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Huddled Masses: Sanctuary for Afghanistanis in America

We all saw it. Again. Nearly 700 Afghanistanis packed into a C-17 on August 15, 2021, sitting on the aircraft’s floor and hoping the giant plane could get on the only working runway in Kabul even as the tarmac was swelling with thousands of their fellow citizens fleeing from the Taliban.

Unfortunately, we have seen it before. A helicopter perched on a tower in Saigon on April 29, 1975 with scores of people trying to get on the aircraft to flee from the victorious Communists. American military and foreign policy in ruin and reduced to a tiny perimeter protected by a thin line of indescribably courageous Marines.

These are moments of defeat etched in our mind, which also should remind us that our national – humanitarian obligations to our friends, supporters and collaborators continue despite the horrendous failures of some of our international programs and policies. These moments also remind us of the need for a sane, humane immigration policy, which relights the torch of liberty and the obligation to receive huddled masses with open arms.

Today, the United States is a country of over 330 million people of whom about 45 million are immigrants. We have more immigrants per capita than any other country in the world, perhaps with the exception of Israel, which was built on the Zionist dream of a worldwide return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. For American immigrants, it is a dream of going to a new homeland unevenly dedicated to the absorption and advancement of its immigrant population.

I was unable to find exactly how many immigrants have come to the United States since July 4, 1776. We did not even keep records of newly arriving immigrants until 1850 at which point there were 2.2 million immigrants in a country of 23 million people of whom 3.2 million people were slaves. The largest immigrant group in the United States today is Mexican (11 million), followed by China (2.9 million) and India (2.6 million).

Because of multiple factors including immigration, the percentage of white Americans has been dropping steadily for decades. In 1950, nearly 90% of Americans were white. As recently as 1980, the white population constituted 60% of the national total. Within three decades or less, the majority of Americans will no longer be of European origin.

We can see the changes taking place before our own eyes. When we (the Sussman’s) moved to Elkins Park in 2001, I was struck by the large number of Koreans in our area. Nationally, there are about 1.8 million Korean Americans. Near the area where we now live in Center City Philadelphia, there are also a large number of Vietnamese Americans. Their national total exceeds 2 million and like with Korean Americans, their move to America was directly tied to American foreign policy.

What about Jewish immigration to America? In this area, we mostly think about the Great Migration of 1880 to 1920, which brought 2 million Jews to the United States. However, Jewish immigration to the United States is not just a thing of the past. After the Holocaust, about 600,000 Jewish survivors sought refuge in the United States. Today there are also about 500,000 Soviet Jews in this country. There are also about 140,000 Israeli American Jews and another 170,000 American Jews who have at least one Israeli parent, not to mention new Jewish arrivals in America from Columbia, Iran and South Africa. Indeed, both immigration and Orthodox fecundity are helping to grow the American Jewish communities today.

Now we are looking at the arrival of Afghanistanis (although many are seeking refuge in other countries). Afghanistanis first arrived in the United States in the 1860s but did not receive protected status until the 21st century. Right now, given the chaos in Kabul, only a few thousand Afghanistanis have been able to escape. Those numbers will surely grow and it is possible, in my opinion, that we will have as many as 200,000 Afghanistanis here in the US within a few years, not a huge number by historical American standards.

Not surprisingly, none of them will be Jewish as there are basically no Jews left in Afghanistan although there are about 10,000 Afghanistani Jews. In Israel. Years ago, I attended an Afghanistani synagogue in Jerusalem for Purim but did not learn much about their community. As Americans, we are going to learn more about Afghanistani life and culture in the next few years. America has a tremendous capacity to absorb immigrants, especially immigrants who are well-established friends and supporters of the United States.

At this time, we need to get people safely to the Kabul airport, planes in the air and valid visas into the hands of our friends and their families. After that, who knows? There will be complex questions about resistance in Afghanistan, Afghanistan as a global center for terrorism and the fate of the people of Afghanistan, men, women and children. Our dangerous world just became a little darker and we need to remain strong, courageous and humane when the chips are down and we are still holding some of the best cards in the deck.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.