In 1939, 907 Jewish refugees made the harrowing journey to Canada aboard the transatlantic liner, the St. Louis. Women. Children. Innocent people. They were, of course, seeking life. Life which was promptly denied by the Canadian Government of Mackenzie King as they were turned back to Germany to be tortured, raped, gassed, murdered. Because they were Jews. As many people believe about Syrians and Iraqis running for their lives today, it was widely believed at the time that Jews could not conform to the laws of the land and could not change their cultural and religious beliefs in order to assimilate into Canadian society.
Only 5,000 Jewish refugees were permitted to enter Canada during the twelve years of the Nazi regime. I remember learning, as a child, about Prime Minister Mackenzie King and my country's general policy of "none is too many". Learning that I was one of the too many. I can still feel the distinct sting of that betrayal.
Today, people in positions of leadership and power are equating refugees with the terrorists they are fleeing simply because they are Muslims. Indeed, the only correlation between the Syrian and Iraqi refugees and the Paris murderers is that they identify as Muslims. It appears that most and possibly all of the terrorists in Paris were Belgian and French nationals. Nevertheless, many continue to conflate the two and to urge our governments to close our doors. Like the statesmen of 1938, including the American President at the time, they see a fifth column among the sea of the suffering.
The cruelty of ISIL is matched only by its shrewd assessment of the West. The masterminds of the Paris attacks were keenly aware of the seething anti-Muslim bigotry that bubbles just below the surface of our society. This knowledge allowed them to recruit us in their mission, to make us an accessory to the operation, which continues to play out. Like all ISIL operations, the intention of Paris was not a hit-and-run styled murder. It was thoughtful, intended to invoke psychological and emotional pain, intended to threaten the very ideals we presume to be fighting for, undercutting. It was intended to confirm for these refugees that they cannot escape the long-reaching arm of ISIL; that even if their children have escaped the blades of ISIL's swords, they will not escape the West's leveraged hatred in what is becoming a two-front war against these victims. It was intended to make us live up to the cruel effigy of the West that ISIL propagates to their followers, to use our reaction to the refugees as promotional material in their recruitment endeavors and radicalization agenda.
Our fear and hatred of the "other" is so dependable that they factored it into their strategy so that, once again, innocents will be delivered into the hands of murderers.
A fake Syrian passport left at the scene of the attack by one of the attackers was all that was needed. A moment of common sense reflection should have suggested that this was a mere ploy to stigmatize innocent refugees who had escaped the grasp of ISIL. The attacker certainly wouldn't need it where he was going. Moments after the passport emerged, experts and academics took to the media telling us that it would have been uncharacteristic and inefficient for ISIL to smuggle its own through the refugee channels rather than activate an agent already abroad, because as we learned from the Paris attackers, many members of ISIL hold Western passports. Not that this reasoning would have any bearing on those eager to justify their hatred. A fake passport. Almost childish in its simplicity.
But they believed it would be enough. These murderers believed that all they needed was to provide the spark. We had prepared the kindling on the hearth. They believed that we would lay the blame at the refugees' feet in spite of ISIL's agenda of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims. They believed that our assessment of the fault would ignore the fact that 130 innocent Muslim civilians killed at the hands of ISIL in Syria and Iraq is a number that has long been deemed too small to warrant an international headline. They believed that we would be blind to the orphans, the amputees, the families and see only Muslims. That we would equate the term Muslim -- the belief system of 1.6 billion people on this earth -- with the term terrorist. Our fear and hatred of the "other" is so dependable that they factored it into their strategy so that, once again, innocents will be delivered into the hands of murderers.
The ease with which so many of us surrender the very ideals we purport to be fighting for is chilling. This war against ISIL is a battle for our humanity. And victory begins with self-reflection. It begins with understanding the toxicity within our society. If we fail to recognize and address the hatred and the bigotry within that allows us to become the tools of our worst enemies, we are, in fact, executing our intended role in their operation.
For this one of many reasons, we must open our hearts and our doors to these innocent victims. If we become the slaves of our own reactions, mindlessly firing no matter at whom we direct our scourge, abandoning our humanity, equating the murderers with those they have murdered, then we have become foot soldiers in their holy war and there remains no battle left to fight. We lose this war by allowing the cancer of this hatred to expand until those values we seek to protect become unrecognizable. Until we become unrecognizable.
I listen to the vitriol spouted at Muslims. I read headlines telling me that my fellow citizens have been attacked in our streets, that mosques have been burned. And I find myself on the St. Louis in 1939. I imagine myself holding my seasick shaking child, revoking the promises of a merciful new land, telling her that perhaps this world is not meant for the innocent. I imagine how I would pray to my God for mercy as Canadian authorities redirect us to the Nazi ovens.
One day, when my child will ask me why the Jews were turned away and sent to their deaths, as I asked my own mother, how will I be prepared to answer? How will I ever again utter the words, "Never Again," if I do not help today?
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