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The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Politicization of Fear

The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Politicization of Fear

When it comes to the issue of Syrian refugees, there is a real disconnect between what we hear from politicians and what’s going on in American psychology.

On one side, we hear, quite rightly, that America is a compassionate land built by those who came to our shore seeking freedom. (Of course, one cannot include African Americans in this picture, because they were not brought to our shores seeking freedom. Nevertheless, they have obviously been a major force in building our country.)

Those who advocate continuing to take in thousands of Syrian refugees tell us we need to fight through our fears because they are either unfounded or extreme.

On the other side of political spectrum, politicians play to our most base fears by appealing to the dark recesses of xenophobia that exist within the psyche of every human being. Those politicians – and the people who share their views – say the U.S. should close its borders immediately and stop all Syrian refugees from entering the country. Some governors have even tried to block the settlement of Syrian refugees in their respective states (despite the fact that they do not have the legal authority to do so).

The fact that many of these refugees are families with children, people who've gotten caught up in a horrible war, does not seem to matter.  

Politicians on both sides are failing to address to our fears.

Fear is not a political phenomenon but a psychological one. President Franklin Roosevelt understood this well, addressing the American people’s fears though his popular “fireside chats” – and we all know the line from his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

What occurred in Paris could happen in the U.S., and that realization makes us fearful.

What we need from politicians now is not certainty but assurance, not rectitude but sympathetic concern. We need politicians who are willing to say, “I understand your fear, but…”

We need politicians who will explain that the U.S. has an extensive process for vetting refugees who desire to come to the United States and who will propose that, during the coming weeks, Congress address this new situation and Americans’ legitimate fear by conducting a bipartisan study of our country’s vetting process.

We need politicians who understand that this is a very serious problem and that our fears are real – but who also understand that our core values should never be compromised to the extent that we let fear determine our mode of behavior.

We need politicians who tell us that they are taking this issue very seriously and will clearly and effectively communicate to the American people what they intend to do.

As a Jew, I believe that treating refugees with kindness is a core value. Jews remember when, in 1938, public opinion polls showed overwhelming opposition to taking in Jewish refugees trying to flee Nazi Germany.

We Jews also understand that the most frequently mentioned of all the commandments in the Bible is the commandment to treat the stranger with kindness and justice (mentioned more than 30 times!) Frequently, the justification is that we are to remember that we too we once strangers or slaves in Egypt.

We deserve better from our politicians. In this highly charged election season, our political process seems to be incapable of providing a thoughtful strategy that neither dismisses nor panders to our fears.

It is up to us to contact our elected representatives, be they Republicans or Democrats, to tell them that for the sake of the safety of the citizens of our country, this challenge warrants a bipartisan approach.

Fear is a very real psychological phenomenon. When it comes to the current refugee situation, it should not be easily dismissed – but it certainly should not lead us to xenophobic responses, either.

Rabbi Fred Guttman is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel and served in an Israel combat unit in the 1980s.

Rabbi Fred Guttman
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