The Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews held daily vigils in front of the Soviet Consulate, like this one in Nov. 1986, to protest the USSR policies that made it very difficult for Jews to leave Russia. (Photos/Tom Wachs)
The Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews held daily vigils in front of the Soviet Consulate, like this one in Nov. 1986, to protest the USSR policies that made it very difficult for Jews to leave Russia. (Photos/Tom Wachs)

You know who else separated families trying to cross borders? The Soviets.

It is a familiar story. The government wanted to discourage people from crossing the border, so officials set up various laws and procedures to make it more difficult. They even forced the separation of families.

I refer, of course, to Jewish families a generation ago, back in the USSR. The Soviet Union did indeed create obstacles preventing people from crossing the border — in those days, they were trying to keep people in. They instituted a variety of policies that provoked families to separate. Families were confronted with tough decisions: If you wanted to stay together, you needed to stay put. If you wanted to get your kids out, a chance at a better life, someone was forced to stay behind.

Human rights advocates cried foul. It’s not our fault, the Soviets said. We are not the ones breaking them apart. These families are making choices that result in separation. Technically, it was true — it was the decision to leave that separated the families. But, of course, everyone knew that these were ploys by the Soviet government to make the process more difficult. Disincentivize people from leaving. If that means tearing families apart, breaking a few hearts — well, not our problem.

Soviet propaganda didn’t end there. Not only were the families to blame for their separation, but they were traitors, unsavory characters in all sorts of ways. The Soviet method was to criminalize and dehumanize those who sought to leave.

No one bought the Soviet argument then. Everyone knew why families were being separated. Moreover, the very fact that the Soviets would so cynically play with people’s lives only further exposed them for what they really were.

I knew these families well. I’d shlep them to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress to tell their story and the stories of their parents, spouses, children and siblings being held hostage in the USSR. Republicans, Democrats — everyone was horrified, everyone offered to help. We had many ways to characterize this Soviet policy of forcing families to separate. Mostly, we called it inhumane.

I thought about this when I heard that our own government was separating families at our border. Sure, there are big differences. These folks are trying to get in, not out. The ability to leave a country is a basic human right. The ability to enter is not.

And yet, there are many similarities. Though some would have us believe these people are criminals, drug smugglers, gang members, most of them are fleeing difficult and threatening conditions in their home countries — Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. Like our “separated families” in Soviet times, they have concluded that the arduous and harrowing journey is worth the risks, leaving behind violence and corruption for the promise of a better life. Lest we think this is about us, Central American refugees requesting asylum of Mexico have skyrocketed 700 percent in the last three years.

Soviets called them ‘traitors.’ Our government leaders call them ‘animals.’

There are other similarities. As then, a policy that separates families is employed to discourage people from attempting to cross the border. As then, the families are blamed for putting themselves and their children in harm’s way. As then, the adults are criminalized and dehumanized. Then, the Soviets called them “traitors.” Here and now, our government leaders call them “animals.”

Those who arrived from the Soviet Union were rightly designated as refugees and were offered asylum. Today, despite comments from our leaders implying that all of the people at the border are crossing illegally, many are refugees seeking asylum. And many of these families have been forcibly and illegally separated.

There are different views on what our immigration policy should be. It is not “un-Jewish” to desire strong border security. But it is mind-boggling that our country, which since its birth has prided itself as a haven for refugees, is incarcerating asylum-seekers and separately incarcerating their children. And now refugees are told that they will be reunited with their children if they give up their asylum application. Thus, “zero tolerance” is turning children into hostages.

Dovetailing with this policy is a new and far more restrictive approach to refugee asylum. Gang violence and domestic violence are no longer to be considered grounds for asylum. Gang violence is what most Central American refugees are fleeing. And this, too, is familiar to us.

A hundred years ago, my grandfather was stabbed in the back during a pogrom against the Jewish community of Kielce, Poland. The people who carried out the pogrom and the man who stabbed my grandfather were not representatives of the government. That pogrom, which provoked my grandparents’ departure from Poland, was a form of gang violence.

Leaving Poland with two young boys in tow to meet up with my grandfather at the Belgian port, my grandmother had to confront spiteful bureaucrats, who confiscated her passport, threatened her and told her she would never be able to return to Poland to visit her family. Little did she or the Polish officials understand how horrifically accurate that prediction would turn out to be.

But no one took her kids away.

My grandparents sailed into New York’s “harbor of hopes and dreams,” fleeing persecution and seeking a better life. They loved their adopted country. It welcomed them, something they never felt in their native land.

The Constitution says that everyone in this country, not only citizens, has rights. The Torah says the same. “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger” (Numbers 15:15).

We can have a legitimate debate about immigration policy. But what is occurring today on our border is beyond debate. It is inhumane. When another government was exacting inhumane policies on our own people a generation ago, this community was not silent. We must not be silent now.

David Waksberg
David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.