The Syrian refugees and us


Editors’ Note: For five excruciating years, the Syrian people have borne the cruelties of contemporary history, all of them of human making, writes Leon Wieseltier. This post was delivered as a speech to the American Relief Coalition for Syria in Crystal City, Virginia on March 17.

I am deeply honored, and deeply humbled, to speak to you this evening. 

The Syrian people are now the representative people of our time. That is hardly a distinction to be wished for, to be sure. But it is the Syrian people who have suffered a secular tyranny, and fought for democracy, and experienced the savageries of ethnic ardor, and suffered a religious tyranny, and endured terrorism and chemical weapons and imperialism and the indifference of the West, and lived in internal flight and exile and in external flight and exile. It has been your misfortune to have come to know all the characteristic horrors of our era. For five excruciating years, you have borne the cruelties of contemporary history, all of them of human making. I can hardly imagine the inner resources that have been asked of you, the resilience, the fortitude, the triumph over an amply warranted despair. The great Russian writer and thinker Alexander Herzen, as he witnessed the massacres of a failed revolution in Paris in 1848, recorded that “we did not know we had so much in our hearts left to be destroyed.” The feeling that he described must be familiar to you—the always breaking but unbreakable heart. 

I say that I can hardly imagine the condition of your people, but imagining it is a moral responsibility for me, and for all of us whose lives have been untouched by the barbarism that has disfigured your lives. Too many of us in this country have failed to acquit ourselves of this responsibility, and thereby we have failed not only you but also the ideals of sympathy and solidarity that we claim—falsely, it appears—to live by. Morality is often regarded as a creation of reason, an affair of concepts and principles; but it may be that the imagination is a more necessary foundation for morality than reason, because the injustices that we are asked to relieve and to abolish are most often injustices that we ourselves have not known. The narrowness of experience is one of the primary impediments to compassion. We will never give help if we cannot picture need. 

We will never give help if we cannot picture need.

YouTube is not the answer: it is in fact the proof that all the documentation in the world may not move people to action. Even when the atrocities are available for viewing on the phones in our pockets, we may still do little or nothing. No, we need to open ourselves up, radically, in our hearts and in our souls, to the realities of suffering to which we are ourselves strangers, and allow ourselves to be pierced and penetrated by the factuality of this misery. And this obligating imagination—of the pains of others, of the needs of others—will not happen unless in the others we see the same—unless we regard our general humanity as more ethically significant than our specific constructions of it. Before we are Muslims and Christians and Jews, we are brothers and sisters. If we allow our identification with each other to be obscured by our identities, then we are lost. The Syrian tragedy was caused in part by the preference for the particular over the universal, by the dark side of difference. Against the dark side of difference we must assert our sameness, our similarity, and we must act on it. Humanitarianism, before it is a program or a policy, is a correct description of who we are.

And yet my own sympathy for you and solidarity with you is not founded entirely on my capacity for imagining you. I knew people like you. I knew them very well. They were my parents. I am the son of refugees from genocide, of survivors of the Holocaust. My parents’ world was destroyed by a maniacal dictator for whom the purpose of power was murder, whose actions of state were crimes against humanity, whose fury knew no bounds because his hatred knew no bounds. When I see your dead and your displaced, when I behold the carnage of your children and your country, when I watch your refugees risk everything for love and for life, I remember things my parents told me, and things I observed about my parents. 

If we allow our identification with each other to be obscured by our identities, then we are lost.

In my eulogy at his funeral twenty years ago, I said that my father was a man who lived twice and died twice. After all, if the whole world had ended when his world ended, there would have been a certain apocalyptic coherence to his fate. But only his world ended. The rest of the world went on, and it did not much care about his particular apocalypse. He, and the other Jews who had escaped the kingdom of death, had no one but themselves on whom to rely. I am certain that you know what I am speaking about. And so my father and my mother, having lost everything, began to build another everything, a new everything. They would not permit destruction to become defeat. They would not be crippled by grief. Out of the ashes, with fresh memories of obscene events, they rose – my mother to manage a chocolate shop and my father to open a furniture store. How do you sell chocolate and furniture after the end of the world? But that is what my parents did, with the incalculable tenacity of the refugee. They were fragile, but they were strong. And they did more: they had children. And they did still more: they raised their children to believe in the very God who was in some way implicated in the evil that they had experienced. 

Eventually the refugees from genocide found happiness. This was a miracle, and I witnessed it. Again, I think you know what I am talking about. In the images of Syrian parents and children escaping the ruins of their beautiful life and setting out to sea for the sake of another beautiful life, and in their willingness to endure still more hardship in their epic search for peace and decency, I see the same determination, the same faith in the future, the same commitment to existence and its possibilities, that I saw in the small and closely knit community of Yiddish- and Polish-speaking refugees in which I was raised. Raised, but not scarred. Quite the contrary. I can testify that it is a privilege to be the son of such people. Happy is the child for whom his parents are heroes.

[R]efugees are heroes, in that they have taken their fate into their hands in full view of stupendous risks.

I say heroes and not victims, even though they were also victims, because refugees are heroes, in that they have taken their fate into their hands in full view of stupendous risks. What is remarkable about these damaged people is how intact they are, how unwilling to surrender they are. I do not wish to speak politically this evening, but this is a little difficult, since I am ashamed of my country’s refusal to rescue the men, women, and children of Syria, or even to try. From the story of my parents, from the story of my people, I came away with a profound belief that power may be used for good as well as for evil, and that one of the obligations of power is rescue. Is that political? I think it is moral and historical, and what America has forgotten. 

But I have not come here to express my disdain for my government. I have come here to express my admiration for you. Having suffered the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our time, your community is setting the greatest humanitarian example of our time. You are the world’s supreme champions of hope. Your mobilization on behalf of your community people is extraordinary, a deeply stirring illustration of the ethic of self-reliance. 

And I have also come to tell you that even though you are relying brilliantly on yourselves, you are not alone. You have friends, comrades, allies, advocates. For us, I mean for your friends, it is an expression of the highest principle to stand with you. We would think less of ourselves if we did otherwise. I hope that the news of our solidarity reaches your refugees wherever they are. Please carry the news to them. From my parents’ account of their experience in hell, and more generally from the scholarly literature on what was perpetrated against the Jews of Europe, I learned that there is nothing crueler that one can do to people in mortal danger than to make them feel abandoned. It is the sense of abandonment that pushes desperation into despair. For this reason, it is important for your beleaguered brethren, in Syria, in Jordan and Turkey and Lebanon, in the towns and countries of an increasingly callous and hostile Europe—it is important for them all to know that there are they have not been completely abandoned; that there are people in America, in the West, who have the Syrian nightmare in the very forefront of their consciousness and their conscience, who are moved and outraged by the Syrian predicament and will not agree to be bystanders, who will agitate and argue tirelessly for rescue and relief and resettlement. 

You are the world’s supreme champions of hope.

When I say resettlement, I mean here, among us, in this country that would long ago have sunk into decadence and decline but for the presence within it of immigrants and refugees. There are many Americans who would welcome many Syrians to our shores. We do not worry that refugees will in any way distort America. We are certain, rather, that they will vindicate America. And we recognize that their appeal for our assistance is made not only on the basis of sentiments but also on the basis of rights. They have been dispossessed of many things, but not of their human rights. Nobody—not Assad, not ISIS, not Putin, not Khameini, not the fascists of Europe—can deprive them of their humanity. Indeed, in their courage, and in their devotion to their children, and in their dream of democracy, they are giving us all lessons in humanity.

We all come from traditions that regard hospitality as one of the very highest duties. In my tradition, an ancient rabbi declared that “receiving wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Presence of God.” Perhaps he understood that we are more likely to meet wayfarers than we are to meet God. Perhaps he implied that we meet God when we meet wayfarers, because we have an occasion to fulfill a divine duty. And consider this instruction to the wayfarers themselves, to those who have sought and found asylum: “Do whatever your host says, except ‘Get out’!” Somebody should give that text to Fox. That ancient expression of the finality of welcome is a fine retort to the hideous discussion of immigrants and refugees that is now taking place in our country. 

All our traditions instruct us in the obligation, and the privilege, of welcome. May we all be, in this terrible crisis, good sons and good daughters of our traditions, and not desist in this work until we find justice for these millions, until they find justice and a home.