“Upon signing the Act, President Calvin Coolidge commented,
America must remain American.’ This phrase would become the rallying cry of anti-immigration sentiment until after World War II.”




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Over the next months the United States will become the focus of my writing. This is not because I believe this country more antisemitic, is historically more aggressive in persecuting its Jewish citizens. The contrary. While the level of popular and institutional antisemitism in the U.S. roughly paralleled Europe before and during the years of National Socialism; and while the United States failed to live up to tradition as refuge when it came to Jews fleeing Auschwitz, neither did it actively participate in the systematic bloodletting that was Europe’s effort to achieve a Final Solution to the West’s enduring Jewish Problem. No, I discuss antisemitism in the United States because I happen by birth to be far more familiar with this country’s history: as I discuss the United States over the months it should not be seen as an example, but as a metaphor for western antisemitism. I firmly believe, and try to demonstrate in my writings, that the risk to Jews represented by the Diaspora has not diminished over the centuries: the Holocaust demonstrates that its mortal threat has exponentially increased.




Introduction: It is a matter of historical fact and common knowledge that in the years before and during the Holocaust the United States first limited, then barred entry to Jewish refugees, targets of Europe’s persecution and eventual murder campaign. According to the president American immigration law tied his hands. And while there were other options available had the will to rescue been present, technically Roosevelt was correct. In the 1920’s Congress passed legislation widely understood as targeting the Jews that would only be lifted forty years later; twenty years after Auschwitz gassed its last victims.




Jews had lived in the United States since earliest colonial times. And while they faced discrimination in the past it was not until the early 1920’s, influenced by growing antisemitism and American eugenics, that discrimination took a more ominous and, for European Jewry, fateful turn.


 
Henry Ford distributed the Protocols at all dealerships across the U.S. His purchase of  The Dearborn Independent allowed hit to spread antisemitism beyond the showroom.


“The Immigration Restriction Leaguewas the first American entity associated officially with eugenics. Founded in 1894 by three recent Harvard University graduates, the League sought to bar what it considered inferior races from entering America and diluting what it saw as the superior American racial stock (upper class Northerners of Anglo-Saxon heritage).”


League membership was a virtual who’s-who of academic luminaries and included, “A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, William DeWitt Hyde, president of Bowdoin College, James T. Young, director of Wharton School and David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University.”


Between 1880 and 1923 approximately two and a half million Jews, mostly fleeing Russian pogroms, arrived in the United States. In deciding the year to base the demographic profile for its Federal Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 Congress chose the census of 1890, the boundary at which Jews began arriving in greater numbers. The bill, “limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890.”


If the law sounds as if written by American eugenicists, it was. It was based directly on testimony provided by the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). “Eugenics Record Office Superintendent Harry Laughlin became the anti-immigration movement''s most persuasive lobbyist... [He was appointed by the chairman of the committee writing the law their] expert eugenics agent.” By deceptive data and reasoning Laughlin fed Congress what it wanted to hear, that new immigrants were polluting America’s bloodline with “feeblemindedness, insanity, criminality, and dependency.” The resulting bill “did everything eugenicists had hoped for... it restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe countries to only 9% of the total. Northern and western European countries got 86% of the quota, even though they made up the minority of immigrants in 1923.”


Though the law''s quota system targeted immigrants based on their nation of origin rather than ethnicity or religion, Jewish immigration was a central concern… The law sharply curtailed immigration from those countries that were the homelands of the vast majority of the Jews in America, almost 75% of whom came from Russia alone.Because Eastern European immigration only became substantial in the final decades of the nineteenth century, the law''s use of the population of the U.S. in 1890 as the basis for calculating quotas effectively made mass migration from Eastern Europe, the home of the vast majority of the world''s Jews, impossible.”


 
President Coolidge Signs the immigration act on the south lawn of the White House (Wikipedia)


Upon signing the Act, President Calvin Coolidge commented, ‘America must remain American.’ This phrase would become the rallying cry of anti-immigration sentiment until after World War II.”


“When Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1924, he held up a foreign law as a model for his program of racial purification: The U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924… When the Nazis took power in 1933, they installed a program of eugenics--the attempted "improvement" of the population through forced sterilization and marriage controls--that consciously drew on the U.S. example... Small wonder that the Nazi laws led one eugenics activist in Virginia to complain, "The Germans are beating us at our own game."”


We will return in more detail to the impact of this restrictive immigration law on European Jewry when the topic turns to the Holocaust. One result not often discussed was that, beyond providing a fig leaf for the administration to hide behind as justifying inaction, the fact that the leading democracy in the west, representative of the humanistic and liberal ideals, the fact that the one country that might have provided a model of moral and ethical behavior instead set an example for other potential countries of refuge (tiny Bolivia was the exception having admitted some 30,000 Jews between 1938 and 1941) to also close their borders.


Such theatrical gestures by the administration as the Bermuda Conference and that “too little-too late” afterthought the War Refugee Board were mere window dressing intended to placate critics at home, and particularly America’s mostly impotent Jewish community themselves fearful of antisemitism sweeping the United States, even as Europe’s Jews were being murdered.




Recent writings in this Series:


4. An American lynching: the Leo Max Frank Affair 


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