Passover 5781 and The Quest For Freedom

This week, Jews all over the world celebrate our sacred festival of Passover. It is well to remember that although this is year 5781 in the Jewish calendar, our People’s delivery from Egyptian bondage more than 3,000 years ago continues to the present day.

How can that be so when the events of the Exodus, when Moses led the Jewish People from slavery to freedom occurred so long ago? The answer to this conundrum is that Passover, our annual celebration of freedom, is an eternal experience. Approximately 6.8 million Jews live in Israel. Demographers disagree, but perhaps as many as 7 million Jews live in the United States. All Jews living in the United States and virtually every Jew living in Israel share an immigrant experience. Like our ancient ancestors, millions of Jews have yearned to drink from bountiful cups of freedom’s wines — to partake of living in freedom.

This week, as we eat matzo and recall the enduring saga of the Jewish People, let us remember that Egypt was not the only land of our affliction. Throughout our history, Jews have suffered the scourge of oppression from Babylonia to the Spanish Inquisition, to the disgrace of the Dreyfus Affair, culminating in the horror of the Holocaust.

One core lesson of Passover is that none of us are truly free until all men are truly free. Every period of history presents its challenges. Today, America confronts an immigration crisis that cries out for a fair resolution. Within our borders today, approximately 10 million or more immigrants, many from Mexico and Central America, are engaged in a daily struggle for dignity and self-determination.

The Washington Post reported last week that rising number of migrants are moving to the U.S. southern border, and more than 100,000 were detained in February. This presents President Biden with an inescapable challenge to bring to fruition his campaign pledges of implementing more humane immigration policies than those of his predecessor.

Freedom’s challenges are not limited to how we achieve humane policies for the myriad immigrants living in the United States who entered the country without proper documentation. The plight of Syrian refugees is heart-rending. After more than 10 years of oppression by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, more than 6.6 million Syrians have been forced to emigrate under dire circumstances and more than 6.7 million Syrians have been uprooted from their homes and remain displaced in Syria.

America has woefully failed to grapple with our own immigration crisis. And, we’ve done no better at aiding Syrians who have fled death and starvation imposed by Assad and his henchmen.

Let us remember that in January 1939, just two months after Kristallnacht, a nationwide poll reflected that 61% of Americans opposed admitting 10,000 Jewish children who were refugees from Nazi Germany.

In May 1939, the S.S. St. Louis with 937 Jewish refugees aboard, was denied entry into the port of Havana, Cuba. The Cuban government allowed approximately 28 people to disembark after an excruciating examination of their visas. The ship’s captain’s efforts to deliver the remaining passengers to safety in Havana failed. Many on the ship had applied for U.S. visas. So, the vessel sailed toward Florida. Passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt pleading to be allowed refuge in America. A State Department telegram said the refugees must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

Next, the St. Louis sought sanctuary in Canada. Again, the passengers were denied asylum. “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who wanted to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere,” Frederick Blair, Canada’s immigration director, told newspapers at the time.

Tragically, the ship returned to Europe and docked at Antwerp, Belgium on June 17, 1939. Jewish organizations had secured visas for the refugees in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain. Most survived the Holocaust. Yet, at least 254 of the passengers perished in the Holocaust as the Nazis savaged Europe.

In History’s measuring cup, the distance between today and 1939 is a grain of sand. Measured against more than 5,800 years of our existence as a people, the Holocaust was only yesterday. Our own families, our parents and grandparents, some alive today, felt the yolk of oppression. No human being can experience the photographs of the death camps and remain unmoved. 

And, no human being can see news reports of huddled refugees, be they from Syria or Hispanic countries, and not identify with their plight.

Each of us has a duty to practice tikkun olam – to repair the world. The horrors of these crises will not be wiped away in a week, a month or a year. But, each of us can make a start — by practicing the Jewish value of “Welcoming the Stranger” and being cognizant of what goes on at home and abroad.

The huddled masses of refugees are unlikely to realize freedom and self-determination soon. But, each of us can find ways to lend succor to those who suffer. We may act through charitable contributions, political action or, simply, by how we treat others. Our own deliverance from savage injustice on an epic scale remains relatively recent. It could happen again.

A version of this editorial appeared in the April 1 edition of the Jewish Herald Voice and is reprinted with permission.

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