Mideast Migrants Should Be Treated With Suspicion, Just as Holocaust Migrants Were
Sometime during 2001, I became acquainted with a TV personality in the U.K. named David Baddiel. We first met at a social event and shortly afterwards he joined my family for Friday night dinner at our home. During dinner, it emerged that we had something in common – both of our grandfathers came from Konigsberg, East Prussia, and both of them escaped to the U.K. from Nazi Germany shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. We were fascinated by this coincidence, especially when David revealed that he had started writing a novel loosely based on his grandparents’ experiences during those initial years in England. The book was ultimately published in 2004 under the title The Secret Purposes, and was highly acclaimed by literary critics.
David’s grandfather had already passed away by the time we met, but my grandfather was still alive, and David asked if he could meet him as part of his background research for the novel. So one afternoon, I picked him up and we drove to Stamford Hill, North London, where my grandfather lived. Stamford Hill is an area densely populated by haredi Jews, and it was where my grandfather had eventually settled in 1947, and where the synagogue he led from 1960 onwards was located.
My grandfather had never heard of David Baddiel. He never watched TV and was not familiar with media personalities. David Baddiel had never heard of Rabbi J. H. Dunner, presiding rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, either. Remarkably he and my grandfather got on extremely well, and during the two-hour meeting, my grandfather regaled us both with fascinating stories, many of which I had never previously heard, all of them about those first few difficult years as penniless refugees in England.
David was particularly interested in my grandfather’s time on the Isle of Man. He wanted his novel to convey the experiences of German-Jewish refugees who were interned as enemy aliens in 1940 on the Isle of Man, when the British authorities were suddenly gripped by the understandable fear that some of the German refugees they had taken in could actually turn out to be “Trojan horse” Nazi infiltrators who would facilitate a German invasion of the British Isles. My grandfather spent a few months on the Isle of Man before being released. David’s grandfather was there for almost a year.
I have been thinking about the Isle of Man internment these past couple of weeks as the refugee crisis in Europe has escalated out of control. On the one hand, there are those who say that refugees fleeing war-torn regions of the world should be given the chance to find homes in countries where they are not in any danger, no questions asked. Others point out that while these refugees are indeed in dire circumstances, many of them come from countries and cultures that incessantly spew hatred of the West, and whose ideologies are at odds with democratic values and Western tolerance.
If my grandfather, and David Baddiel’s — both of them genteel, civilized, university-educated German Jews, whose persecution by the antisemitic Nazis meant that their sympathies were certainly not with Hitler and his cohorts — could be interned on the Isle of Man for many months on the basis of a slight risk that they were Nazi agents, why is it that today’s refugees from countries and cultures that hate us should not be similarly suspected of posing a danger to the countries in which they are claiming asylum?
I subsequently asked my grandfather if he resented his internment on the Isle of Man. Certainly not, he said. Britain was at war. Of course, once it became clear that he was no threat, he was freed. Meanwhile, the mere idea today that any refugee should be treated with suspicion is met with unbridled indignation. Apparently it is immoral to refuse entry to refugees or to intern people on the basis that they could be a threat. Habeus corpeus is enshrined in our legal system, and is inviolable. “You are innocent until proven guilty” goes the old adage, and no person should be detained by the authorities unless there is a compelling reason to do so.
Our own tradition dramatically disagrees with this concept of assumed innocence. In the final portion of the Torah, we read about the death of Moses: וַיָמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד ה’ בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב – “Moses the servant of God died there, in the land of Moab.” The commentaries are puzzled, as this is the first time Moses is ever referred to as the “servant of God.” Why now?
The Midrash informs us that God never refers to anyone as “holy’” until after he has died. Someone who is alive is always subject to the evil inclination, and even the most righteous of individuals may give in to temptation. Once a person is no longer alive, and that person was righteous throughout his or her life, he can safely be referred to as “holy” and as a “servant of God.” Even Moses, the greatest of all Jewish leaders, a man who communed with God “face-to-face,” whose purity and loyalty to God was evident every day of his life, could only be referred to as “God’s servant” once his journey on this earth was complete.
In which case, why would anyone suggest that refugees are beyond suspicion simply because they are in a dire situation? If my grandfather, a righteous upstanding individual, a rabbi arrested by the Nazis for his Judaism, could be interned by the British as a German and therefore a potential threat – and he was perfectly comfortable with that – anyone emanating from a country or culture that opposes everything we stand for should accept, if demanding asylum and acceptance from us, remaining under a cloud of suspicion until his commitment to our value system can be proven beyond any doubt.