Whether Dealing With Jewish Refugees in ’30s or Syrians Today, U.S. Falls Short of Its Own Ideals
This post, a slightly revised version of another piece, originally ran on Truthdig contributor Juan Cole’s website.
More than half of US governors have abruptly announced that they will not welcome Syrian refugees. Governors cannot actually tell people in America where they can live.
Germany, a country of 80 million, will take in 800,000 refugees this year, many of them Syrians. That is 1 percent of their population. It would be like the USA taking in 3 million refugees in one year.
The US takes in 70,000 refugees a year. Last year it accepted about 400 Syrian refugees.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, which led to the creation of roughly 4 million Iraqi refugees out of the then some 26 million Iraqis, or nearly 1/6th of the population. That would be like 50 million Americans displaced. The US took in only a few thousand Iraqi refugees after causing all that trouble. The US invasion radicalized Iraq’s Sunnis and drove them into the arms of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which morphed into Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) at camp Bucca and then took much of Syria, contributing to making 11 million of 22 million Syrians into displaced persons. 4 million have been forced abroad, to Jordan, Lebanon & Turkey, and now thousands are trying to get into Europe.
The US politicians who voted for the Iraq War say we can’t let in Iraqis or Syrians because they might have been radicalized.
This grim landscape of racism, religious prejudice, blaming the victim and racial exclusion from immigration is deja vu all over again. In the 30s, it was the Jews that the troglodytes didn’t want.
It turns out that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not responsible for America’s refusal to take more than a few thousand Jewish refugees during the 1930s. He wanted to spend $150 million to distribute millions of Jewish refugees among 10 democratic countries. His failures were imposed on him by a Congress that wouldn’t act and a foot-dragging State Department. By 1940 it was too late, as Europe became a fortress.
But the US in the 1930s did betray its ideals as a refuge for people yearning to be free. The episode of the SS St Louis, a ship full of 900 Jewish refugees that got close enough to Miami to see its lights before being turned back to Europe, epitomized this failure. A third of the passengers were later murdered by the Nazis.
One Jewish refugee the US did take in was Albert Einstein. How would we not have been better off if we’d had more like him?
The bad economy of the Great Depression was one reason for fear of immigrants. Politicians and labor leaders worried that they would take jobs from workers already in the US. Racism was rampant. In 1924 Congress passed a basically Nazi immigration law that limited immigration on the basis of country — i.e. racial — quotas. The Semitic countries like Syria should, according to this law, keep their people (I recollect that the annual quota for Syrian immigrants was 400– even though tens of thousans of Syro-Lebanese had come from about 1880, including famed writer Kahlil Gibran. All the Norwegians could come who wanted to.)
There was a Chinese exclusion Act, i.e. zero Chinese were wanted.
So simple Aryan racism was partially responsible for the exclusion of the Jews. If the US had thrown open its doors, the 200,000 Jews who went to Palestine in the 30s would have come here and there never would have been Arab-Israeli wars or 7 million Palestinian refugees.
Jews were also seen by some US Neanderthals as having socialist tendencies and so were kept out as radicals. There was talk of the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy. (Hatred of Jews was irrational, so that they were blamed for being bankers [they were less than 1 percent of bankers] at the same time they were excoriated for being Marxists). There was also the Society for the Defense of Christianity, so fundamentalists did their part.
All the same arguments against letting in the Jews are now being deployed to keep out the Syrians. Not Christian. Alien ideology. Would take jobs. Nobody is openly saying they aren’t Aryan but the Trumpists might as well be.
IRA / terrorism supporter Rep Peter King, of Irish descent (i.e. refugees taken in by Protestant America from famine), warned against letting more than a handful of Syrians in. He isn’t worse than most of us, unfortunately. (The Irish discontent was justified, but terrorism never is; and King is a hypocrite.)
Steve Jobs’s father was an immigrant from Syria. We need more like him, and we need fewer children washing up dead on beaches. If we’re going to bomb Syria, we need to take care of the displaced.
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