Nicolas Kristof in this week’s New York Times, which you can read here, writes about a teenager escaping ISIS controlled territory. The unexpected shout-out to an Israeli NGO offering assistance to refugees landing in Lesbos makes a strong point about the need to overcome hysteria and to normalize this very human-interest story, the one about Arabs and Islam, as well as the one about Jews and Israel.
For Jewish readers in particular, there are powerful intersections to be drawn at points of welcome between the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis and the Arab-Israeli conflict, between Jews and Muslims in both the United States and in Israel and the Middle East, including Palestine.
The point to this form of normalization is not to whitewash the occupation and the problem of Israeli or Jewish racism, or to whitewash the problem of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism, but to overcome dead-end and dehumanizing antipathies. The point is a global imperative, in the encounter with each other to create those open, warm, and kind lines of human affiliation that will contribute to more just and generous political and cultural compacts.
So what should I tell this 16-year-old boy who risked his life to flee extremism? That many Americans are now afraid of him? That the San Bernardino murders may only add to the suspicion of Syrian refugees? That in an election year, politicians pander and magnify voter fears?
Here in Lesbos, the fears seem way overdrawn. Some of the first aid workers Syrian refugees meet when they land on the beach are Israeli doctors, working for an Israeli medical organization called IsraAID. The refugees say they are surprised, but also kind of delighted.
“We were happy to see them,” said Tamara, a 20-year-old Syrian woman in jeans with makeup and uncovered hair. The presence of Jews, Muslims and Christians side by side fit with the tolerance and moderation that she craved.