Different is not dangerous

When Donald Trump, Jr. callously compared Syrian refugees to poisoned Skittles, he further degraded our debased national conversation and firmly situated himself in a long American tradition of dehumanizing immigrants and refugees. Now is the time to counter this kind of hate and exclusion with love and inclusion.

Inflammatory language about people who are perceived as “different” or “dangerous” is neither new nor surprising, yet it both unnerves me, and riles me to fight.

My grandparents were Lithuanian Jews who fled their homeland in the early 20th century when the country was gripped by a stark escalation of anti-Semitism. Threatened, they had hoped to immigrate to the United States, but they could not, due to a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish sentiment that had swept the United States after World War I. At that time, the doors to this great nation were slammed shut to most Eastern European Jews, so my grandparents fled to South Africa.

Half a century later, my family left South Africa during the height of apartheid, seeking to live in a more just society where the values of democracy, respect, and diversity would nourish us and shape our lives. We came to the United States, to the very place my grandparents had hoped to make their home years earlier.

Throughout U.S. history, voices of intolerance have characterized Jews and others as a threat to American society and its dominant culture. Jews were sometimes depicted as diseased, dirty, dark, swarthy, hook-nosed, politically dangerous, and avaricious. And while Jews were singled out, they were not alone. Similar stereotypes were used against Italian and Irish immigrants, many of them Roman Catholics. Today, Muslims are identified and are compared to poisoned pieces of candy.

I wish we were living in a time when denigrating human beings for their ethnicity, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin was a vestige of the past. But today, an onslaught of hate is relentless, targeting people in the United States and around the world.

In my travels throughout the developing world, I’ve witnessed this kind of hatred in places like Burma, where members of the Rohingya people — a Muslim ethnic minority — have been subject to relentless violence and forced into internment camps simply because of their ethnic origin. Thousands of Rohingya have been driven into overcrowded and unsafe boats in the Andaman Sea — in need of food, water, basic supplies, and a temporary place to call home. Many have died horrible deaths and others have been trafficked to Thailand and Malaysia where their futures remain uncertain. The world is standing by while these atrocities continue against people simply because they are different from their neighbors.

I’ve witnessed this hatred take root in the Dominican Republic where more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent have been stripped of their citizenship because of their Haitian ancestry. Many of these people, who trace their families’ presence in the Dominican Republic back more than 85 years, have had their citizenship revoked from the only country they’ve ever known as home. They’re now guaranteed no civil rights, no freedom of movement, no right to due process in any court in the world, no access to essential government services, health care or education, and nowhere to call home. They also face violence, the threat of deportation, detention, and exile.

Members of We Are All Dominican (WAAD) and reconoci.do march at the Dominican Day Parade in New York City, advocating for citizenship rights for Dominicans of Haitian descent. Photo by Angela Cave

And I’ve seen this hatred take root in Uganda, where LGBT people are routinely denied healthcare, jobs, educational opportunities, and basic public services simply because of who they are or whom they love. In an environment of escalating violence and homophobia — where it is likely that the Ugandan parliament will pass another anti-homosexuality law — living an authentic life as openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender becomes a calculation of risk and consequence.

Sandra (pictured) is the Chairperson of the National LGBT Security Committee in Uganda and coordinates a hotline for reporting abuses against LGBTI people. Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

As a Jew, I know that this kind of exclusion and hate are crimes against our common humanity. My grandparents’ experiences of oppression and my family’s fight against apartheid motivate me to work for justice. As we build the kind of world we want to live in, we cannot allow our leaders to demean those who are on the margins — including today’s refugees. To quote the late Elie Wiesel, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”

In our globalized, interconnected world, we must join with people in every country who are working to build just societies anchored by democratic values, informed by human rights and guided by respect for the dignity of every person. The solution is not to wall off countries and borders, demonize people who are forced to flee or compare them to poison pills. We need to create a world in which no one is forced to flee simply because of who they are or what they believe.