What would it have meant to Jews if, at the turn of the 20th century, America had closed its doors to them as a group, the way that President Donald Trump is poised to do by suspending visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries?
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Between the years of 1881 and 1914, some two million Jewish emigrants from czarist Russia arrived in the United States. Some had the audacity to be “economic migrants,” who hoped to be able to make a living in the New World, at a time when, as Jews, they were restricted in Russia in where they could live, what jobs they could hold, and even whether they could own land. Others could be characterized as purely political refugees. They were subjected to a wave of violent actions – pogroms – that were unleashed, in many cases, with the direct involvement of the czarist government, in the decades following the March 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II.
So precarious was life in late-19th century Russia, especially for Jews — remember, this was the period when the czar’s secret police could cook up an official-looking report on a fictitious plot of a cabal of Jewish plotters to subvert the world economic and political order for their own nefarious ends — that millions were willing to take their chances on seeking a new life in another country, for many of them in the United States.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” found gullible audiences not only in Russia, but throughout Europe. In the United States, too, a half-million copies were published and distributed by none other than automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, a notorious anti-Semite. This didn’t stop America, however, from admitting vast numbers of Jews into the country, just one group among some 12 million migrants who passed through Ellis Island and other gateways between 1861 and 1914.
Immigration to the United States came to an almost complete halt during World War I (1914-1918). Following the war, the countries of central and eastern Europe were awash in revolutions, including but not limited to the Russian Revolution of November 1917, America underwent a Red Scare, one less well-known today than the witch-hunt of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1924, the country passed the Johnson-Reed Act (also known as the Immigration Act), which established very strict quotas for immigrants, based on national origin. The effect was to bring to a trickle the flow of immigrants from southern Europe and Eastern Europe, and halt completely the immigration of Arabs and Asians.
A decade later, the quotas assumed critical significance for Jews, after the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933, and the swell of anti-Jewish persecution that ensued not only in that country, but in Austria, Romania, Hungary and other states even before they were occupied by Germany or joined the Axis. Jews again wanted to escape — this time not from Russia, but from Central Europe — and this time, the United States closed its doors.
In America of the 1930s, Jews were not wanted. A poll undertaken by Fortune magazine in July 1938, revealed that fewer than 5 percent of Americans surveyed were in favor of their country raising its immigration quotas, and that more than 60 percent said they agreed that “we should try to keep [Jews] out.”
If that’s not startling enough, a half-year later, in January 1939, after the shocking events of Kristallnacht in Germany, a Gallup poll showed that two-thirds of those surveyed were opposed to America taking in even 10,000 German-Jewish children.
The anti-Jewish sentiment extended into the State Department, where officials (most notably Undersecretary of State Breckinridge Long) went out of their way to erect bureaucratic hurdles, and worse, made sure that quotas — which would have permitted a small number of refugees to enter the country — were not even filled. In fact, during the 12 years that FDR was president, according to the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, the quota for German Jews was filled only once, and in most years, less than 25 percent of quota allowed was filled.
It was only after Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., visited Roosevelt in the White House in January 1944, and warned him of the political repercussions that continued resistance to helping the Jews would have at home, that the president gave in and authorized the creation of the War Refugee Board. During the final year of World War II, the WRB helped with a number of measures that led to solutions that saved the lives of an estimated 220,000 refugees in Europe, most of them Jews.