Jonathan Feldstein’s article, “The October I Didn’t Get Married” (November 3, 2022), was a fascinating and admirable account of the lengths—some legal and others not—to which he and other American Jews were willing to go to assist their brethren behind the Iron Curtain. Feldstein rightly urges wider education about the experience of Soviet Jews as “an essential chapter in our modern history as a people” and one about which many among us are completely unaware.
As I read, however, I found myself surprised and disturbed by an aside in which Feldstein dismisses the plight of modern-day, non-Jewish immigrants to the United States, some of whom arrive illegally, for what he calls “much less noble reasons.” This is a troubling generalization that echoes the way that Jews have been characterized over the millennia. As “wanderers,” Jews have been understood as a threat to mainstream, non-Jewish societies; persecution begets migration, which begets more persecution. Will we repeat this pattern, deploying it against other peoples? Or will we use our own communal experiences to develop a sense of empathy for them?
Eighteenth-century writers such as Adam Smith and David Hume explored the “moral sentiments,” arguing that empathy (what they called “sympathy” or “fellow-feeling”) arose from interactions in society with people who are different from us. As Hume wrote, “Compassion frequently arises, where there is no preceding esteem or friendship; and compassion is an uneasiness in the sufferings of another. It seems to spring from the intimate and strong conception of his sufferings; and our imagination proceeds by degrees, from the lively idea, to the real feeling of another’s misery.” Hume was no doubt familiar with the biblical precept of ve-ahavta la-re’aycha kamocha, to say nothing of the many times that the Chumash implores us to remember that we were strangers in a foreign land and must, therefore, extend kindness to strangers (https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/mishpatim/loving-the-stranger/). Let us try to understand the stories of others—including their stories of migration and persecution. Let us live, for a moment, with the sense of “uneasiness in the sufferings of another.” And then, let’s find the motivation to act on it.
I hope that considering the similarities between the plights of Soviet Jews and those who immigrate to the United States today—whether because of political repression, intractable poverty, violence, or some other cause in their country of origin—might lead to a different characterization of those immigrants.Rebecca Cypess