Toronto Star | 06Sep2010 | Orest Slepokura

Israel to deport 400 foreign kids

That was the banner headline a month ago in the world media. Considering how routinely Rabbi Marmur goes to bat for the Jewish state, I wasn't at all surprised he had avoided mentioning Israel's decision to deport 400 of the children of its foreign workers. Were Canada deporting 400 children of its foreign workers, I'm sure he would've found a way to work it into his Welcome the Stranger op-ed, though.

Orest Slepokura
Toronto Star | 06Sep2010 | Dow Marmur

Marmur: Our duty to welcome strangers

In her book, After Such Knowledge, Eva Hoffman, who moved to Vancouver with her parents from their native Poland as a teenager and later lived in the United States before settling in Britain, has written -- probably from personal experience -- how the indigenous population often reacts to immigrants: “Well -- one can almost understand. Nobody likes to be saddled with inconvenient, needy people, or to be disturbed in the course of daily life by true tales of infernal torment.”

Canada has often been welcoming to newcomers, including refugees. The positive reception of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s comes to mind. But it hasn’t always been consistent. Writing about the ship of Tamil refugees that reached our shores recently, Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia refers to two tragic instances when Canada turned away people in similar circumstances.

In 1914, a Japanese ship brought 376 passengers from the Punjab. They were forced back to India where at least 19 of them were shot by police. In 1939, the St. Louis arrived in Halifax with some 900 Jewish asylum seekers fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Like Cuba and the United States, Canada refused to accept them and they had to be taken back to Europe. More than 200 of them were later murdered by the Nazis.

The story of that ship, soon to get its Canadian memorial, has become a metaphor for the plight of victims of persecution and prejudice and should be a lesson to us all. Yet many people in power still refuse to learn it. For example some politicians, be they engaged in the U.S. mid-term elections or in the Toronto mayoral race, seem to be tempted to exploit popular xenophobia by warning citizens against accepting newcomers. They implicitly play on the kind of sentiments Hoffman wrote about.

A straw poll in the online edition of this paper on Aug. 15 asked: “Should Canada intercept migrant boats and turn them away before they reach Canadian shores?” Seventy-eight per cent of the respondents said yes and only 16 per cent said no. The figures, though not authoritative, may nevertheless be more representative than we’d like to admit.

Even those who acknowledge that Canada has prospered because of its immigrants often appear to have only themselves and their forebears in mind.

The Hebrew Bible is sensitive to the propensity of yesterday’s newcomers to reject those who followed them. That’s why Scripture commands us to love strangers “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Though it may be expedient and reflective of human nature to keep out aliens, moral norms and religious principles obligate us to welcome all who seek shelter and safety.

The late French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, himself an immigrant, went even further. He argued persuasively that the other must always have precedence over myself, not because she or he is necessarily congenial or shares my opinions, but simply because she or he is there and needs me.

I’ve been an immigrant in six countries on three continents. My first move, on the day Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 -- an event I again marked last Wednesday as the birth of my anxiety neurosis -- and the second that took us to Siberia were both traumatic, especially for a child. My last two as an adult, including coming to Canada, were warm and welcoming. Knowing the difference makes me keenly aware of the perils of dislocation and the imperative to ease it.

Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple. His column appears every other week.