As we watch millions of refugees struggling to survive, hundreds of thousands of them seeking refuge in a Europe which has by and large shut its doors to them, it is all too easy for those in the U.S. to piously implore the Europeans to do more. Or for the U.S. government to take in a few thousand of them.
Most Americans seem completely blind to the way that we have played a major role in creating the problem, and have a major responsibility to fix it. Instead, many Americans are rallying behind Donald Trump and other Republican politicians who are competing with each other on who can be more ruthless toward our own domestic refugees who came to the U.S. without official government sanction.
Few Americans realize that there was no major refugee problem until the 1990s. Here’s what happened since then to change the world:
1. The U.S. got involved in Middle East wars, eventually overthrowing Saddam Hussein and throwing out of government and the Iraqi army leadership everyone associated with Saddam’s Sunni Muslim allies. Those thus disempowered began a war with the U.S. occupying forces which the U.S. pursued with torture at Guantanamo and at many torture locations around the world and in Iraq. Millions of Iraqis fled their homes. Eventually Americans’ patience with that ongoing war led to the decision to leave the area.
Not surprisingly, many of those who had felt resentful at the U.S.–and resentful at the Shiite government that the US empowered and left behind in Iraq, and which continued to oppress Sunni Muslims–created the preconditions for popular acceptance of ISIS with its ruthless treatment of Iraqis and Syrians whom they deemed as enemies, making it unsafe for vast swaths of the Iraqi and Syrian populations.
Meanwhile, the U.S. was expressing support for the Arab democratic revolutions in Egypt and actively engaging in support for the Libyan democratic revolution there. But when that revolution spread to Syria, the US refused to give any serious support to the nonviolent revolutionaries, and the dictator Assad used his massive military power, fueled in part by support from Russia, to kill tens of thousands of suspected rebels, eventually causing millions to flee their homes for safety. Meanwhile, the nonviolent revolt was destroyed and those seeking to survive either had to join the more militant anti-Assad forces (many of which eventually either merged with ISIS or Al Qaeda or were wiped out by these more extreme groups) or had to flee.
The U.S., having encouraged these people to rebel against authoritarian regimes, did next to nothing to support those who did. It continued to send massive aid to Egypt when the military overthrew the democratically elected Muslim regime (despite US law saying that in the case of overthrow of a democratic regime it would be illegal to continue to fund the undemocratic and human-rights-denying force that overthrew it), and we refused to intervene on behalf of the nonviolent or democratic forces in Syria, so they had no place to turn except to either become refugees or join ISIS or make peace with the dictatorial regime of Assad. Moreover, the U.S. drone strikes in African countries created another source of refugees. So the U.S. intervention and wars in the Middle East were at least partly responsible for the refugees (but I don’t want to underestimate the evil of the ISIS and the Assad regime–but only to recognize that the US and other Western governments that followed the US lead, played a central role in creating the refugee problem.
2, The estimated 11-12 million refugees in the U.S., conveniently degraded to “illegal immigrants” by the Right and its faithful media, did not come to the U.S. because they wanted a change of scenery. Most from South and Central America were victims of the U.S. trade agreements signed by elites of wealth and power in Africa, Asia , Central and South America which served the interests of the rich but disempowered the vast majority of Latinos and Africans, many of who had been happily surviving on subsistence level farming as had their ancestors for hundreds or sometimes thousands of years.
Our trade agreements allowed U.S. manufacturers to dump our agricultural and manufacturing products in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, at prices that undercut the domestic population, making it impossible for them to make a living to feed their families even at the marginal levels they had been living, forcing millions of people off their lands and into the mega-cities where they lived in slums, were often targets of gangs of their fellow economically marginal countrymen who felt threatened that these newcomers would accept jobs at even lower pay than the previous generations of workers had managed to eke out from multinational corporations, or found that some of their own children had to be sold into sexual slavery in order to have enough money to buy food for the remaining children.
So this economic catastrophe led many to flee the violence of gangs and the hunger that US policies had created for millions of people in the global south. To escape that condition, millions risked their lives to get to the U.S. where eager employers could use these new workers to break the backs of the trade unions, guaranteeing that wages would remain depressed even as the rich and their corporations were going through ever new financial booms. Keeping these people in the shadows by keeping them “undocumented,” facing potential arrest or deportation by the Obama Administration which had deported more of these than all the previous US governments combined, and unable to vote or otherwise participate in the communal life of American society, and systematically treated as evil or as threats to the jobs of American workers, made this arrangement perfect for the powerful who could bemoan why all these people were coming here rather than staying in their own countries and totally ignoring the role of the U.S. in creating this situation in the first place. Meanwhile, American demagogues could use these “undocumented” or “illegal immigrants” (rather than recognizing them as economic refugees) as code for all the Latino population which had been growing so much that it threatened soon to be the largest ethnic group in the U.S. and which threatened the power of the white elites of our country.
Americans have much to repent for in the suffering of the refugees. So American Jews invite our neighbors to use the period of the Jewish “Days of Repentance and Atonement” which begin with Rosh Hashanah this Sunday eve September 13th and goes through Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement September 23rd to engage in repentance and atonement with us. You can use our repentance process which you’ll find at www.tikkun.org/nextgen/high-holiday-repentance-workbook-2015-5776 at your home. Or if you live in the SF Bay Area consider joining us atwww.beyttikkun.org/hhd where we will be repenting for a wide variety of our individual and societal sins (well, we don’t really use the word sin, but the Hebrew “cheyt” which means “missing the mark”). No, it’s not about beating up on ourselves, but rather about determining to live up to our highest potential as loving human beings in this next year by mapping out a concrete strategy for how to create a society based on love, kindness, generosity, social and economic justice, and environmental sanity (this year, it is environmental sanity which will be our major focus along with the crisis facing refugees).
If you still have doubts about the reality of the refugee crisis, and why people leave home for another country, please read the poem written by one such woman refugee at www.tikkun.org/nextgen/24686
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine which won for the second year in a row the Best Magazine of the Year award from the mainstream media’s Religion Newswriters Association, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in Berkeley, Ca., chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org , and author of 11 books including the national best sellers The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. Rabbi Lerner welcomes letters from anyone wishing to join with him in seeking to transform our society in ways indicated in this article: RabbiLerner.firstname.lastname@example.org