November is time for gratitude in the United States. Yet after the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month, the United States of America is divided about whether or not to let suffering war-torn Syrian refugees into the country. Some Americans fear refugees are hidden agents of ISIS or Daesh as the terrorist group is coming to be known.
The whole conversation sickens me, in large part because the very nature of it goes against the very fiber of this country. So let me proclaim my gratitude this month for the Americans who let my Jewish relatives into the country, refugees of antisemitism in the 19th century and war-torn Nazi Germany.
Most of my ancestors came from Germany and Russia in the 19th century to escape anti-semitism. While conditions were better, they met milder forms of anti-semitism in the United States. My father’s ancestors changed their names from Lowenstein to Livingston to mitigate some of the bigotry they experienced.
One relative decided to fight back. Sigmund Livingston formed the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which now is simply the Anti-Defamation League, a cause that fights for tolerance of all races and religions.
Later, the last group of my lineage left Switzerland at the feet of the Nazi army, which was granted access to cross the Alps and invade Italy. Though Switzerland was neutral, officials could not guarantee my ancestors’ safety. My grandfather and his brother and sister — the Bigars — were told to flee Lausanne and they did, barely escaping Venice on a boat hours before the Nazis arrived. They made their way to New York with nothing, and started their lives anew.
Freedom Starts at Home
When you consider the ancestry of most Americans, they, too, were refugees. Whether rebels or slaves, by choice or by force, they ended up here. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution, their descendants have an open opportunity to build better lives here, the so-called American Dream.
Watching politicians engage in every activity possible to deny access to Syrian refugees makes me question that dream. This great prejudice, bigotry if you would, is perhaps one of the greatest exercises in hypocrisy Americans could engage in. For while “Je suis Paris” may be true, so is “We are Syrians.” Almost all of us are descendants of refugees of some sort.
Consider Daesh’s primary proaganda in fighting Western powers is to combat the western enslavement and abuse of Islamic peoples. Daesh, while an acronymn that literally translates ISIS in the Arabic tongue, is a word in its own right (rather than an acronym) meaning ‘a group of bigots who impose their will on others.’ So now we have American conservative bigots supporting the Deash bigots’ logic and their justification to enact atrocious acts of terror.
Perhaps Thanksgiving 2015 is a time to consider what this country still believes in. I hope it remains freedom and tolerance. If so, this outbreak of fear-driven racism should pass. We should embrace Syrian refugees and help them stand up and find a path to a more prosperous life in the United States.
After all, freedom begins at home. If we can’t practice the principles we espouse to the world in the United States, then being “American” stands for nothing but hypocrisy. Our brand of freedom should not be a condition of race, creed, or belief. And for that reason alone we should allow screened Syrian refugees to relocate here in America.
Thank you to all of our ancestors, those that left their homes for a better life in America and those that embraced the refugees of yesteryear, helping them find their way. I am grateful for what you built. I hope this generation continues those principles.