I can’t get the images of Syrian refugees on the beaches of Europe out of my mind. And with those images I can’t help but think of this:
In 1940 my grandfather and his immediate family fled Holland in a row boat. They drifted around on the English Channel for 10 days before they were picked up by a British ship.
I have known this as long as I can remember, though my grandfather never talked much about it. Because they made this insane trip, because they were lucky enough to not die at sea, and because they were taken in as refugees in England I am here today.
By the time I knew him, my grandfather hated boats and the sea. As a child this was hard to grasp. For me the sea was about summer and freedom – swimming, sailing and walks along the rocky beaches of the Swedish west coast.
I knew what had happened to my grandfather and I knew what had happened to those who stayed behind, but I would be lying if I said I felt it on an emotional level. I never stopped to think of other possible outcomes. As I got older I began to dimly grasp the implications. That they must have not known if they would make it. The level of panic they must have felt to make trying to row across the Channel seem like a good idea.
[Here I have the impulse to tell you something about his life in Amsterdam. He was a Maccabee scout; He had many cousins; He was mean to his sister. He had a good life. A regular life.] This recent wave of refugees on the waters surrounding Europe hit me in the gut: The photos of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian 3-year-old who washed up drowned on the beach in Turkey after the boat carrying him, his parents and siblings capsized.
This article about Shadi Kataf, a young man from Damascus, an avid scuba diver who tried to swim from Calais to Dover in a wetsuit, provoked an odd double vision. His unidentifiable corpse was found on an island south of Norway, strikingly similar to the Swedish island 160 miles over, where I spent my carefree childhood summers, where my grandfather would reluctantly get in my father’s open boat. Shadi had stood on the beach at Calais, seen Britain on the horizon and figured that maybe he could make it.
I don’t think that we as Jews inherently care more about refugees than anyone else. But if there is one thing I want my Jewishness to mean it is a memory, an awareness, that the framework that holds our ordered lives in place is fragile. Reality can rupture, as it has for so many Syrians recently. It shouldn’t matter whether or not we think they need it, whether or not we can relate to them. It shouldn’t matter if they have cellphones with them, if they have money, or what we worry their politics might be. The way I see it, the Jewish response should at the very least be recognition.