In light of current events, I thought I would tell you a little about Henry. Henry was an old man when I came to know him. Or at least he seemed old to me because as a small child, which I was, anyone with grey hair seemed really old. I have grey hair now, and I don't feel particularly old, although the offspring rarely miss an opportunity to remind me that I am.
Henry spoke with a faint accent that always made him seem slightly exotic to me. When I got old enough to wonder about such things, he told me that he came from a place called Bessarabia, which for me also had a faintly exotic ring to it. You won't find Bessarabia on a map, unless it's a pretty old one, because it doesn't really exist as an identifiable entity any more, having been divided between what is now Ukraine and Moldova. At the time that Henry left, in 1905, when he was ten years old, it was part of Russia.
Within Bessarabia, Henry lived in a small town called Kalarash. You can find it on a current map of Moldova in its Moldavian/Romanian spelling of "Călărași". Kalarash, at least back then, would more properly be called a shtetl, that is, one of the small, mostly (though not exclusively) Jewish towns in the pale of settlement, that part of the Russian empire in which Jews were allowed to reside permanently.
Henry told me that his family made its living by buying fresh fruit from the local farmers, drying it and then selling it at market in Odessa, on the Black Sea, in what is now Ukraine. If you look on a map, you'll see that Odessa is about 150 miles, or a three-and-a-half-hour trip by car, from Kalarash. I imagine that if you were traveling by foot or in some sort of horse-drawn carriage it would be a multi-day journey and not a very feasible way to get your wares to market, but studying the same maps, it looks like you could travel there by rail (via Chișinău, aka Kishinev) within an acceptable amount of time, even in the early nineteen-hundreds.
The Russian empire in that period was not a hospitable place for Jews. There were restrictions on where you could live, when and where you could travel, how you could earn your livelihood and all sorts of other things. There were plenty of things to remind you that you were a second-class citizen, with no expectation of receiving any kind of fairness or justice from the larger society. But this condition went well beyond just insults and indignities.
Henry recounted to me how during one trip to market, an older cousin of his was commanded by one of the local young toughs to walk a few paces and then turn and stand straight and still; for the amusement of his friends, the upstanding young citizen then demonstrated his knife-throwing skills by hurling his dagger at Henry's cousin, striking him in the heart and leaving him to bleed to death. His distraught family was too terrified for their own lives to retrieve the body until later that night when there was no one else around.
This incident took place in the context of a large wave of pogroms that swept the region during the period of 1903-1906. That wave reached Kalarash in October of 1905. In two days of violence, Jewish houses and shops were ransacked and their residents were beaten, raped and murdered. A number were burned alive when their houses were set on fire as they attempted to hide in attics or cellars. When it was over, some fifty-odd members of the community were dead, scores more were injured and traumatized. Henry told me that this was the event that induced his family to finally leave Russia.
|I guess we'll be going, then.|
But in 1905, you didn't just leave the Russian empire. Without proper papers of any kind, you had to find a way to sneak out. Henry's family hired the 1905 equivalent of the people that, for the right sum of money, will hide you among the cargo in a truck crossing from Tijuana to San Diego, or put you on a rubber raft in Turkey and point you toward Greece. Each family member was smuggled across the border in a different way. In Henry's case, he was given a flock of geese to drive across the border with a stick, with the guards made to understand that he was just taking them to the market on the other side. Not everyone was able to make the crossing, though; Henry told me he left behind a sister, whom he never saw again. Once across the border, they made their way to Hamburg, Germany and from there traveled via Ellis Island to America, eventually settling in the American Midwest.
|One does not simply walk out of Russia.|
I can't help thinking of Henry as I follow the news of Syrian refugees. Like them, Henry's family might never have embarked on an uncertain journey to a strange and distant land were it not for the evidence all around them that they were living in increasingly mortal danger. With little more than the clothes on their backs they left behind everything and everyone they had ever known. They risked everything in the hope of ultimately finding a better and safer life in a place they really knew very little about.
Fortunately for me, they were successful. Henry learned to speak English (the only language he had spoken until then being Yiddish), went to school, eventually went into business and had a family. His daughter became my mother; Henry was my grandfather. And he was basically a refugee, forced to leave his home to escape intolerable persecution. Had his family not had a safe place to go, I might not be here writing this today.
How can I, therefore, look at these people coming from Syria and say we should keep them out? How can I not want them to have the same chance my own family had? I think of this, and I look at the efforts that prominent American politicians are making to block their entry, and I am ashamed. I hear Trump/Cruz/Rubio/Bush/Christie/Jindal/Carson/etc. saying that we must keep these people out because some could be terrorists just posing as refugees and I do not think, "Hmmm, that man has a point." I just hear a new and convenient excuse to keep people out because, well, they're not like us.
|We've come to destroy America.|
And were I to believe in such a thing, I would hope that there is a special place in hell for the likes of Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee, who perpetually whine on and on about Christians being persecuted in one way or another but (along with Jeb Bush) want to impose a religious test before dispensing their Christian goodness and mercy. Those guys need to stop waving their bible in my face long enough to look inside it and see what it says about how they are supposed to treat their fellow man. Disgusting hypocrites.
|Cruz, Huckabee, Bush… You guys go with the goats.|
I understand that there could be terrorists trying to gain entry under the guise of being refugees; it's not utterly implausible. But it seems to me that the risk needs to be viewed in perspective, and that this focus on potential terrorists among the refugees is entirely misplaced. The 9/11 hijackers, who visited upon this country the most devastating act of terrorism ever to take place on American soil, all came in on legal visas. It is also well documented that there are more than a few "native-born Europeans" (a euphemistic press term I have repeatedly encountered that means "white people") who sympathize with or have actually joined the ranks of ISIS and could probably easily enter the US with a plan to cause mayhem and violence, but I don't see any politicians saying we should stop admitting Swedes and Spaniards because, well, you just can't be too careful.
Oh, and just in case you hadn't heard, which is not unlikely, since I've seen little mention of it in the mainstream press: that Syrian passport found near the body of one of the Paris attackers, which touched off this whole discussion about how admitting Syrian refugees is dangerous folly? It was a fake, probably bought for a few hundred dollars in Turkey.
|Just a couple of good ol' boys|
Certainly acts of terrorism in the US are a distinct possibility, and I won't say I don't worry about it at least a little; I live in a major American city, I go to concerts and theaters and shopping malls, I ride the subway. We've even had our own bona fide terrorist event right here where I live, after all, in which several people were killed and dozens maimed and injured. It was a horrible thing, but two years on, it has not really changed how people around here go through life, because it was—rightly, I think—understood as an aberration, for which we needed to maybe take some additional precautions, not something that should rule our lives henceforth and certainly not a reason to persecute anyone who looks a little like the perpetrators.
If I'm going to worry about injury or death at the hands of some well-armed malefactor, it seems far more rational to worry about gun violence of the non-terroristic variety. Looking at the statistics on this web site, which tracks reports of mass shootings in the US, I count so far in 2015 (as of 11/20/15) 337 separate shootings in which 431 people were killed and 1,227 injured. Note, though, that these are only the mass shootings so far this year; if you look at gun violence overall, this site reports, as of 11/24/15, around 47,000 incidents, 12,000 deaths and 24,000 injuries.
Recent events in Paris notwithstanding, the threat of terrorism is still pretty abstract compared to the very real violence I read about every morning in my local paper. The unending stream of mass shootings over the past decade shows me that if a would-be terrorist did successfully enter the US—assuming he wasn't here already, very possibly even as a US citizen—he would have almost no problem acquiring the tools he would need to create all kinds of mayhem and carnage. But I don't see any of the politicians who are beating the drum about keeping out foreigners whom they insist are potential terrorists proposing to do something about that. No, their solution is much simpler than that: just don't let Henry in.