Two days ago, the Washington Post ran a brilliant story on Americans’ attitudes towards Jewish refugees in the late 1930s. Only 5% of Americans in 1938 believed the U.S. should change its quota restrictions to permit more Jews to enter this country to flee from the Nazis. In fact, 2/3 of one survey’s respondents agreed with the statement that “we should try to keep them out.” Of course, this was before the extermination camps were in operation, before America and the rest of the world truly understood the term “genocide”, but still, it’s difficult to align such attitudes towards refugees with our mythology that we are a nation of immigrants and welcome anyone willing to work hard.
While some Jewish refugees were allowed in (Albert Einstein, Billy Wilder, and other actors/writers and scientists), most Jews trying to get visas to enter the U.S. were denied. In one of the most notorious instances, The St. Louis, bringing hundreds of German Jews, was turned back in 1939 when it tried to enter a U.S. port. Ultimately, the ship and most of its passengers returned to Germany – and near certain death.
Reasons cited for this refusal to open the doors: fears that these refugees were in actuality Nazi spies; concerns that these Jews wouldn’t be easily assimilated into America culture; and, in a nation still battling the Great Depression, worries that our economy could not provide jobs for new immigrants. Of course, none of these objections was valid or supported by evidence, but opinions and attitudes are not dependent upon the facts.
Today, thoughtful Americans question our refusal to accept these Jewish refugees, yet politicians and ordinary Americans are demonstrating similar attitudes, now toward Syrian refugees and those of Middle Eastern descent. Once again, we’re hearing people express the fear that some of these refugees might be ISIS terrorists; the “concern” that Muslims can’t be easily assimilated; and the complaint that they will become dependent upon the taxpayers. Some politicians are suggesting that we now apply a religious requirement to immigrants (no Muslims need apply). One politician, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, has even gone as far as suggesting that the U.S. might have to intern Syrian/Muslim refugees (a firestorm has erupted after that remark).
Terror is a real threat; that is not in dispute. But I believe the intolerant responses demonstrated by politicians and some ordinary Americans is a greater threat to American democracy and pride. We need to examine our own attitudes towards tolerance and freedom, particularly in our immigration policies.