A Word In Edgewise: Leviticus and the Refugee Question


June, 1939. Offshore Florida, within view of the glowing lights of Miami, the 937 passengers of the Hamburg-America Line’s MS St. Louis waited and hoped. Refused entry to Cuba, their future now depended on the United States. But the passengers, German Jewish refugees, were refused sanctuary here as well; the ship was turned back toward Europe.

Today America has another chance to give sanctuary; to the thousands of children fleeing horrendous circumstances in their Central America homelands. While many clamor for immediate deportation, Fox News contributor George Will unexpectedly announced, “We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school, and get a job, and become American’…We have 3,141 counties in this country, that would be 20 per county…The idea that we can’t assimilate these eight-year-old criminals with their teddy bears is preposterous.”

Current photos of grown women, teeth bared, hurling invective taunts at youngsters mirrors images of housewives during the Little Rock, Arkansas, school desegregation proceedings in 1957 and again in 1960 Louisiana, at six-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges, the only African-American child enrolled in the William Franz School. Flanked by federal marshals, Ruby encountered one woman threatening to poison her, and another brandishing a black doll in a wooden coffin.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick recently suggested one possible solution: that two of his state’s military facilities serve as host sites for at least some of the many undocumented Central Americans. He recalled that our country has a history of helping children in need, saying, “We have rescued Irish children from famine, Russian and Ukrainian children from religious persecution, Cambodian children from genocide, Haitian children from earthquakes, Sudanese children from civil war, and New Orleans children from Hurricane Katrina.”

Referring to those St. Louis passengers, Patrick said, “Once, in 1939, we turned our backs on Jewish children fleeing the Nazis, and it remains a blight on our national reputation. The point is that this good Nation is great when we open our doors and our hearts to needy children, and diminished when we don’t.”

And Leviticus? Often misused and abused, but now heed 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

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