The world made Israel necessary by refusing to help Jews in WWII - opinion

The Evian Conference in 1938 acknowledged that there was a Jewish refugee problem, but none of the countries participating agreed to take them in.

evian conference 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
evian conference 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Headlines in March 2022, stemming from the prime minister of Canada, said that Canada would accept as many refugees fleeing the Russian attack on Ukraine “as we can.” But 84 years ago, from July 6 to July 15, 1938, when representatives of 32 countries met in the French spa town of Evian-les-Bains to search for a solution to a Jewish refugee crisis, the response was very different.

The crisis was precipitated by the intense antisemitism unleashed by the Nazis in Germany in 1933 and in Austria in 1938. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were stateless. The Evian Conference, the initiative of US president Roosevelt, was convened to find a solution. It has been argued that the conference was a cynical ploy designed by Roosevelt for appearances only; there was never any intention to raise US immigration quotas (or even fill existing quotas) to save Jews.

The conference was an abject failure. With the exception of the Dominican Republic (in the end, only a little more than 700 Jewish refugees found sanctuary there), no country agreed to accept Jewish refugees. The countries represented at Evian included a European bloc, another large group representing Latin America, as well as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Canada, today a federation of ten provinces and three territories, was created in 1867 as a self-governing dominion, although full independence with regard to foreign policy only came about in 1931. Today, the Jewish population of Canada (about 390,000) is the fourth largest in the world, after Israel, the US and France. At the start of World War II, the Jewish population had reached 160,000 in a population of 11 million.

Canada’s record with regard to Jewish refugees before and during World War II is shameful and well documented in None Is Too Many, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper (1983). The title, a reply by an unnamed bureaucrat to a question as to how many Jews should be admitted to Canada after World War II, is not an exaggeration.

 THE WRITER attends a family Seder during the recent Passover holiday. (credit: ANNA HEMMENDINGER) THE WRITER attends a family Seder during the recent Passover holiday. (credit: ANNA HEMMENDINGER)

Partly due to the Great Depression and a struggling economy, but largely because of antisemitism, only 5,000 Jews were admitted to Canada from 1933 to 1945. The frantic efforts of the leaders of the Canadian Jewish community were useless; even in cases related to family reunification or when affluent applicants offered to transfer substantial assets to Canada.

IN THEIR book, Abella and Troper note that the Canadian response was “arguably the worst of all possible refugee receiving states.” Is this true? What about Canada’s sister dominions in the British Commonwealth of Nations? How many Jewish refugees did they admit from 1933 to 1945?

To satisfy my curiosity I consulted two online sources; one a 397-page master’s thesis “The Jewish Trail of Tears, The Evian Conference of July 1938” by Dennis Ross Laffer (2011), as well as notes from an online exhibition: Closed Borders, an exhibition by the Center for Research in Antisemitism for the Technische Universität Berlin and the German Resistance Memorial Center (2018).

It turns out that Canada was in good company. Australia, with a population at the time of only seven million, agreed to accept 15,000 refugees, but this applied to all refugees, not only Jews. By 1939 and the commencement of hostilities, only about half that number had been admitted. The Australian representative at Evian, T.W. White, said “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one...” New Zealand admitted fewer than 1,000 Jewish refugees.

Ireland, a British Dominion until 1949, was not initially invited to the conference but asked to participate to exercise its independence in foreign affairs. Only 300 Jewish refugees were admitted, including a number saved by the initiative of the Irish essayist Hubert Butler.

On July 25, 1938, after the Evian Conference ended, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper printed an editorial suggesting that Newfoundland could be a refuge for Jewish refugees. This was picked up and widely reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) the next day.

Newfoundland, which joined Canada as the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949, was a self-governing British Dominion from 1907. In 1933, a serious economic collapse led to the creation of a caretaker government involving a commission of appointed members from Britain and Newfoundland.

In the late 1930s, there were only a little more than 200 Jews in Newfoundland, out of a population of 280,000. Perhaps because of a generous clause in the Newfoundland Aliens Act, which offered asylum to refugees fleeing religious or political persecution, but also because of the JTA report of the Ottawa Citizen editorial, 12,000 applications for entry from desperate Jews were received. According to Gerhard Bassler (Newfoundland Studies, 1987) only 12 Jews were admitted between 1933 and 1945.

WHILE ALL the representatives at Evian expressed sympathy for the Jewish refugees, there were common excuses for not admitting them, including poor economic conditions, the view that Jews would not fit in and that admitting large numbers of Jews would result in more antisemitism. As Laffer notes in his thesis, the failure of Evian marked a turning point toward a more radical solution in Nazi Jewish policies.

In the recent article in The Jerusalem Post “Why Does Ireland Hate Israel,” Mark Regev, the former Israeli Ambassador to the UK, writes that “Of all European Union member states, Ireland is probably one of the most critical/hostile toward Israel.”

And yet, the Irish politician and writer, Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008), was the author of one of the best portrayals of the establishment of Israel, The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism, (1986). O’Brien’s Irish background and his sensitivity to the Jewish experience feature prominently throughout the book. O’Brien writes:

“... those who condemn Israel should reflect that Israel... is also the creation of all the rest of us-those who attacked and destroyed the Jews in Europe, and those in Europe and America who just quietly closed our doors.”

“Against that background, the statesmen of Europe might have the grace to be more sparing in their admonitions addressed to Israel, bearing in mind that so many of the people those statesmen represent did so much, over so many years, and in so many ways, to impress upon Jews the necessity of creating the Jewish State.”

The writer, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo.