Refugee cri­sis re­calls that of Jews in WWII

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - From AP and WiG re­ports

Sol Messinger was just 7 when he stood with his fa­ther at the rail of the ocean liner St. Louis and stared into the gath­er­ing dark­ness. But nearly eight decades later, Messinger still re­calls the lights of Mi­ami glit­ter­ing off the bow, so near to him and more than 900 fel­low Jewish refugees aboard, yet be­yond their reach.

“I look out into the ocean and I get this queasy feel­ing,” says Messinger, whose fam­ily es­caped Europe for the United States three years af­ter Amer­i­can of­fi­cials turned away the ves­sel in 1939. Now 83, he is a pathol­o­gist in Buf­falo, New York. “The Jews did not pose any threat to the U.S. It’s re­ally un­for­giv­able.”

Now, fresh angst about whether to ad­mit refugees or turn them away has put the spot­light back on the shun­ning of the St. Louis and other de­ci­sions, now widely re­gret­ted, by U.S. of­fi­cials be­fore and dur­ing World War II.

In the wake of Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists killing 130 peo­ple in Paris, a back­lash against the United States ad­mit­ting Syr­ian refugees — many of them Mus­lims — has fueled a bit­ter de­bate, with politicians, pun­dits and oth­ers draw­ing lines be­tween present and past.

Similarities be­tween the rhetoric of to­day and the at­ti­tudes of the U.S. pub­lic and of­fi­cials dur­ing World War II make that his­tory worth re­call­ing, schol­ars say, as the coun­try con­fronts new fears of ter­ror­ism.

“No his­tor­i­cal par­al­lel is per­fect, ob­vi­ously,” says Al­lan Licht­man, co-au­thor of FDR and the Jews and a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

But U.S. lim­its on refugees dur­ing World War II, in­flu­enced by anti-Semitism, were fed by fears the Nazis “would plant agents, spies and sabo­teurs among the Jewish refugees and that they would pressure the Jews, par­tic­u­larly those whose fam­i­lies were still in Ger­many, to act as agents on be­half of the Third Re­ich,” Licht­man said. “Those ar­gu­ments are chill­ingly sim­i­lar to the ar­gu­ments be­ing made against the ad­mis­sion of the Syr­ian refugees.”

The 1930s saw wide­spread dis­dain for Jewish peo­ple from Europe. Op­po­si­tion to ad­mit­ting refugees was height­ened by the eco­nomic wor­ries left by the Great De­pres­sion. Those pub­lic at­ti­tudes were re­in­forced by the U.S. State Depart­ment and other agen­cies, which worked to limit an in­flux of Jewish peo­ple whom FBI Di­rec­tor J. Edgar Hoover la­beled as po­ten­tial in­fil­tra­tors, he said.

When Pres­i­dent Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt pon­dered re­lax­ation of refugee quo­tas, Vice Pres­i­dent John Nance Garner coun­seled that if Congress were al­lowed to vote in pri­vate, the law­mak­ers would ban im­mi­gra­tion al­to­gether, Licht­man said.

Licht­man isn’t alone in mak­ing the com­par­i­son. Re­cently, Ohio pro­fes­sor Peter Shul­man of Case West­ern Re­serve Univer­sity used Twit­ter to post re­sults from a 1938 pub­lic opin­ion poll show­ing Amer­i­cans over­whelm­ingly re­jected ad­mis­sion of Jewish peo­ple from Ger­many in the years lead­ing up to the out­break of war.

The re­ac­tion “was in­stan­ta­neous and to­tally over­whelm­ing. It was like noth­ing I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore,” said Shul­man.

New York Mayor Bill De­Bla­sio, crit­i­ciz­ing a number of Re­pub­li­can gov­er­nors — in­clud­ing Scott Walker of Wis­con­sin — for op­pos­ing ad­mis­sion of Syr­ian refugees, cited the 1938 poll, which said 67.4 per­cent of Amer­i­cans said the U.S. should try to keep Ger­man and Aus­trian refugees out of the coun­try and 61 per­cent op­posed al­low­ing 10,000 Ger­man Jewish chil­dren to en­ter.

“We are not go­ing to make that mis­take in our time and voices of in­tol­er­ance and voices of di­vi­sion are not go­ing to cause us to do some­thing that is against our val­ues,” De­Bla­sio said.

“When we sent Jews back to Ger­many and when we sent Ja­panese to in­tern­ment camps, we re­gret­ted it and we will re­gret this as well,” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said be­fore 47 House Democrats and 242 Repub­li­cans voted for a bill to put new se­cu­rity lim­its on a plan by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to ad­mit 10,000 Syr­ian refugees over the next year.

Responding to the vote, Karin Jo­han­son, di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­erty Union’s D.C. leg­isla­tive of­fice, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “and this unAmer­i­can bill’s sup­port­ers falsely claim it will sim­ply pause U.S. re­set­tle­ment of refugees. In fact, it will bring re­set­tle­ment of Syr­ian and Iraqi refugees to a grind­ing halt by adding lay­ers of bureaucracy to an al­ready rig­or­ous process. It also dis­crim­i­nates against refugees based on their na­tional ori­gin, na­tion­al­ity and re­li­gion. Sup­port­ers of this bill want us to turn our backs on refugees who are seek­ing safe har­bor from the very ter­ror­ism we all ab­hor. This is not lead­er­ship.”

There is a long pat­tern in U.S. pol­i­tics of la­bel­ing refugees as a threat, whether those flee­ing the Nazis, refugees of the Hun­gar­ian Revo­lu­tion or boat peo­ple up­rooted by the Viet­nam War, said Kelly Green­hill, au­thor of Weapons of Mass Mi­gra­tion: Forced Dis­place­ment, Co­er­cion and For­eign Policy.

“Ev­ery time this coun­try is con­fronted with .… a vis­i­ble in­flux of peo­ple, the is­sue be­comes politi­cized,” said Green­hill, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Tufts Univer­sity and a re­search fel­low at Har­vard Univer­sity’s school of gov­ern­ment. “This is a movie we’ve seen be­fore and it’s sort of un­for­tu­nate, but it has a cu­ri­ous same­ness across time, which doesn’t make it bet­ter.”

In the years since World War II, the U.S. has be­come the world’s largest re­cip­i­ent of in­ter­na­tional refugees.

But of the 784,000 refugees re­set­tled in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 at­tacks, just three have been ar­rested for plan­ning ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the Mi­gra­tion Policy In­sti­tute, a non-par­ti­san think tank. Only one of those, an Uzbeki im­mi­grant, spoke of tar­get­ing the United States but had no spe­cific plans, the in­sti­tute said.

While tak­ing in 10,000 Syr­ian refugees would be a significant in­crease from the roughly 2,000 ad­mit­ted since the coun­try’s civil war be­gan in 2011, it is a frac­tion of those go­ing to other coun­tries. Up to 800,000 peo­ple are expected to seek asy­lum in Ger­many by the end of this year, ac­cord­ing to MPI.

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