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How To Talk About Refugees at Your Jewish Thanksgiving Table

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of U.S. governors — 31 at last count — have very different Thanksgiving dinner conversations than I do. “Guess who’s coming to dinner? Not Syrian refugees!” It’s enough to make me think we should have a national holiday celebrating the rescue of refugees fleeing religious persecution, if you know what I mean. 2015 may go down in history as The Year We Broke Thanksgiving.

I wouldn’t pretend to imply that the concerns expressed by so many state and national leaders are meaningless: They come from a place of deep and understandable fear. That is the “terror” in “terrorism.” For the many victims, last week’s horror in Paris was abject, unspeakable and final. For the rest of us, for society as a whole, we will always wonder: Was this “new reality” the last “new reality” we will have to adjust to?

Was homegrown, triple-digit carnage — and with it, the callousness and clannishness of so many scared voices — the whole extent of our new reality? Or must we admit to ourselves, in hushed tones and sidelong glances, that we are already waiting for the next “new reality?” Oklahoma City, 9/11, Sandy Hook, the Bataclan — and then what? Have we reached peak horror, or is Mad Max waiting for us just around the corner?

Perhaps we can take a lesson from history. In 1928, the relatively new Chicago Board of Jewish Education produced a booklet for Thanksgiving, a kind of Haggadah for the beloved American holiday. Patriotic Jewish families would gather on Thursday night and share readings and kids’ activities linking 1920s Palestine and 1620s New England. It’s not what you’d call a very, uh, progressive document.

Here’s the outline: White folk (white like us!) came to America and found uncivilized but dignified savages. By sharing their peaceful meal peacefully assembled with the help of the peaceful savages, they showed what a peaceful future Europeans and Native Americans could share. Just grab a peaceful smallpox-ridden blanket on your way out.

Fast-forward 300 or so years, said the booklet, and witness the very same civilizing mission in our very own Zionist settlement of Palestine! We are just like the Pilgrims of old, bringing comfort, civilization and scientific advances to the Arabs of Palestine. “Altneuland,” just like Herzl promised! A kibbutznik “kova tembel” with a nice big Pilgrim buckle. This is all going to turn out great, right?

It’s quite a trifecta, believing that 1) European settlement was a wonderful civilizing experience for Native Americans; 2) predominantly European settlement in Palestine would sell the Zionist agenda to Arabs; and 3) these experiences are so similar both for the settlers and the indigenous people that you could make it all part of one big holiday.

It’s what makes this week’s other historical data point so compelling — the circa 1939 survey wherein 61% of Harvard students did not want to admit Jewish refugee children to the United States. It has been a bit of a course-correction for those with memories of 1939, or who have ever read the “Diary of Anne Frank.” Jews especially remember what it means to turn a refugee back to a home where the “new reality” is different from Nazi Germany in every way except the important ones.

A lot of us will sit down for Thanksgiving Dinner with those Harvard poll numbers in mind. And when we tell Aunt Francine and Grandpa Sam what we are thankful for, we might remember what it means to be powerless, and what our responsibilities are when we are free. I hope that conversation is heard around the governors’ table, too.


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