Why World Refugee Day is a Jewish Holiday

06/19/2015 01:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

It is impossible to avoid the stories of massive human displacement from Burma, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan, and hordes of boat migrants dying in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. However, if you want to avoid these unpleasant, disturbing stories, look no further than the Jewish press. There was a time when refugees were a front-page issue for the American Jewish community. That is no longer the case, and we must do better.

The UN Refugee Agency announced today that the number of refugees and displaced persons in the world has reached a staggering 59.5 million, almost double what it was in 2005, and higher than at any time since World War II. Yet the U.S. refugee resettlement ceiling has remained the same -- 70,000. That's one refugee for every 4,557 Americans. Last year, each American citizen spent $4.39 in taxpayer money to help refugees overseas.

Let's commemorate World Refugee Day on June 20 by showing that, as a country founded by refugees, and as a people who know what it is like to be refugees, we can and should do much better. Because we were refugees too.

The refugee crisis today seems overwhelming. Neither American Jews nor the United States can solve the world's refugee problems by ourselves. We cannot stop the hatred that causes refugees to flee. We cannot resettle all refugees to the Unites States. In fact, only 1 percent of the world's refugees are resettled.

We can, however, demand that Congress and the president (1) provide significantly more assistance to refugees to keep them safe where they are, (2) welcome more refugees to our shores who are not safe where they are, and (3) sanction those countries that fail in their duty to protect refugees.

A refugee is a person like anyone else -- but a person who felt he or she had no better option than to flee his or her homeland or face persecution due to religion, political opinion, ethnicity, nationality, or social group.

World Refugee Day is a Jewish holiday because the Jewish story is the refugee story. But it is not just about us remembering that we were once refugees. It is about us fulfilling the solemn pledge that never again will refugees be turned over to their persecutors, like the passengers of the ship the St. Louis were 76 years ago this month.

Just in the past three months, the plight of the thousands of Rohingya desperately seeking safety and freedom aboard far less seaworthy boasts than the St. Louis has been a staunch reminder that our community knows the refugee struggle all too well. Yet unlike the Rohingya, the 915 Jews who were returned aboard the St. Louis did not have the benefit of the protection of the Refugee Convention. Unfortunately, today's Rohingya have not had the ability to fully exercise their fundamental right to seek and enjoy asylum.

When Congress slammed shut the United States' golden door to immigrants, the American Jewish population had soared from 250,000 to 3.5 million. The growth is due to Jewish refugees -- your parents, grandparents and great grandparents.

At Passover every year, we remember the Jewish refugee Exodus from Egypt, and the Torah reminds us 36 times to love the stranger, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt. But Jews do not have to look back thousands of years to remember that we were refugees.

How should we celebrate World Refugee Day? Let's start by showing that we truly care about refugees. U.S. politicians largely regard the American Jewish community as focused on a single issue: Israel. Indeed, before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, American Jews were focused on refugees. With the refugee issues "solved" for Jews, we moved on.

But refugees haven't gone away. There are more today than ever before. Should we stop caring about refugees just because Jewish refugees are now guaranteed a place to go? Our community has paid little attention to the issue, and the Jewish press has not given it much attention. Given the history and the values of our community, we must do more to address the global refugee crisis.