Jews From Islamic Lands Speak on Muslim Immigration

By Hannah Lee, Philadelphia Jewish Voice, March 3, 2017

Iranian Jewish refugee from Kurdistan, leaving with Torah (Tehran, Iran, 1950) by Moshe Shapiro in The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (Creative Commons License)

The president’s travel ban for people from seven Muslim countries (now temporarily suspended by federal judges) has provoked outcries from the liberal community in the United States. Rallies and other acts of dissent have sprung up in most major cities. I last wrote about the response to the travel ban in the general Jewish community. I now seek to learn more from Jews who have lived in Muslim countries.

“In just 50 years, almost a million Jews, whose communities stretch back up to 3,000 years, have been ‘ethnically cleansed’ from ten Arab countries. These refugees outnumber the Palestinian refugees … , but their narrative has all but been ignored. Unlike Palestinian refugees, they fled not war, but systematic persecution,” according to Point of No Return, a blog on Jewish refugees from the Middle East.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Mikveh Israel is one of these Jewish refugees, and he has an amazing story that many American Jews do not know: Rabbi Gabbai was originally from Egypt. With the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Egypt rounded up all the Jewish men and put them into prison camps. (I recall learning in an earlier conversation with him that his mother brought food to the prison daily because he and his brothers did not get kosher prison rations.) Three years later, he was driven to the airport. He was given a French laissez-passer (travel document), and he arrived in Paris, with just the shirt on his back. I could have spent much more time learning about his personal story, but our conversation diverged into his views on Muslim immigration in America.

I also had the opportunity to interview two Jews from Iran. One was Ephraim Dardashti, who left Iran before the Revolution of 1979. The other, DD, who prefers to remain anonymous, left Iran after the Revolution.

Below are my questions, with responses from Rabbi Gabbai and the two Iranian-born Jews.

How was life in your native land?

DD: In Iran, by 1979, most of the Jewish community had moved out of the Jewish ghetto. I’m the third child in my family and the first one that was born outside the ghetto. Jews had started to excel both academically and financially. There was still a great deal of anti-Semitism and overt discrimination all around. The hostility took a sharp turn for the worse starting in 1978.

ED: During the reign of the Shah, the Jews were overall well-off at the time. They had economic and educational opportunities that were unprecedented. The ruling regime wanted to move the country to the modern age and leave the Middle Ages behind as quickly as possible. The Jews took advantage of this opportunity, and as result, were far over-represented in the professions and in the economic life of the country.

The socio-religious prejudices were below the surface, but they never disappeared despite the assimilation of the Jews into the society at large. Shiite Iran and pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran had a long checkered history when it came to the treatment of the Jews. Prior to the 20th century, there were frequent violent outbursts against the Jews and forced conversions. The Jewish community was battered. Missionaries and the religion of Bahaism made strong inroads among the Jews in the 19th century.

What is it like now? Is there still a Jewish community?

DD: There is still a Jewish community in my hometown of Shiraz, although it has shrunk quite a bit. The Jewish school is controlled by the government, with a Muslim administration, and the school is required to operate on Shabbat. The Jewish education books are issued by the government and taught in Farsi. The contents have a Muslim slant. Jews are excluded from positions of authority and certain professions.

ED: At the time of the Islamic Revolution, the population of Iran was 35 million; the Jews numbered around 125,000. Today, the population of the country is around 80 million, and the Jewish population numbers around 20,000. I think that the numbers speak for themselves.

HL: According to Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University in The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, at most, less than ten Jews remain in Egypt today.

What is your view on the United States welcoming Muslim refugees?

AG: As Jews, we welcome people who are persecuted. As Jews, we have to protect ourselves. As Jews, we have to follow the law of the land: dina d’malkhuta dina (Aramaic: דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא‎‎).

The guiding principle should be that whoever comes here is not here to harm us. As a Jew who was persecuted for his faith and ethnicity, I sympathize much with people who were persecuted, despite being innocent of any crimes.

We are always guided by our Jewish principles. The laws of Maimonides for tzedakah (charity) direct us to focus first on our inner circle – the family – before we address the needs of the community. We cannot solve the problems of the whole world.

Millions want to come here for a better life. We’re not being honest with ourselves if we don’t admit that.

Syrians have fled to Turkey and Jordan. They’re not being killed there. The United States can send them money, medicine and blankets. It does not make sense to bring them here.

We should not discriminate between Christians and Muslims, black and other, when we’re talking about saving people whose lives are in danger.

What are your thoughts on the impact of Muslim refugees on American society?

AG: Germany allowed entry to close to one million Muslims. Most are not from Syria, but are from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa. About 80-90% of these people are able-bodied young people, who are not escaping from war, but choosing a better life. They do not care for assimilation.

They live in enclaves, in suburbs such as outside Paris. They cannot afford to live elsewhere. This complicates the problem of assimilation and fosters radicalization. These are police “no go” zones. Muslim community peer pressure enforces a rigid form of piety.

DD: I think Islam, at least the way it is taught in almost all Muslim countries, is the problem, not the Muslims. I’m more concerned about the Muslim schools and mosques, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia, that indoctrinate the followers with Islamic supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideology. I have an employee who is a Muslim from India who was confiding to me that he could not find a mosque that followed the moderate version that he was used to in India.

I do think that American citizenship requires acceptance of American law. I was catching a flight back from Detroit a few months ago, and I was stuck behind a Muslim lady who was trying to board with a full niqab (a full-body covering, with only the eyes visible). I think requiring that level of acceptance in America is unreasonable.

ED: The problem facing Europe and the U.S. has fundamentally to do with the nature of Islam. Islam had a golden period in the Middle Ages: the sciences, mathematics and medicine coming out of the vast Islamic lands were far superior to anything comparable in Medieval Europe. But, Islamic societies have hit the wall.

A glorious past, but nothing to show these days despite its oil wealth in parts of the Islamic world. The Islamic world resembles a person who has a glorious lineage, but he or she today has nothing to show for it. The Islamic lands have tried all the “isms” out there — socialism, nationalism, communism and capitalism — yet they are behind in every facet.

Does the resettlement of Muslims differ between the United States and Europe?

AG: In the U. S., there is more opportunity to be part of the “melting pot” because of the American approach to life and liberty and to our greater tolerance for diversity. (Note: In the Arab Middle East, there is no tolerance for diversity.)

DD: I’m a bit conflicted. On the one hand, being an Orthodox Jew, I understand the desire to maintain one’s cultural identity. On the other hand, we Jews, or other similar groups such as the Amish, do not try to impose our way of life on others or resort to violence if our religious sensitivities are offended. I think the U.S. has been somewhat more successful than Europe in absorbing Muslims.

Having experienced the indoctrination that goes on in Muslim countries — having attended a public school — I think there is a clash of civilizations. That said, many Muslims who are trying to migrate to the U.S. and Europe are also escaping the repressive culture. We somehow need to be open to the moderate Muslims and those escaping repression, while fighting the Islamic supremacist ideology, including the institutions and people that promote it here.

ED: These societies are imploding as demonstrated by the Arab Spring. Folks are fleeing them and moving to the heartlands of nations that colonized them in the past, or others, like the U.S. and Canada, that have sheltered them.

In Europe overall, immigrants from Islamic lands are reminded on a daily basis — by self-comparison — how backward they are. Those coming from male-dominated cultures are baffled by the sexual morality of their adopted countries, freedom of thought and generational gaps.

In Europe, as well as in their home countries, the elixir for all the miseries and jealousy has been a return to a misunderstood and over-glorified past. If only Shariah and Koranic rule were in place, then they would be back as great or greater than their glorious ancestors. Islam has to confront itself and modernize. The Jews have done that successfully over the ages.

The frustrated, damaged “refugee” clinging to the unreformed Islam of his ancestors is a time bomb, as demonstrated in Paris, Brussels, Tunisia and elsewhere. Iranians represent the largest non-American ethnic group in the ranks of professors in American colleges and universities. These are the children of the “westernized” and secularized Iranians dating back to the advances under the Pahlavi regime.

This is not about immigration or refugee resettlement, but rather about time-traveling — folks moving from the Middle Ages to the 21st century and their ability to adapt. Eastern Jews made the leap when they moved to Israel. Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees adapted. The Muslim communities sending their kids to madrassas in Minnesota, California, Michigan, New York and Tennessee haven’t, and they are ticking time bombs. The problem is Islam being stuck in the mud of the Middle Ages and dragging into the earth those clinging to that version of it.

Political correctness and the mediocre state of “liberal” education and the fact that we see everything from the prism of the 60’s racial-equality battles have robbed us of the ability to think and analyze. The problem is not immigration or refugee resettlement, but rather a poisoned and dying Islam that, unless it reforms itself, will take down its own adherents and those they come in contact with.

AG: Here, when you ask for directions in accented English, people go out of their way to help, even if by giving erroneous directions.

Chai, a Lifetime of Refugee Work

By Hannah Lee

     While social media fixates on the latest outrage over an iconic photo of a child washed ashore, Judi Bernstein-Baker has put in 18 years at the helm of an organization that has been assisting refugees for 134 years.  She led a small staff, funded by Jewish Federation to resettle Jews from Eastern Europe, and grew it into a multilingual, groundbreaking institution.  “Before, we helped Jewish refugees.  Now, we help refugees because we’re Jewish,” Judi proudly declared at the farewell luncheon on Wednesday.  True to her passion for her work, she declined a gala event in favor of the annual luncheon honoring many others for their work. 

     During her tenure, HIAS PA (formerly Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) has served over 36,000 refugees from over 100 countries.  In 2002, it established the Asylee Outreach Project, which remains the only program of its kind in Pennsylvania.  It expanded its Immigrant Youth Advocacy Initiative in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America, some as young as two.  It is part of the Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience to assist survivors of torture and the Victims of Interpersonal Violence Initiative to promote healing and self-reliance for victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, and other violent crimes.

      Among the people honored at the event were Michael Matza for his courageous coverage of migration issues at the Inquirer and Helen Gym, Councilwoman at Large, for her passionate championship of the segments of the population who are marginalized from skilled care and public resources.  It concluded with remarks by Cathryn Miller-Wilson, the incoming Executive Director.

     How did Judi come by her passion?  According to long-time board member, Adele Lipton, it was in Judi’s genes.  Both of their mothers came as young girls, at age 14 and 15, from Poland, arriving on steerage.  They were both greeted by HIAS.  They were both told repeatedly by their mothers, that if it were not for HIAS, they would not be alive now.

     In 1939, quoted Judi from HIAS archives, two-thirds of Americans wanted no more refugees, including the 10,000 children awaiting visas from Eastern Europe.  Now, we have governors and presidential candidates who want to close our borders.  Last month, HIAS PA resettled 53 refugees.  It is a world that is worse off for many people, with 60 million people displaced from their homes. 


A Hunger for Learning

By Hannah Lee

On Tuesday night, I attended a viewing of the documentary film, Refugee Kids, about an American program set up for refugee children.  Run by the International Rescue Committee (founded by Albert Einstein to rescue Jewish refugees), the Refugee Youth Summer Academy transforms 120 kids speaking 26 languages from the world’s hot spots – Iraq, Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan – from “tongue-tied newcomers into confident, savvy New Yorkers” over the course of the six-week program.

We meet Helen, a 16-year-old Burmese refugee, who effortlessly translated from English to Burmese to Chin to Thai to Nepali.  There is Tek Nath, who in his first six months in America, did more than most adults: He leased the family apartment, translated for the surgeons operating on his brother’s heart, applied for the family’s green cards, opened bank accounts, and tutored both parents and younger siblings in English – and all the while maintaining straight A’s in his school work.  And this from a 17-year-old who had spent his entire life in a rural Nepalese refugee camp where he had virtually no English instruction. 

We meet George from Liberia who lost both parents at a very early age and was raised in Staten Island where he was confronted with the brutality of gang violence but has still emerged as a student mentor, exhibiting leadership skills.  There are also the siblings who faced long separations from their families: Rigzin and Tashi from Tibet who are reunited with their parents in Brooklyn after eight years spent at the Dalai Lama’s refugee school in India; and Ida and Jennifer from Togo who were raised by their aunt and encountered an unforeseen family tragedy — fire and death of a young sister– upon their arrival in the Bronx. 

The directors, Renee Silverman and Peter Miller, added to their footage with interviews in the children’s homes and in their communities.  The children narrated their often harrowing back stories in hand-drawn pictures, which were animated by the talented Brian O’ConnellLiz Swados, the beloved composer, recorded an original score before her untimely death.  The editor Aaron Vega wove the many stories together into a cogent, short film as his last project before winning a seat as American state legislator where he now serves in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Refugee Kids is the second film by Silverman and Miller, following their teen Holocaust theater story, Sosua: Make a Better World.  Miller writes, “It’s something of a miracle that we were able to shoot, edit, and complete Refugee Kids for what might be the lunch budget of normal film, but we were blessed with generous and talented friends.”

The screening at Rodeph Shalom was sponsored by HIAS PA and the American Jewish Committee.  HIAS PA runs a similar summer tutoring program, and it welcomes volunteer tutors and donations of books.

Book Chat With Lev Golinkin

By Hannah Lee

As a student in college, Lev Golinkin confided in his professor that he had no future.  No, the professor concurred, it’s worse, because he also had no past.  As a 9-year-old refugee from the Ukraine, Golinkin had suppressed his cultural identity, both in order to assimilate and to erase a painful childhood in a region of the former Soviet Union where anti-Semitism was particularly virulent.  He then realized that he had to reconcile his past with his present in order to determine his future, so he spent several years researching his family’s journey. 

When the Golinkin family fled their home, they knew only to go to a particular train station in Vienna.  They knew no one and they had to rely on the kindness of strangers.  Golinkin tracked down everyone who’d helped his family, including the non-Jewish woman who met them at the train station.  He has high praise for two Jewish organizations—  the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee— both known only by their acronyms in a foreign language. HIAS and JDC.  His research resulted in a memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, and it is the choice for this year’s One Book, One Jewish Community project.  In its ninth year, this is the largest event of this kind in the United States.  He spoke at Gratz College on Sunday to a full auditorium. 

Golinkin still marvels at the expeditiousness of the Soviet Jewry exodus.  In latter months of 1989, compelled by rumors of an impending pogrom, 90,000 Jews fled the former Soviet Union. The next year, 100,000 Jews left their homeland.  The Jewish communities of the United States and Israel mobilized to adopt (with legal obligations) and absorb all these people.   We did it so well that it went under the radar for the general media and it was not a political football.

Asked why did his family not go to Israel, Golinkin said that being estranged from the religious tradition, they had no compulsion to do so.  They merely sought a place where there was a lesser chance of their home being hit by missiles.  In choosing a college, he wanted a good one but without a Judaic Studies program. He chose Boston College, a Catholic Jesuit school, because it was known by its double adjectives, so he thought it was like “extra crispy”–  Catholic, extra special.  Then his conversation with his professor led to his Jewish awakening.

Russian Jews are not known to affiliate with the Jewish establishment, either here or in Israel.  This is in part the result of generations of intense anti-Semitism, such that little Lev thought being a Jew was only a disease, a burden on Russian society.  However, his nephew is growing up a member of the American Jewish community, so he foresees progress for the second generation of immigrants.  This is good news for all the individuals and organizations who’ve invested so much time and resources to rescuing the Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Golinkin now feels most Jewish when he’s doing good with his hands, building houses and other kinds of community service.   He speaks in public about immigration and he writes editorials about the current refugee crises.  He’s most proud when Jews help non-Jews, as HIAS now helps to re-settle Syrian refugees.  Judi Bernstein-Baker, Executive Director of HIAS-PA, was on hand to receive the new backpacks and stuffed animals collected at the event, and she told me that A Backpack, A Bear, and Eigth Crates of Vodka is the first narrative about the Soviet Jewry exodus from the point of view of the Russian émigrés.  Finally, we get their perspective.