American Jews across the United States, repulsed by Republican leaders turning their backs on Syrian refugees fleeing terror, are mobilizing with uncommon unity to support them. That’s because as a community, we collectively remember what happened before the Holocaust, when many of us were murdered by Germany’s genocidal machine after being refused entry into the United States.
In the year 1939, a majority of Americans opposed admitting Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Some feared there would be Nazi infiltrators amidst the desperate Jewish masses. Others lamented that we couldn’t handle the burden. And too many expressed anti-Jewish sentiments to bolster their rejection of Jews fleeing violence in Europe.
When the Wagner-Rogers Bill was proposed in Congress, providing for the resettlement of 20,000 Jews, it didn’t even make it to a vote, being rejected by President Roosevelt and a majority of lawmakers, including Senator Robert Taft (R-OH), who argued that even Jewish children would be a threat to the United States. And that year, desperate Jews fleeing Europe on a number of ships, including the St. Louis, were turned away from our shores.
Most of them were murdered by Hitler.
Which is why I and many American Jews are stunned by the discourse we’re hearing today. It’s almost as if 1939 is repeating itself. When we hear Republican governors say they would (illegally) reject Syrian refugees, we remember. When we read that Republican lawmakers are threatening to shut down the US government over Syrian refugees, we remember. When we hear people like Jeb Bush say only Christian refugees should be allowed entry, we remember. When we hear people say to close our borders to those fleeing terrorism, because they might be terrorists themselves, we remember.
Forget for a moment that this rejection of Syrian refugees would be horrible foreign policy. Forget for a moment that doing so would actually bolster ISIS, which wants to end coexistence between Muslims and the ‘West.’ Forget for a moment what the terrorists fear most is our unity and inclusiveness.
Forget all that for a moment and consider this: many of the Syrian refugees we reject will be murdered. That’s what many American Jews are thinking. That’s what led the ADL to blast Republican governors for their callousness. And that’s what has left me shaking.
Yes, this is a complicated issue for American Jews who are invested in Israel, given Palestinian refugees and Israel’s continued military occupation. Yes, there is much soul-searching to be done and arguments to be had.
However, on this issue, there is no ambiguity. We remember when we fled and this country turned us away. We see the word “Syrian” and think “Jewish.”
Our empathy requires us to never forget. This country would do well to remember.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.