legal briefs, and caring for refugees in our midst. I am disappointed to see Orthodox Jewish organizations conducting business as usual, and even validating many of President Trump's policies and nominees -- without actively opposing the ban on refugees or the hunting down and deporting of undocumented immigrants, even on the doorstep of a church

As long as the federal government continues to generate fear, sow hatred and deport with impunity, our responsibility has not been discharged. Fifty years hence, we cannot afford for a Sudanese graduate student to look across our border to Canada, and recall how difficult it was for Sudanese refugees just like himself to reach freedom. Any moral claim we retain from the Holocaust or from slavery in Egypt, any complaint against Switzerland's neutrality, will be rendered worthless.

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