For U.S. Jews, a Double-edged Holocaust Precedent to Syrian Refugee Clash

In pre-World War II America, European Jews were criminals, Communists, anarchists or Nazi saboteurs coming to take over the country.

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People wait in line to enter the migrant and refugee registration camp in Moria, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, November 4, 2015.
People wait in line to enter the migrant and refugee registration camp in Moria, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, November 4, 2015.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The eight-deck, 16732-ton MS St. Louis was driven away from U.S. shores in May 1939, but in some ways it never really departed. The somber shadow of the German passenger ship that carried 908 Jewish refugees back to Europe looms large in America’s collective conscience, periodically reemerging in books, novels and newspaper articles. In 1976 the plight of the St. Louis was immortalized in the Hollywood movie Voyage of the Damned, with Max von Sydow as the illustrious German captain Gustav Schroeder. In 2015, the St. Louis re-launched once again, this time as a symbol meant to shame Republican conservatives who want to close America’s doors to Syrian refugees.

In his book, Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust, Robert Rosen claims that the legacy of the St. Louis is part fact and part mythology. True, the fleeing Jews weren’t allowed to alight in Cuba, the U.S., Canada or any other country in the Americas, but contrary to popular myth, they weren’t sent back to concentration camps or to Germany itself for that matter. Some 288 of the ship’s passengers were allowed to enter England and survived the war. While 620 others went to France, Belgium and Holland, which were not at war with Germany at the time. Ultimately 254 perished in the Holocaust, but two-thirds survived. President Franklin Roosevelt was in no position to convince an isolationist public or Congress to grant the St. Louis passengers safe sanctuary, but the White House collaborated with Jewish organizations in securing alternatives to their forced return to Germany.

Members of the Heldenmuth family board the SS St. Louis in Hamburg harbor, 13 may 1939.Credit: Wikipedia

Nonetheless, the St. Louis has once again returned to newspaper articles as a powerful reminder of the restrictionist, anti-immigration and at least partially anti-Semitic sentiments prevailing in America in the years leading up to the Second World War. Fueled by historical data on the negative attitude of public opinion towards immigration in the late 1930’s, tweeted to followers by Professor Peter Shulman of Case Western University under the handle @HistOpinion, America’s refusal to grant sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Nazis has been cast as the proper prism with which one should view the clash over the fate of Syrian refugees escaping ISIS.

The legacy of the closed-door policy, which did indeed condemn many Jews to death in Europe, has long generated overwhelming Jewish support for immigrants and for immigration reform. It was the impetus for American Jewry’s historic enlistment in the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry in the latter part of the last century, it underpins ongoing American Jewish support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and it is the backdrop to the opposition voiced by Jewish groups, before and after the ISIS attacks in Paris, to recent calls by Republican governors and presidential contenders to stop the entry of Syrian refugees, or to restrict it to Christians alone.

“We know what it means to be strangers in a strange land,” wrote Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president for community engagement at the refugee relief group HIAS, two weeks before the terror attacks. “For the first time in Jewish history, our community is mobilizing in force to help refugees – not because they are Jewish, but because we are.”

After the Paris attacks, Anti Defamation League National Director Jonathan Greenblatt admonished refugee-refusing governors, writing “The current refugee crisis in Europe is the worst since World War II. The Jewish community is particularly affected by the images of men, women and children forced to flee their homes only to find they are unwanted anyplace else.” And Reform Judaism’s Religion Action Center issued a statement saying “we urge public officials and figures across the U.S. to reject divisive and inflammatory statements that do not reflect our history as a nation founded by descendants of those who fled persecution in search of freedom.”

It’s far from clear, however, whether these unequivocal expressions of support for Syrian refugees actually reflect the attitudes of most American Jews. A 2014 Pew Research survey found that American Jews viewed Muslims far more unfavorably than they do most Christians, with the glaring exception of Evangelicals. Like most Israelis, American Jews perennially express amazement at the willingness of European countries to allow millions of Muslims into their cities and towns.  And anti-Israeli terrorism, as Benjamin Netanyahu said only Tuesday, is a direct result of radical Islam.  In a Bloomberg News poll published on Wednesday, 53% of Americans expressed opposition to Syrian refugee immigration, including 36% of self-described Democrats. Jews, one can venture, were probably well represented among both supporters and opponents.

“There is a big difference between Jews seeking refuge then and the Syrian Muslims seeking it now,” blogger Harry Maryles wrote in an article published in the right wing Jewish Press, in an effort to explain how a Jew whose parents survived the Holocaust could join the restrictionists. “Not a single subset of the Jewish people threatened the world with take-over under a caliphate. They were not threatening to destroy democracies like Israel or rattling their sabers shouting, ‘Death to America’. Or burning American flags. No segment of Jewry was beheading infidels. No Jew ever blew himself up in a suicide attack. There was not a single Jew that wanted anything more than refuge in a safe country.”

But that’s easy to say now; it’s not what most Americans believed at the time. Even as the Nazi campaign against German and then Austrian Jews reached fever pitch, Congressman Louis McFadden, Republican of Pennsylvania, still claimed that Jewish refugees were part of a plot to instill a “Jewish Communist Regime” in America. As Howard Sachar recounts in his epic A History of the Jews in America, Senator Robert Reynolds, Democrat of North Carolina, wondered whether Jews would have been forced out of their lands “if they had not impoverished those lands or if they had not conspired against their governments”.

Even after the devastation of German Jewry’s synagogues on Kristallnacht, 77 years ago, the Veterans of Foreign Wars demanded a ten-year moratorium on all foreign immigration. In March 1939, after the Anschluss and the annexation of Sudetenland, as Nazi troops prepared to enter Prague, 83% of Americans said in a Fortune poll that they were opposed to any liberalization of the immigration quotas. As a last ditch effort, Roosevelt actually contemplated sending thousands of European Jews to Alaska, though Secretary of State Cordell Hull objected on the grounds that it would stir up “a great deal of unnecessary excitement”. In March 1940, a Congressional bill to allow 10,000 Jews to come to Alaska never even made it to the floor.

“Many Americans felt that Jews had too much money or too much power. Jews had also long been associated with socialism, communism, Bolshevism, anarchism, and labor agitation,” Shulman told Haaretz on Wednesday. “Moreover, the Roosevelt administration, from FDR on down to key officials in the State Department, saw a potential flow of Jewish refugees as liable to bring Nazi spies and saboteurs, or perhaps Jews extorted by threat to their families remaining in Germany to serve the Nazi cause. Those fears about security were felt very strongly.” Just as suspicion of Syrian refugees as ISIS moles and suicide bombers in waiting run high today.

For many Americans, the Jews were not refugees running for their lives or simple people looking for save haven. They were Communist agents if they came from Russia, Nazi saboteurs if they hailed from Germany and Austria, criminals, lowlifes, swindlers and scavengers if they arrived from anywhere else. Decades of nativist, anti-Semitic incitement that had started with the arrival of waves of Jewish immigrants at the end of the 19th century had left Americans fearful of the hordes of Jews that were coming to take over their livelihood and their lives. Were it not for the singular enormity of the Holocaust, they might feel exactly the same today.

Perhaps the most disturbing element for Jews in the current debate about Syrian refugees is the window that it opens into the development and mechanism of a cruel and inhuman policy that ultimately garners overwhelming public support. How successors of xenophobic, right wing reactionaries in the 30’s are just as effective today in peddling fear for political gain. It is a process that either casts today’s America in a much harsher light than people would expect, or, even worse, diminishes the collective guilt of World War II America for keeping European Jews out of America and inside Nazi-occupied Europe.

Jews who happen to agree for a host of ostensibly rational reasons that Syrian refugees should be denied entry will inevitably have to deal with cognitive dissonance. They will have to convince themselves that their position does not equate them with the bigots who refused to allow the brothers and sisters of their own parents and grandparents to escape the Nazi inferno. And they will try to repress the possibility that they might someday come to regret their current position, if and when it turns out that Syrian refugees were also massacred in the millions.