When Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan set up a Lehrhaus Judaica symposium on the global refugee crisis, he didn’t know just how timely that forum would turn out to be.
The program at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco on Nov. 13 ended up being held days after the election of a president who made limiting immigration a campaign focus — and a vice president who incorrectly claimed Syrian refugees were responsible for terrorist attacks in Europe.
The daylong symposium, which attracted about 150 people, examined today’s situation in light of Judaism’s historical relationship with the status of the refugee.
“We didn’t want to do another symposium on anti-Semitism, we wanted to go deeper,” said Wolf-Prusan, chief program officer and senior educator at Berkeley-based Lehrhaus. “And given the realities of climate change, the prevalence of anti-outsider violence and a vice president-elect who is criminalizing LGBTQ people — we are unfortunately topical.”
Wolf-Prusan was referring to Mike Pence, who in early October claimed “two Syrian refugees were involved” in terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 — despite French officials saying the assailants were all European nationals, and not Syrian refugees.
The idea for the symposium struck Wolf-Prusan after he organized Yom Hashoah programming in May. Referring to America’s unwillingness to take in Jewish refugees from Germany during the 1930s, Wolf-Prusan cited an anonymous quote from a Holocaust survivor: “We all could have been saved, but no one would let us in.”
“We’re the original refugees, our story is a refugee story,” Wolf-Prusan said. “The word hebrew means ‘the ones who crossed over.’ We did not call ourselves the Hebrews, we were called Hebrews. It means, essentially, immigrant.”
The event began with introductory remarks from historians John Efron and Fred Rosenbaum, and a support staffer for the Assyrian Aid Society, Mona Malik.
Malik, an Assyrian refugee who fled Iraq in 1969 with her family, spoke about the vulnerability of indigenous communities across the world, specifically members of the Assyrian community — who are from the land of Mesopotamia and whose numbers are being greatly reduced there. According to Malik’s statistics, there were 1.5 million Assyrians in Iraq in 2003. Today, there are approximately 300,000, she said.
“We talk about ‘never again,’ but it seems like it is ‘again and again,’ ” Malik said. “While it seems like a religious war, really it’s about power, land and oil. It’s getting the indigenous people out of the way.”
Rosenbaum, the founder and director of Lehrhaus, said the current refugee crisis is the most destabilizing event since World War II. He said the rise of ultra-nationalist parties in Europe and anti-immigrant sentiments are threatening those countries’ respect for human rights.
“The right wing has exploited the refugee crisis with fear-mongering — and we are seeing a failure both in taking in refugees, as well as putting the resources into making integration work,” he said.
Avi Rose, executive director of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, said local Jewish agencies have a big role to play in welcoming Syrian refugees.
“We are the archetypical strangers. We’ve had much too much experience seeking refuge,” Rose said. “I’m not saying we have the monopoly on it, but it is ours as well as others. The work we do is in the context of that.”
Wolf-Prusan added: “We have a guiding principle in social justice that few are guilty but all are responsible, which means finding out what your responsibility is in a situation, and seeing what it is that you can do to help. Some can do more and some can do less, but I really believe that everyone can do something.”