In the shadow of the Tree of Life – A Personal Reflection

When we fail to hold our leaders accountable for their incitement to hate and their lack of just and moral action, we create powerful narratives that turn people into dehumanized masses to be feared and discarded.
Image by Zoran Kokanovic. Unsplash.

A few years ago, the Steinberg family – descendants of Jewish immigrants to Canada from my native Hungary - established a fellowship in migration law and policy at McGill. As a Steinberg Fellow, I am here because of their support and dedication to this cause.

This dedication is not only timely and needed, but it is intrinsic to Jewish identity, remembering that we were all sojourners once and that one of the most frequent commands in the Hebrew Scriptures relate to the treatment of the stranger among us. Both my Christian faith and my Jewish heritage (a very common mixture in the European diaspora of mixed-families) have inscribed these commands and the memory of persecution and deliverance firmly in my mind. Our family motto has been “Eben Haezer” (Stone of Hope) – inscribed on our old homestead as a reminder that "thus far the Lord has helped us" (1 Sam 7:12). Advocacy for the "other", the persecuted has been part of my family history.

These two inseparable aspects of work and identity came into sharp and painful focus after the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27. The shooter attacked not merely based on his virulent antisemitism, but specifically cited the work of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the many false narratives about "invading" refugees and migrants, that are a hallmark of the current US administration's policies and messaging. I have spent the better part of the last decade in the United States; this tragedy and its implications hit particularly close to home.

The return of old narratives and lethal tropes

People forget that for decades before the Holocaust, consistent political propaganda (building on age-old antisemitism) created the demonized caricature of the rootless cosmopolitan "Jew" as a threat to a nation, specifically its cohesion, identity and security. We forget that during those decades, Jews across Europe were politically typecast as seemingly "legitimate" security threats and by extension "legitimate" targets.

We see this echoed in many similar sweeping narratives about "Muslims" or "migrants" as a whole nowadays. When we let our leaders and, by extension our societies, get away with trafficking in lies, calling displaced people an "invading army" (whether in 2015 Hungary, or pre-Brexit Britain, or 2018 USA) why are we surprised when someone takes matters into their own hands? When our leaders deliberately resist speaking up against white nationalism and use old anti-Semitic tropes in their campaigns, they allow for the kind of lethal combination of antisemitism and anti-migrant violence that we saw in Pittsburgh.

In Hungary: framing human rights activism as a subversive political movement

Part of the reason this incident was so poignant to me has to do with the current political and legislative moves back in Hungary. Since the migrant crisis of 2015, the government has made targets of civil society organizations and activists. This particularly affects those involved in migration related advocacy, with the introduction of special punitive immigration taxes and the criminalization of aiding asylum seekers.

The Hungarian government has typecast much of human rights activism as a subversive political movement aimed at undermining the “nation state”. Action against such activists is deemed necessary and in the national interest. The related government campaign and legislation was dubbed “Stop Soros”, in reference to the known Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, but the impact goes far beyond the work of his Open Society Foundation.

In reality, most of the targeted NGOs have been bulwarks of basic democratic values and human rights, holding governments from all sides of the political spectrum accountable over the past decades. This has made them natural targets and consistent political messaging is paying its dark dividends in policy and social discourse. Today, the term "migrant" (or "migráns") has become the new slur used by children on playgrounds, or commuters on a bus. We have now graduated from the "dirty Jew" and the "dirty gypsy" to the "dirty migrant".

We are seeing the reemergence of some of the same old methods of exclusion and “othering” that were used across Europe before the Holocaust and, for that matter, during the darkest years of the various communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc. We know where this leads.

In the USA: the activism needed cannot be partisan

Americans must also reckon with just how far they have let "the dogs of war slip” from their leashes within their own society. It is not enough to count on the resilience of institutions and American exceptionalism to self-correct. The activism needed is no longer of a partisan nature as we recognize that self-evident truths about the dignity of each human life can turn to dust should we fail to reaffirm them at every turn.

Egregious executive utterances turn into egregious executive orders which overnight strip immigrant families of their basic rights and children. When we fail to hold our leaders accountable for their incitement and lack of just and moral action, we create powerful narratives that turn people into dehumanized masses to be feared and discarded. Such narratives were directly echoed in the sentiments expressed by the killer that Saturday.

The fact that eleven mostly senior Jewish worshipers were killed on a Sabbath morning in an American synagogue reminds me of my grandfather. His devout Christianity, being born into and becoming the patriarch of our large Lutheran family, defined his life and work. But he was also born Jewish on his mother’s side and the devastating effects of the anti-Semitic laws and persecution would not spare him and many members of his family the fear, pain and loss that followed.

My grandfather survived the Holocaust and lived to be just a few month short of 100. He never much wanted to address his Jewish heritage, in part because of the personal trauma and loss it meant for him, in part to keep the remainder of his family safe. He never felt that the danger completely passed. It was an age-old mechanism of hiding in plain sight, of things you do not speak of and hardly acknowledge to yourself in order to survive. The killings in Pittsburgh might have reinforced grandfather’s determination to protect all of us by suppressing an important part of our identity and heritage. To paraphrase Nicolas Abraham: “What haunts are not [only] the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”

The difficult and necessary task of creating refuge for everyone

The truth however is that there is no refuge for anyone unless we create a refuge for everyone. This is a difficult and necessary task. In fact, despite his well-founded fear, my grandfather provided the best example to us in this struggle. Even during the Second World War, while being hidden in plain sight by the help of a military officer, he could not resist helping those less fortunate, much to the chagrin of his generous benefactor.

My grandparents faced ongoing persecution after the war, under communism. As practicing Christians, teachers and leaders in their community, they were once again in the crosshairs of authorities. They remained active in an increasingly suppressed civil society, welcomed the outcasts to their household and no member of the family ever joined the Communist Party, which carried serious consequences. They endured political blacklisting, the consequent loss of jobs and forced relocation among others - never on the “right side” of politics, ever the sojourners in this world. This activism, continued by my parents’ generation, is now in our hands.

Whether the target is a mosque in Quebec, a synagogue in Pennsylvania or the millions without shelter and home in this world, this work has never been more important. My grandfather may have harbored trauma and fear until his death, but that only made his courage and commitment to humanity during his life more pronounced and gave all of his descendants an example to follow.

I may never get to meet members of the Steinberg family due to the recent tragic deaths within their family these past couple of years. However, I do hope to make the most of their gift and honor their legacy while honoring that of my own family with the work that we do at McGill.

About the author

Edit FrenyóEdit Frenyó, a Steinberg Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill's Faculty of Law (September 2018 - June 2019), works in the areas of Transnational Family Law, Migration Studies, Human Rights and Children’s Rights. She holds an LL.M. from Boston College Law School and an S.J.D from Georgetown University Law, where her doctoral research explored the contemporary phenomena of transnational families, and the multiple challenges to childcare faced by families of labor migrants, primarily within the European Union.

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