A story the Jews know all too well

As we face the largest refugee crisis since World War II, we have a chance to show that we learned the lesson of the St. Louis.

November 24, 2015 22:13
4 minute read.
A Syrian refugee kisses his daughter as he walks through a rainstorm towards Macedonia

A Syrian refugee kisses his daughter as he walks through a rainstorm towards Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Guided by our Jewish values and history, Jewish Americans feel a deep sense of responsibility to ensure the protection of refugees. We recall distinctly the time when we were met with closed doors as the world turned its back on us.

On the eve of World War II, more than two-thirds of the American public agreed in July 1938 that “we should try to keep them out,” referring to German and political refugees, the majority of them Jewish; with less than five percent of the American public believing that the US should raise immigration quotas to provide sanctuary for these refugees.

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In January 1939 – two months after Kristallnacht – more than 60% of Americans said we should deny shelter to 10,000 refugee children from Germany, the majority of them Jewish.

It wasn’t only the American public that wanted to keep our doors closed. Like so many governors today saying the US should not permit Syrian refugees to cross our borders, US officials in the days before and during World War II prevented refugees from entering our country.

Let’s not forget the SS St. Louis, the ship that left Hamburg, Germany, in May 1939, carrying more than 900 passengers, nearly all of them Jewish and seeking refuge in the United States. In one of America’s more shameful moments, our government turned them away, sending them back to Europe where most would have met their deaths if Great Britain, the Netherlands, France and Belgium hadn’t offered refuge. All but one of those who went to Britain survived the war; of the remaining 532 who returned to the European continent, nearly half perished in the Holocaust. All could have survived had the US given them visas.

As time went on and Americans learned about the horrors and atrocities that had taken place under the Nazi regime, they became more willing to take in refugees. An April 1944 a Gallup poll found 70% of Americans approved setting up emergency refugee camps in the US.

US policy didn’t change, however, and it wasn’t until after the war ended – after the inexplicable horror of the Holocaust was splashed across the front pages – that the US eased the way for survivors to enter our country.


As we face the largest refugee crisis since World War II, we have a chance to show that we learned the lesson of the St. Louis, of turning away 10,000 children – that closing our doors may mean sending refugees to their deaths or leaving them destitute in camps.

Instead, Republicans are exploiting this crisis for political gain by attacking not only President Barack Obama, but also refugees who are fleeing for their lives and to protect their children.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, said the US should not accept any refugees – even those under the age of five. Jeb Bush, another Republican presidential candidate, appallingly suggested that the US should screen refugees and help only those who are Christian. By advocating a religious test for entry, Bush forgets that our great nation was founded on the premise that all are welcome.

As President Obama remarked at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Turkey on Monday: “Many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves, that’s what they’re fleeing... Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.”

No one is suggesting that we indiscriminately throw the doors wide open. As it stands now, plans are to bring just 10,000 Syrians to our country in the next year, far fewer than the 300,000 being absorbed by Europe and just a tiny fraction of the four million who have fled their homes. Each refugee undergoes a rigorous nearly two-year screening process that includes background checks, fingerprinting and personal interviews by several US government agencies before being granted a visa.

If anything, we should be advocating for more refugees of the five-year long Syrian war to be permitted entry.

As Jewish Americans, we must hold to our core values and stand firm as we say there must be a safe haven for refugees. Never again will we allow the world to stand silent as thousands of innocent civilians search for refuge. As Jews, as Americans and simply as humans, we are far better than that.

We have a unique responsibility to stand firm in fighting for our country to stay true to its founding principles and ensure that we provide a safe haven for refugees.

Never again will we allow the world to stand silent as thousands of innocent civilians search for refuge. Let memory of the SS St. Louis be our guide.

The author is chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council

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