Syrian Refugees and the Holocaust: a discussion to enliven your Thanksgiving celebration

Editor’s Note: Want to energize the discussion at whatever Thanksgiving celebration you are having or are attending? here’s a conversation piece you could read or send out in advance along with the piece I sent you Tuesday evening about how to make your Thanksgiving more meaningful spiritually.And I can’t help but feeling proud of American Jews who seem to be overwhelmingly rallying against the xenophobia that has swept much of America in the form of wanting to block Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. From the Holocasut Museum and the Orthodox Union to Tikkun and the Jewish Renewal movement, Jews are strongly lining up against the xenophobes and supporting the opening of our doors ot Syrian refugees. Here is an important discussion piece for Thanksgiving by Elizabeth Heineman that shows the complexities involved in invoking the Holocaust to make one’s points about any particular contemporary reality. –Rabbi Michael Lerner


When Holocaust Memory Misfires

                                                                      by Elizabeth Heineman

They splash up on my Facebook feed with predictable regularity: reminders of the link between anti-refugee sentiment and the Holocaust. The story of the MS St. Louis, which carried Jewish refugees across the Atlantic only to be turned back to Europe, where many of its passengers were slaughtered. Public opinion polls of the late 1930s showing that the majority of Americans opposed admitting more Jews. Pictures of Anne Frank accompanied by the information that if her father’s efforts to secure American visas had been successful, Anne might now be a grandma in Boston.

But Anne Frank is not a grandma in Boston, and too few Americans conclude from this fact that we should be more generous toward refugees today. Instead, Republican governors scramble to declare Syrian refugees unwelcome, and the House of Representatives votes to raise our already-high barriers for refugee status. It’s horrifying, this naked xenophobia, but it wasn’t really necessary in order to keep Syrians away from American shores. Even before the attacks, cumbersome regulations sufficed to make entry almost impossible. The United States has admitted roughly 2,000 Syrian refugees since 2012. Europe has admitted hundreds of thousands.

But Holocaust memory plays a more complicated role in this story than a simple morality tale would suggest.

It’s true that reminders of anti-refugee sentiment in the 1930s prick our consciences. They warn us that our descendants may judge us harshly for our own unwillingness to come to the aid of desperate people. Today’s xenophobes claim that unlike European Jews in the 1930s, Syrian refugees today are dangerous – at least, enough of them are dangerous to warrant barring them as a group. But then, many Americans were convinced in the 1930s that immigrant Jews constituted a danger. Perhaps Communists might slip in via loosened regulations and foment revolution.

It’s easy to say, after a genocide or atrocity, that the victims didn’t deserve their fate. The hard part is recognizing the humanity of people who are marked as outsiders while the situation is still combustible. That’s what all those reminders of the Holocaust are supposed to tell us. We must recognize Syrians’ full humanity now and act accordingly – not wait a few decades to admit that we should have done better.

But popular memory of the Holocaust is a double-edged sword when it comes to recognizing Syrians’ humanity. The history of the Holocaust has been used to foster anti-Arab sentiment as much as it’s been mobilized to foster messages of universal human rights. Holocaust memory, after all, is deeply entwined with the history and politics of Israel, and this means it’s also deeply entwined with American policy and attitudes towards the Middle East. Recall Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration last October that Hitler decided to perpetrate genocide against Europe’s Jews only after being urged to do so by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem: a claim so outrageously ahistorical that its real intent – to stoke anti-Arab sentiment – was impossible to miss.

Netanyahu eventually backpedaled, but he built on a long history of depicting Arabs as Hitler’s successors, if not his inspiration. According to such depictions, Arab anti-Israel sentiment does not stem from opposition to the violent displacement of Palestinians in order to establish a state dominated by people of European descent. Rather, hostility to Israel stems from a deadly antisemitism: a desire to “finish off” the job that Hitler started by destroying the very state that became home to many Holocaust survivors and which was supposed to guarantee Jews’ safety. In this telling of history, Arabs’ supposedinhumanity in light of the Holocaust is the key factor in the Middle Eastern conflict.

Israel did become the home of many Holocaust survivors. Some of them insist that the lessons of the Holocaust demand recognition of all people’s equal humanity. But such voices are outside the mainstream because of the context from which they emerge: they are cries of protest against Israel’s continued violence towards and expropriation of Palestinians. The far more typical “lessons of the Holocaust” in Israel, and in much of American Jewish opinion, are particularist, not universalist: the timelessness of antisemitism, the need for a strong Jewish state. And so “lessons of the Holocaust” are conflated with fears of dangerous Arabs.

American Jews are less inclined to unquestioningly support Israel than they once were, with younger Jews particularly alienated by what they see as the racism of the Israeli state. The fact that so many American Jews are citing the Holocaust to explain their commitment to Syrian refugees might feel self-evident, but in a way it’s remarkable: Syria and Israel, after all, have technically been at war since 1948. We should not take for granted an interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust whose universalism explicitly includes masses of Arabs.

But there’s a lot of history to overcome. Nationalist deployments of Holocaust memory deserve a share the blame for anti-Arab paranoia in the United States as well as in Israel. Until we fully disentangle Holocaust memory from anti-Arab sentiment, the Holocaust will have limited claim as a lesson against all prejudice.


Elizabeth Heineman teaches history and memory of the Holocaust, among other things, at the University of Iowa


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