Afghan allies in hiding, executed in the street — Jewish people know this haunting story

The clock is ticking. As an American Jew, a rabbi, and the CEO of an organization trying to get the families of our staff out of Afghanistan, the bell tolls with every passing second.

The season of reflection and reconciliation is upon us. Our names are being inscribed for life or death.

Americans must make good on our pledge and take concrete, immediate action to get these Afghan families and allies out. President Joe Biden must direct his administration to create an expedited process to evacuate them. This is a moment when we can not wait until all the details are worked out.

I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been for those left behind to see the gates at the Kabul airport shut and the last flight leave, knowing they would face the danger ahead alone.

The last member of Afghanistan's Jewish community left the country this week. Yet there remain so many other people, our Muslim allies, who need help. In-text messages and voicemail we received, the desperation is palpable: We are left behind, they tell us. The gates are closed. The roads are unsafe. We are in hiding. Please help us, they beg.

I have heard the audio messages of gunfire in the streets. In a terrified call from a family in Panjshir province Tuesday we were told the Taliban dragged all males aged 10 to 65 from their homes and executed them in the street. Children as young as 10 years old murdered just for existing. 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's like to fear for the death of our children. These families are in danger because of their work with the United States government and our military.

Our staff feels helpless. They’ve been working tirelessly to save 123 people, many of whom are family members of our team. Seventy-three of them are children forced to play a deadly game of hide and seek with the Taliban. In voice messages from Kabul, I’ve heard children's hushed laughter in the background even as their parents talked in despair.

A Taliban soldier stands guard at the gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 5, 2021. Some domestic flights have resumed at Kabul's airport, with the state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines operating flights to three provinces.
A Taliban soldier stands guard at the gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 5, 2021. Some domestic flights have resumed at Kabul's airport, with the state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines operating flights to three provinces.

As a Jewish social service organization, our reaction to this crisis is urgent and familiar. There are painfully obvious echoes between what is happening in Afghanistan today and what our people endured leading up to the Holocaust. People are being hunted. Families in hiding. We heard of children executed in the street.

“Never forget” is a call to action, not just a suggestion to always remember. For our Jewish community, it doesn’t matter that we are trying to save Muslims. As our tradition teaches, “One who saves a single life, saves an entire world.”

As Americans, we have a moral obligation. All people of faith have a religious one as well. The call of history echoes loud today. “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible,” said Rabbi Joshua Heschel back in 1972. Those 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 colleagues in faith, as well as community leaders and heads of resettlement organizations, are mortified. We can’t accept the United States government isn't doing better. We must do better. We have the resources. We just need the will.

What is the actual plan to save lives?

This must not be reduced to politics. We don’t need vague promises. We don’t need to hear, “we are working on it.” We can’t settle for being directed to dead-end websites or email addresses to which no one responds.

We need to know what the plan is to save these people’s lives. Who has the authority to act? People need to be empowered, not left waiting for guidance.

We have no clear answers. We are improvising, communicating with Special Immigrant Visa families in safe houses. They’re scared and are in fear the world will move on after the spectacle of the U.S.'s hasty withdrawal. We owe it to them not to move on until they are safe.

Earlier this summer, the State Department created a staffing surge to help ease the passport backlog so people could take their summer vacations. Why isn’t the State Department creating an even larger staffing surge to process Special Immigrant Visas so we can save the lives of our families and friends who fought and worked with our troops and our government?

The Biden administration must finish the mission. The mission isn’t complete if we leave these people to die.

Rabbi Will Berkovitz in Seattle, Washington, in August 2020.
Rabbi Will Berkovitz in Seattle, Washington, in August 2020.

We don’t have the luxury of time. The longer this drags on, the more desperate those left behind will become. We can’t urge people to take dangerous overland routes based on rumor, speculation, or hope. Cut the bureaucracy and prioritize evacuating these refugees to any intermediary country. Create safe corridors and charter flights. Get the airport in Kabul reopened. At the very least help us determine what is fact and what is fiction.

Each of us should feel we are standing before the gates of repentance this season as the ram’s horn blows a final time. As we are sealed in the book of life or death, let us never forget we can give our allies a chance for life as well. The mission won’t be complete if we leave our allies to die. We will all be judged on both what we do and what we fail to even try.

Rabbi Will Berkovitz is the CEO of Jewish Family Service, a Seattle-based social services agency founded in 1892 that helps vulnerable individuals and families achieve well-being, health and stability.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abandoned in Afghanistan: People are being killed by the Taliban