The irony is endless. The vandals who desecrated more than 100 Jewish headstones in the first of several such incidents across the United States earlier this year chose a cemetery containing the graves of Holocaust survivors who had found refuge in a suburb of St. Louis—a city that shares a name with the most notorious act of Jewish refugee exclusion of the Nazi era, the fateful voyage of the MS St. Louis. Hundreds of Jews escaping persecution aboard that ship in 1939 were denied entry to the United States and sent back to Europe. Today Syrian refugees are helping to repair the damage from the cemetery vandalism, even as they are under assault by the Trump administration’s executive orders barring refugees from entry to the United States. It’s as if we have been condemned to relive history—only in the Trump era, the U.S. government is even less hospitable to refugees than it was when Jews were fleeing Hitler. The main icons invoked in comparisons of refugee reception then and now are the voyage of the German ocean liner the St. Louis and the tragic death of Anne Frank. Frank’s father had tried desperately to get his family admitted to England and the United States. Of the more than 900 Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis denied entry to the United States by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and shipped back to Europe, 254 died in concentration camps. Are Syrian refugees today metaphorically stranded aboard the St. Louis? Is today’s Anne Frank a girl in Syria?
Like all comparisons to the Nazi era, this analogy is intended to shock listeners and to inspire action. And like most such comparisons, it is inevitably flawed. Comparison in itself is not the problem. The Holocaust, like other historical events, was unique, but comparison can serve to identify distinctions as well as similarities. There are important differences between Hitler’s Europe, which featured an elaborate, highly organized system designed to kill off an entire ethnic group, and Assad’s Syria, where a brutally repressive regime indiscriminately targets civilians in rebel-held areas. The parallel between then and now is also imperfect because Trump’s orders actually go further than Roosevelt’s did in deliberately preventing refugees’ access to safety in the United States.
In 1939, the passengers aboard the St. Louis hoped to gain admission to the United States, but unlike refugees turned away from airlines and U.S. airports by Trump’s first executive order, they had not qualified for U.S. visas. As Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman showed in FDR and the Jews, U.S. officials pressured Cuba to admit the St. Louis passengers. Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the United States accepted some 200,000 refugees through a legal process he personally labored to expand, and he saved thousands more by allowing them to overstay their temporary visas.
All this was not enough, but Roosevelt made the United States the largest haven for Jewish refugees in the world, and he told aides he could not go further without Congress slamming the doors completely. Roosevelt understood the strength of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States. Historian Robert T. Handy, examining two centuries of American Protestant attitudes, asserts that in the 1930s American anti-Semitism was “more virulent and more vicious than at any time before or since.” More than 100 anti-Semitic organizations were active in the decade before the war, led by radio broadcaster Father Charles E. Coughlin and his Social Justice movement. The conspiratorial Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which first appeared in this country after World War I, was again in circulation in the late 1930s. Henry Ford’s newspaper series The International Jew, cited approvingly by Adolf Hitler, was read by millions of Americans, published in book form, and distributed widely. A proposal in Congress to admit 20,000 Jewish children died in committee, as one critic warned, “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.” Asked in 1938 if large numbers of Jewish refugees should be given sanctuary in the United States, 82% of Americans said no.
It was in this context that Roosevelt administration officials made decisions weighing the humanitarian concern for Jewish refugees with their responsibilities to protect national security. State Department officials like Assistant Secretary Breckinridge Long, who thought Jews were untrustworthy and would become spies, restricted the visa process even further than Roosevelt intended, aiming to “postpone and postpone and postpone” the granting of visas. Nonetheless, in the end, the president’s leadership ensured that hundreds of thousands of refugees were admitted despite a preponderance of popular and Congressional opinion.
Today, in contrast, popular opinion is not forcing Trump’s hand as he bars refugees from admission. In September 2015, when Trump first said he would send back Syrian refugees, Pew found 75% of Americans supported what the United States was then doing—Obama’s policy of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees—and 51% of Americans thought the United States should increase that number. The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino changed those numbers, together with Trump’s concerted campaign to move public opinion in his direction, but as recently as February 7, 2017, 70% of Americans in a Quinnipiac poll still disapproved of his executive order banning Syrian refugees permanently (now revised under the second order to an initial 120 day ban). So if public opinion against refugees constrained how much Roosevelt could help, Trump is getting far ahead of public opinion by closing the doors.
A major difference between the 1930s and the present is that we now have more trans-ethnic solidarity among groups that have felt the sting of bigotry together. Just as Muslim organizations are raising money to pay for repairs at the St. Louis cemetery, Jewish organizations are advocating on behalf of Muslim refugees. As Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, the Jewish organization for refugee resettlement and immigration advocacy (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), likes to say, his organization used to help Jewish refugees. “Now we welcome refugees not because they're Jewish, but because we're Jewish.” In the 1930s, refugees could count only on their co-religionists for support. If Anne Frank is in Syria today, she has more sympathizers in the United States than did the remarkable young diarist murdered by the Nazis. Instead of American public opinion standing in the way, the greatest threat keeping refugees from safe haven in the United States now seems to be the leadership of the U.S. government.
Nor is the threat only to the well being of refugees themselves. Immigration and the diversity and energy it brings have always been a source of national strength for the United States. You may be reading this on a machine invented by the son of a Syrian immigrant, Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. eBay and Oracle were founded by Iranian-Americans. Less famous immigrants from the countries banned under the executive order comprise a disproportionate number of doctors serving rural America because they are eligible for special visas after earning their medical degrees if they work in underserved communities.
The image of the United States as a beacon of liberty has inspired foreigners ever since Thomas Paine urged his fellow revolutionaries to “receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” Closing the door to refugees weakens that aspect of American soft power abroad. When it comes to security, inasmuch as Americans are fearful of the gains of ISIS or attacks by terrorists hijacking the name of Islam, it makes no sense to alienate more than a billion people through policies based more on prejudice than rational security calculations. Doing so can only reduce the opportunities for cooperation with allied Muslim countries, draw more disaffected recruits to terrorist groups, and persuade some members of immigrant communities in the United States that volunteering information to a hostile U.S. government is a risky undertaking. Returning to our best traditions would be a better strategy for protecting national security—while allowing us to live up to George Washington’s declaration that “the bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”