The clock is ticking. As an American Jew, rabbi, and executive director of an organization trying to get our staff families out of Afghanistan, the bell rings for every second that passes.
The season of reflection and reconciliation is upon us. Our names are inscribed on life or death.
The Americans must fulfill our promise and take concrete, immediate action to get these Afghan families and allies out. President Joe Biden must lead his administration to create an accelerated process to evacuate them. This is a moment where we can not wait until all the details are worked out.
I can not imagine how frightening it must have been for those left behind to see the gates of Kabul airport close and the last plane depart, knowing that they would face the danger ahead alone.
The last member of Afghanistan’s Jewish community left the country this week. Yet there are so many other people, our Muslim allies, who need help. We have received text messages and voicemail, the desperation is to take and feel: We are left behind, they tell us. The gates are closed. The roads are unsafe. We are in hiding. Please help us, they ask.
I’ve heard the audio messages about shots in the streets. In a terrifying call from a family in Panjshir province on Tuesday, we were told that the Taliban dragged all men aged 10 to 65 from their homes and executed them on the streets. Children as young as 10 years old murdered just to exist. Their blood is on our hands.
‘Never forget’ is a call to action
As Jews, we know this story all too well. We know what it is like to fear for the death of our children. These families are in danger because of their work with the U.S. government and our military.
Our staff feel helpless. They have worked tirelessly to save 123 people, many of whom are family members of our team. Seventy-three of them are children who are forced to play a deadly game of hide and seek with the Taliban. In voice messages from Kabul, I have heard children’s muffled laughter in the background, even as their parents spoke in despair.
As a Jewish social service organization, our response to this crisis is urgent and well-known. There are painfully clear echoes between what is happening in Afghanistan today and what our people endured up to the Holocaust. People are being hunted. Families in hiding. We heard about children being executed on the streets.
“Never forget” is a call to action, not just a suggestion to always remember. For our Jewish community, it does not matter that we try to save Muslims. As our tradition teaches, “He who saves a single life saves a whole world.”
As Americans, we have a moral obligation. Every believer also has a religious. The call of history resounds loudly today. “In a free society, some are guilty, but everyone is responsible,” Rabbi Joshua Heschel said back in 1972. These words are as true today as they were 50 years ago.
We will be judged by our actions or indifference. Our words or our silence. Many of my fellow believers, as well as community leaders and leaders of resettlement organizations, are appalled. We can not accept that the US government is not doing better. We need to do better. We have the resources. We just lack the will.
What is the real plan to save lives?
This must not be reduced to politics. We do not need vague promises. We do not need to hear, “we’re working on it.” We can not just be directed to blindfolded sites or email addresses to which no one responds.
We need to know what the plan is to save the lives of these people. Who has the authority to act? People need to be empowered, not left to wait for guidance.
We have no clear answers. We improvise and communicate with families with special immigrant visas in safe houses. They are afraid and fear that the world will move on after the spectacle of the United States’ hasty withdrawal. We do not owe it to them to move on until they are safe.
Earlier in the summer, the State Department set up a staff increase to help ease the backlog of passports so people can take their summer vacations. Why is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs not creating an even larger staff increase to process special immigrant visas so that we can save the lives of our families and friends who fought and worked with our troops and our government?
The Biden administration must complete the mission. The mission is not complete if we let these people die.
We do not have the luxury of the times. The longer it drags on, the more desperate the bereaved become. We can not encourage people to take dangerous routes over land based on rumors, speculations or hopes. Cut back on bureaucracy and prioritize evacuating these refugees to any stopover. Create safe corridors and charter flights. Get Kabul Airport reopened. Help us at least determine what is fact and what is fiction.
Each of us should feel like we are facing the gates of repentance this season while the ram’s horn blows one last time. Once we are sealed in the book of life or death, let us never forget that we too can give our allies a chance at life. The mission will not be complete if we let our allies die. We will all be judged on what we do and what we do not even try.
Rabbi Will Berkovitz is the executive director of the Jewish Family Service, a Seattle-based social services agency founded in 1892 that helps vulnerable individuals and families achieve well-being, health, and stability.