Refugees then and now

We need a positive UN decision calling on the Arab and Muslim countries to open their hearts and borders to offer refuge to their fellow ethnic and religious brothers and sisters.

November 17, 2015 20:52
4 minute read.
Russia Syria

Syrian refugees shelter in a makeshift tent in the Bekaa Valley, part of the 1.15 million refugees being hosted by Lebanon. (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)

A few days ago we commemorated Kristallnacht, the large-scale Nazi-orchestrated pogrom in Germany on November 9, 1938, that targeted all remaining Jewish small businesses and Jewish homes, torched hundreds of synagogues and sent over 20,000 Jews to concentration camps. This should lead us to reflect on the underlying causes that led to this horrific event and the implications for the current Middle East refugee problem.

One ought to remember that before the Nazis moved to a policy of mass extermination of the Jewish people, for the first eight years of its rule it favored a policy of forced emigration of Jews, encouraging all Jews to leave wherever they may go, as long as they left. However, the Evian Conference of July 1938, called by US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and inviting 32 nations to explore the possibility of admitting more Jews into their countries, ended in abject failure. This was unfortunate for Jews in Germany, that now included the over 150,000 Jews of Austria, a country recently annexed to Nazi Germany.

It also led the Nazi regime to the conclusion that the Western democracies, while touting liberal ideas and condemning German anti-Semitism, were themselves not interested in admitting more Jews. At the same time, Hitler’s regime was still determined to force the Jews out by whatever means.

The killing of a German diplomat by a Jewish student in Paris gave it the excuse needed to use violent means (short of mass killings) to make life for Jews even more miserable than before, and lead them to leave even more quickly. This led thousands of German Jews, in their desperation to find safe havens, even to choose the very distant city of Shanghai, China, as a place of repose, since no visa requirement was needed to enter a certain quarter of that city. It is interesting to note that most of the Jews incarcerated in concentration camps the night after Kristallnacht were eventually released when their families produced visas or traveling documents for their loved ones to leave Germany. This was the only instance of Jews being released in great numbers from German concentration camps.

Six months later, in May 1939, the refusal of Cuba and the United States to allow 927 Jews of the St. Louis boat entry into their country further confirmed Hitler that the rest of the world was not interested in having more Jews in its midst, and eventually led him over a year later to the decision of mass extermination.

No two painful historical events are exactly the same, but they may encompass certain disconcerting similarities. Today, we are witness to tens of thousands of persons fleeing for their lives from several countries, mostly Syria and Iraq, where they are being targeted by their own regimes or religious radical groups.

These are overwhelmingly Arabs, but the neighboring Arab countries keep their doors shut, in spite of the fact that these refugees share their language and their religious and cultural values. This, then, forces the hapless refugees to seek safe refuge in distant locations – in countries with different social values and religious practices.

The comparison with Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis is striking, as then, too, the doors of refuge were shut. After the Nazis passed to mass extermination, the world was witness to thousands of Jews fleeing on rickety boats, or across guarded frontiers, trying to reach safety – but most borders remained closed to them. Today, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing mostly from Syria and Iraq try to reach various countries in Europe instead of being admitted by neighboring Arab countries enjoying solid and thriving economies. It would be a mark of honor for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco – to mention a few Arab countries – to welcome these refugees in their midst, instead of forcing them on life-threatening journeys toward distant non-Arab, and non-Muslim lands.

The United Nations that was created also to solve major humanitarian crises has not yet raised its voice on this issue. Isn’t it time for the Security Council to hold an emergency session to discuss this tragic human drama? Several million refugees are stranded in temporary tent cities in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon; hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed inside Syria.

It is incumbent for us Jews, of whatever political persuasion, and with the memory of the Holocaust still fresh in our minds, to urge the United Nations to convene an urgent emergency session to discuss this tremendous, tragic human drama unfolding before our very eyes, and to urge Arab countries to take a stand and open their borders to these hundreds of thousands of refugees – persons having a close affinity to their own religious, cultural and social values.

Major Jewish organizations in the United States, alone or in cooperation with other non-Jewish religious and secular organizations, should initiate such an appeal, followed with appropriate press releases.

We don’t need another failed Evian conference, but rather a positive UN decision calling on the Arab and Muslim countries to open their hearts and borders to offer refuge to their fellow ethnic and religious brothers and sisters, followed by effective, practical steps to make it happen.

The author is formerly head of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, and currently teaches about the Holocaust at Yeshiva University-Stern College and Touro College, New York.

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