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We Must Move Beyond Rhetoric To Solve The Refugee Crisis

12/03/2015 03:04 EST | Updated 12/03/2016 05:12 EST
Milos Bicanski via Getty Images
IDOMENI, GREECE - DECEMBER 3: Stranded migrants gather at the Greek-Macedonian border December 3, 2015 near the northern village of Idomeni, Greece. Macedonian authorities are allowing only people from the war-wracked countries of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to cross from Greece on their way to other European Union countries, leading to protests from those from other countries who have been blocking the crossing for all since Wednesday. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, in commenting on the present Syrian refugee problem, is reported to have raised the following question as an illustration of the problem:

If you bought a five-pound bag of peanuts and you knew that in the five-pound bag of peanuts there were 10 peanuts that were deadly poison, would you let your children eat from this bag? A significant problem with Mr. Huckabee's analogy, though, is that there is a limited potential downside in withholding this bag of peanuts from the kids. In the case of the peanuts, the result would simply be that your children would not eat and enjoy the peanuts.

In the case of the Syrian refugees, though, it would mean that many human beings could suffer and potentially die. A better comparison would be to a situation where, for his health, you had to give your son a certain medicine but there is a slight chance, equal to 10 peanuts in a five-pound bag, that this very same medicine could make him much worse. What do you do -- damned if you do and damned if you don't? With serious thought, you could go in search of a third option!

Many of those who strongly support bringing in Syrian refugees also promote their viewpoints with oversimplifications of a complex situation. In a manner that touches me personally -- as a Rabbi and as a son of a Holocaust survivor -- many advance the cause of welcoming the Syrian refugees through a comparison to the shameful behaviour of countries which severely limited and even rejected the immigration of Jewish refugees from Europe into their lands prior to and even during the Second World War.

The argument would seem to be straightforward: we should not make a similar mistake again. Refugees need to be saved and we have seen the consequences of not meeting such a crisis, so we should clearly take in, to the extent that we can, these present Syrian refugees.

The challenge is, though, that in these present circumstances, there are life-and-death reasons to be concerned. Will enemies of our country and our way of life be hidden in the population of refugees, thereby gaining entry to our country and potentially causing harm? Within the Jewish refugee population of the Second World War, this would seem not to have been a serious concern, so we can fully critique those who rejected these refugees as having prejudiced and inequitable motives.

The present hesitation to simply accept refugees, however, is based on fearsome apprehensions. Again, it is a simplistic view of the situation that yields an uncomplicated response. A true assessment of the facts, however, yields a much more complex issue. Though the full-fledged comparison to the Holocaust falls short, clearly it should remind us of our unquestionable duty to all human beings in need. Again, damned if you do and damned if you don't. We must help and we must protect. Thought is again demanded for that third option.

There seems to be a desire within many people to avoid at all cost an acknowledgement of the true complexity of a given situation. Their difficulty is that such a recognition would leave them perplexed; they would not know what to do. In that an action in some way is still necessarily demanded, this inability to arrive at an easy answer and, subsequently, immediate, clear action directives results in anxiety, doubt and questioning.

The effect is often that people thus simply try to wash an issue in as simple terms they can to try to more easily define a solution. What we thus encounter is rhetoric, presentations in which only facts that support a desired conclusion (already determined because it matches one's inherent emotions), are presented.

One who wants to take in the Syrian refugees presents only the narrow facts and arguments that support such a conclusion. One who wants to refuse these refugees also only presents the narrow facts and arguments that support that conclusion. The true drawing of the complexity of the situation is not forthcoming; all you hear is misleading simplicity -- from both sides.

The demand of the public must be the true presentation of the situation's complexity with a recognition that it is only thereby that an honest and fully appropriate solution can be formulated. Of course, given this complexity, any proposed solution will still suffer from unknowns, but nonetheless the result will be a solution to the best of our abilities.

My first perception of what I was hearing in regard to the Syrian refugee problem was that most of what was being said was pure rhetoric. People simply had their solutions and spoke only to defend their positions.

What I am now beginning to hear are presentations that offer a greater recognition of the true complexity of the issue. The result is that, even though patience comes at a cost, patience must still be summoned as we try to work out the answers. This is what should be expected in dealing with complex issues. It demands serious analysis and time, to the extent possible.

We are positioned at a critical crossroads. Rhetoric has eyes shut; we must be open-eyed.

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