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“Nativist Hysteria” Against Syrian Refugees Echoes U.S. Rejection of Jewish Refugees in 1930s

StoryNovember 24, 2015
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The firestorm of controversy that erupted over whether the United States should continue to accept Syrian refugees after the deadly attacks in Paris includes a bill by House Republican lawmakers to restrict Iraqi and Syrian refugees from resettling here. At least 31 U.S. states have said they will not accept the refugees, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said, “We can’t have them. They are going back.” Others are drawing historical parallels with a different refugee crisis the country faced in the 1930s, when Jewish refugees sought refuge here. Case Western Reserve University history professor Peter Shulman recently tweeted a Fortune magazine poll question from 1939 that asked, “Should the U.S. government permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany?” The results showed 61 percent of respondents at the time said no. Among those seeking refuge and denied entry were Anne Frank and her family. “The nativist response then has very clear echos now,” says Ishaan Tharoor, foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post, whose recent article is headlined, “Yes, the comparison between Jewish and Syrian refugees matters.” We also speak with Ilya Lozovsky, an editor at Foreign Policy and author of the article, “I’m a Russian-born American Jew. My people’s rejection of Syrian refugees breaks my heart.” He says he decided to speak out because “[e]ven if Donald Trump never becomes president, this type of discourse has become legitimized.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the firestorm of controversy that’s erupted over whether the U.S. should continue to accept Syrian refugees after the deadly attacks in Paris. Last week, the House passed legislation introduced by Republican lawmakers to restrict Iraqi and Syrian refugees from resettling here in the U.S. The Republican measures would require individual sign-offs by top federal officials for every person from Iraq and Syria seeking refugee status. President Obama has vowed to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. This comes as governors of at least 31 states have said they will not accept the refugees. This is Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.

GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY: The thing that I want to do as governor is to make sure the people of Alabama are safe. And if there is any—if there’s even the slightest risk that people who are coming in from Syria are not the types of people that we would want them to be, then we can’t take that chance.

AMY GOODMAN: A recent tweet that went viral drew a historical parallel with a different refugee crisis the country faced, this time in the ’30s when Jewish refugees sought refuge here. A Case Western Reserve University history professor named Peter Shulman tweeted a Fortune magazine poll question from 1939 that read, quote, “Should the U.S. government permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany?” The results showed overwhelmingly the respondents said we should keep them out. Among those denied entry was Anne Frank, who famously wrote about her experience in hiding from the Nazis in The Diary of Anne Frank. Documents released in 2007 show her father, Otto Frank, tried repeatedly to escape to the United States and Cuba before he was denied and the family went into hiding.

Part of the ordeal faced by Jewish refugees during and after World War II was portrayed in the 1976 film, Voyage of the Damned. The film is based on the true story of the 1939 voyage of the MS St. Louis, which sailed for Havana from Hamburg, Germany, carrying 900 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. The Cuban government refused entry to the passengers, so the ship made its way to the United States, where the Coast Guard delivered the following message, as portrayed in this clip from the film.

MS ST. LOUIS CREWMAN: Attention, Captain St. Louis. You are violating U.S. territorial limits. Do not approach any closer. Do not attempt to land. You will not—repeat, not—be permitted to dock at any United States port. Acknowledge.

MS ST. LOUIS CAPTAIN: Signal, “Message received and acknowledged.”

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the 1976 film Voyage of the Damned. The ship was left with no choice but to return to Germany. A number of people jumped off the sides of the ship and drowned. Many hundreds of the German Jews who were returned to Germany were exterminated in the concentration camps.

Well, for more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Ilya Lozovsky, an editor at Foreign Policy. He recently wrote an article in The Washington Post headlined “I’m a Russian-born American Jew. My people’s rejection of Syrian refugees breaks my heart.”

Also in D.C., Ishaan Tharoor, a foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post. His recent piece headlined “Yes, the comparison between Jewish and Syrian refugees matters.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ishaan, I want to begin with you. Talk about the original piece you wrote for The Washington Post. It went viral. How many hits? More than two-and-a-half million hits on this one piece.

ISHAAN THAROOR: Well, yes. Good morning, Amy, and thanks for having us on. That piece I wrote, based on the tweets that you cited by the—by Peter Shulman, the academic, went viral. It was last week around this time. And it struck a nerve. This is just in the aftermath of the Paris attacks and a moment when the conversation about refugees was just whirring up in the U.S. And it really—it was a very simple piece, citing these polls and citing the way in which public opinion then seemed to reflect public opinion now. The analogy between what we saw in the 1930s and what we’re going through right now is obviously an imperfect one. Obviously, no one’s completely drawing a totally identical parallel between Jewish refugees and Syrian refugees. The point is, of course, that the nativist response then has very clear echoes now.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the poll asked in 1939. Would you accept 10,000 Jewish refugee children here fleeing from the Nazis?

ISHAAN THAROOR: Right. So this is a poll that was done by Gallup in early 1939 at a time when there was about to be a conversation in the U.S. about bipartisan legislation regarding a bill that proposed letting in 20,000 refugee children from Europe. Presumably, this meant refugee—Jewish refugee children. But that distinction wasn’t totally clear at the time. So—and there was this poll, as you cited, that—where I think more than two-thirds of the respondents pretty much said, “No, don’t let them in.” And this reflected, yes, rank anti-Semitism at the time, but also reflected other fears over immigration, over the perceived ideological threat that these alien refugees posed, and it reflected, by and large, just the general nativism of the moment.

The bipartisan legislation that I mentioned didn’t pass, as well. It was met by all sorts of opposition across the country, with politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, making arguments that we hear now. At least we hear echoes of those arguments now, talking about this being the first plank to a communistic takeover of the U.S., talking about the threat of, you know, disguised Nazi agents coming among the Jewish ranks. And so, all this language of subversion, of fear, of security threats, was very much heard then at the time, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Ilya Lozovsky, describe your response to what is taking place in this country now.

ILYA LOZOVSKY: Thanks very much, Amy, for having me on. My response, I think, is very similar. In my piece, I addressed a slightly different audience. I addressed my own community of Russian- or Soviet-born Jews who have immigrated to the United States, either as refugees, you know, in the '70s and ’80s or as sort of more immigrants during the ’90s. I, myself, was one of them. My family came to the United States in 1990 from Moscow. And I just found it very disturbing and heartbreaking, as I said in my piece, that this community would see such strong rejection of the—now the Syrian refugees, not for any kind of reasons that I view as defensible. We can talk about security. We can talk about how good is the vetting process. Those are all legitimate concerns and questions, of course, after Paris. But a lot of these objections are based on, frankly, racist and bigoted views towards these immigrants: They're not going to assimilate, they’re not like us, they can’t contribute to American society. Some commenters describe them literally as animals, as cockroaches.

And that kind of dehumanizing language I find especially disturbing, coming from my own community, which faced such discrimination, both, you know, not being able to come here during the Second World War, but we—Soviet Jews benefited so much from the welcome we received in the United States after a very tough campaign fought by Americans of all kinds, Jews and not, to encourage letting Soviet Jews immigrate to the United States. And I just think we should remember that, and we should remember that these Syrian refugees are fleeing something so appalling and horrific that it’s hard for us to imagine, and we should have a little more compassion. And if we have security concerns, let’s talk about them in an informed and sober way. And that’s not what I saw in my community, at least. So that’s what led me to write that piece.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments recently made about Syrian refugees by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who is surging in the polls.

DONALD TRUMP: I want surveillance of certain mosques, OK? If that’s OK. I want surveillance. And you know what? We’ve had it before, and we’ll have it again. I will absolutely take database on the people coming in from Syria, if we can’t stop it, but we’re going to. And if I win, I’ve made it known—if I win, they’re going back. We can’t have them. They’re going back. We can’t have them. We can’t have them.

AMY GOODMAN: “We can’t have them.” Ilya Lozovsky, editor at Foreign Policy, respond.

ILYA LOZOVSKY: Well, to me, beyond what Donald Trump said, the most disturbing part of that clip was the cheering in the background, because it sort of, to me, reflects the sort of nativist hysteria that’s being whipped up by these comments. Even if Donald Trump never becomes president, this kind of discourse has been legitimized. And this is what I saw. This is exactly what I was responding to. And it reflects, I think, a very strong ignorance of who these people actually are and what they’re fleeing from and what they could contribute, importantly, to this country.

Muslim Americans are just as integrated into American society as anyone else. They are largely middle-class. They are productive citizens. They believe in all the ideals, all the democratic ideals that we hold dear. And this kind of opposition to them reflects the same kind of opposition that before has been faced by Chinese immigrants, by Italians, by Irish, by Catholics, by Jews, by so many different groups. And in every case, it has proven wrong. Everyone can assimilate. And this is somewhere the United States has a very strong advantage compared to Europe. We are good at integrating immigrants. It is good for our country. It is our moral imperative. And these kind of arguments just don’t hold any water at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Ishaan Tharoor, can you talk about having to write the second piece, after your first piece went viral, on the issue of comparing Syrian and Jewish refugees?

ISHAAN THAROOR: Right. Well, it obviously went viral. It elicited a very strong response from people both sympathetic to what I was saying and also completely animated and angry about what I was saying. And so I felt I had to clarify that the point is not to say that Syria is Nazi Germany, or the point is not to say that Jews and Syrians are identical. The point is not to say that this is a direct reflection of exactly what happened then. The point is very specifically that the exact same rhetoric used by politicians and others, prominent figures in the U.S. in the 1930s, warning against the threat of these refugees, is very, very similar.

And the nature of that response, when we think about what these people are fleeing, the fact that these are refugees who are fleeing a horrendous conflict, living in dire circumstances in countries around the borders of Syria, which are straining, really buckling under the pressures in burdens to accommodate them and host them, that this is part of an international responsibility that the U.S. certainly has, that the U.S. has taken up in the past, and that the important thing to remember in this context is that even after the Paris terror attacks, President François Hollande declared very clearly that France will continue to honor its commitment to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees, minimum, over the next two years. This is even in the wake of them suffering this kind of particular terror attack, which is, for many wrong reasons, equated to the threat of Syrian refugees. So if the French can get over this, the fact that there’s such hysteria in the U.S. is remarkable.

And the point remains throughout that what’s astonishing, as well, about the past week is that before the Paris terror attacks, the conversation around Syrian refugees in the U.S. was almost the opposite. The question was: Why is the U.S., A, taking so few, only 10,000 in the next calendar year, or in the next fiscal year? And then, B, surely, things must be done to step up the process and take in more. And now, in the wake of this attack and the way certain political forces in this country have harnessed the—have exploited the hysteria around the Paris terror attacks, we’re seeing a very, very different conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Ishaan and Ilya, we’ll have to leave it there. Ishaan Tharoor and Ilya Lozovsky, we’ll link to both of your pieces. Thanks so much for joining us. We’re sorry that Congressmember Ellison couldn’t join us. He was on the scene at the attacks in Minneapolis.

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