Fishbein: The Atrocity of Indifference

by Daniel Fishbein | 1/11/16 7:30pm

Over winter break, I had the privilege of visiting Israel for ten days as part of a Birthright trip to bring Jewish young adults to their biblical homeland. On this trip, my group visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli national Holocaust museum dedicated to the six million Jews who died in the genocide. Along with the graphic footage of Auschwitz-Birkenau and death marches, one aspect of the museum that really struck me was the story of the MS St. Louis, a boat that carried 937 Jewish refugees from Hamburg, Germany to off of the coast of Florida in 1939. Upon arrival there, the United States government, under the Immigration Act of 1924 which restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, denied entry to the passengers, whose trip is now known as the “Voyage of the Damned.” With no place left to go, the boat was forced to head back to Europe. Historians now estimate that a quarter of its passengers ultimately became Holocaust victims.

This story struck me not only for the tragedy of the tale, but also because similar immigration exclusion policies have come up in recent news, most visibly in current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s statement that he would bar Muslims from entering the country. Out of all of Donald Trump’s political rhetoric, his catchphrase “Make America Great Again” makes me the most sick to my stomach. Our country’s history is marred by both xenophobia and institutionalized racism, blemishes that Trump either chooses to ignore or does not understand.

The American people cannot stand for a president who harbors these views, just as the American people should not have stood for the exclusion of the Jews on the MS St. Louis and the subjugation of so many other ethnic groups in our nation’s history. Trump’s desire to bar Syrian refugees from entering the country, calling them “Trojan Horses” that would be accompanied by Islamic fundamentalists, would keep millions of people in a hostile war zone surrounded by the imminent possibility of death.

These Syrian refugees that Trump wishes to bar from the U.S. do not deserved to be stereotyped as terrorists or fundamentalists. Consider the case of Refaai Hamo, a Ph.D. scientist and a Syrian refugee now living in Troy, Michigan. Hamo’s story was published by the Facebook page “Humans of New York,” ultimately going viral and leading actor Edward Norton to host a fundraiser for the scientist and his family. Hamo has devoted his life to developing inventions that would “make a lasting contribution to humanity”. But when the Syrian civil war came to his town in 2013, missiles destroyed the construction compound he had built for his family and killed seven of his family members.

He fled with his son and daughter to Turkey, but was unable to work without a residence permit, even though the university in the city he fled to used a textbook he had helped write. To survive, Hamo drew up inventions and sold them to Turkish engineers who gave him no credit and little money.

Hamo also developed cancer, but without insurance and benefits he was unable to pay for a surgery that could be easily performed in the United States. After two years as a refugee, Hamo relocated to Michigan. While President Barack Obama has dubbed Hamo’s story “inspirational” and has invited him to come as a special guest to his State of the Union Address tonight, Trump would have not permitted Hamo to enter the country.

As informed voters, it is our duty to not just deny Trump’s xenophobia at the ballot box, but to loudly and visibly protest against it. Voice your opinion on social media, talk to those who buy into what Trump has to sell and remember the impact that doing nothing can have.

Returning once more to the fateful MS St. Louis, Holocaust historian Ian Kershaw wrote, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” Although Kershaw is describing the social situation in Germany that led to the genocide, American indifference directly led to the deaths of many of those aboard that boat. To truly make America great, we must move past the mentality of the Americans who turned away a boat that carried 937 Jews and sent them back to the worst event in human history. Turning a blind eye towards refugees of large-scale atrocities is itself an atrocity.