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May 7, 2016

Acharei Mot: Scapegoats and Strangers

Angela W. Buchdahl

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Fortune magazine published a poll on Americans’ attitude towards allowing refugees to come to the United States. Would it surprise you that fewer than 5% of Americans surveyed believed that the US should raise its immigration quotas or encourage refugees to come to America? Two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the proposition that “we should try to keep them out.”

But this wasn’t a recent Fortune magazine poll on the Syrian refugee crisis. This poll was published in 1938, and the refugees seeking our shores were mostly Jews – political refugees desperately seeking a new home before World War II.

Even after highly publicized events like Kristallnacht, a night where Jewish business and synagogues were destroyed and burned, public sentiment changed little. Gallup posed this question in 1939: “It has been proposed to bring to this country 10,000 refugee children from Germany – most of them Jewish. Should the government permit these children to come in? Two-thirds of those polled again said NO.

In 1939 the NY Chamber of Commerce gave scholarly credence to the fear and mistrust of aliens by publishing a paper called “Conquest by Immigration” from the prestigious Carnegie Institute. It reinforced anti-immigrant stereotypes and blamed them for the country’s ills, claiming: they were competition with “real” Americans for jobs, they had a greater tendency towards criminality, and they would only enlarge the relief rolls.

Hmm. That sounds familiar. This was 1939. And at that time, the scapegoats were Jews. But this language is virtually the same as what we hear today, only the targets have changed, it is now Mexican immigrants, Syrian Muslim refugees.

We heard Michael teach from Acharei Mot today about the Yom Kippur ritual where the priest would select a goat and symbolically place all the sins of the Israelite on that goat and send him into the wilderness. This is where the term “scapegoat” comes from today.

How did one become the scapegoat? In biblical times, the priest would bring two goats to the temple. He tried to make sure they were the same size, same color, no differentiation. And then the priest would draw lots, and based on that arbitrary lottery, one goat would be deemed “for the Lord.” and the other would be doomed, “For Azazel” which some translate as “For Hell.” These goats were blameless. There was nothing that distinguished them from each other. But one became sanctified and the other ostracized.

We Jews know have experienced the most devastating outcome of scapegoating taken to its extreme – it was just this Thursday that we commemorated Yom Hashoah. Holocaust Remembrance Day. At our service here, we lit 6 candles for the six million Jews who perished at the hands of Nazi horror. I wondered how different things could have been if countries like America had opened its doors rather than closed them. We share our commemoration with St. Peter’s church, it is the longest standing interfaith Holocaust service in the country. A Lutheran pastor read this poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

In World War II, too few spoke out for us. The European Jewish community was decimated. But we as Jews, must now speak out for those in this position.

Two months ago I led 30, 10th graders on our Confirmation trip to Milan and Venice. We visited Milan’s Holocaust memorial, housed in a former loading dock directly under the Milan train station. Seventy years ago, from that underground Platform, thousands of Italian Jews were secretly loaded on cattle cars and sent to the death camps. They have now turned the platform into a memorial, and the first word you see engraved on the large concrete entrance is ‘Indifferenza,’ charging that it was indifference that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

The museum has taken that challenge seriously and beginning last summer, the museum has been turned into a shelter by night for thousands of Syrian and African refugees who come through the train station en route to many places in Europe. We saw folding beds, showers that were installed in the bathrooms and artwork made by refugee children that graced the walls of the museum. We met with the head of the Memoriale, who said that to remember and never forget is a responsibility not just to the past but to the present and future as well. We talked with our Confirmation class that to be a Jew means to know what it is to be a stranger. To be the scapegoat. And that our own Jewish memory demands of us not just to remember, but to never forget those who are the strangers and scapegoats today.

A final story – in 1942, a seven year old boy came to this country as a Jewish refugee of Nazi Germany. He is now 80 years old and has lived an exemplary life as a proud American – a tremendously successful businessman, a generous philanthropist, a patriarch of a large family. A week ago Thursday, he was given the Eisenhower award, the highest honor a civilian can have for his contributions to America’s National Security. He was given this award alongside Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. I’m proud to say he is a longtime member of Central, Bob Belfer.

In his remarks he began with what a great country America is and how fortunate he felt to give back to the country that took him in as a refugee. He represents the millions of Americans who came to this country as immigrants and truly made this country great. It is astonishing to remind ourselves that two thirds of Americans at the time of Bob’s immigration would not have taken him in. And if Bob had not been among the lucky ones granted entry, instead of being honored with an award for a lifetime of service to our country, it is most likely he would have been among the 1 million Jewish children commemorated on Holocaust memorial Day.

He was one child spared. But every child had so much potential. We know that in the hands of one child, the world can be changed.