U.S. resistance to Syrian refugees sparks comparisons to WWII Jews' plight
Sol Messinger was just 7 when he stood with his father at the railing of the ship St. Louis. Nearly eight decades later, Messinger still remembers the lights of Miami as the ship passed by. They seemed so near to him and more than 900 other Jewish refugees on board, yet beyond their reach.
Today, "I look out into the ocean and I get this queasy feeling," says Messinger.
In 1939, Messinger's family and the other refugees boarded the St. Louis in hopes of fleeing Germany. But Cuba and the United States did not let the ship land, forcing it to sail back to Europe. Although Messinger's family was eventually able to enter the U.S., more than a quarter of the Jews on the St. Louis died during the Holocaust, the mass killing of Jews by German Nazis during World War II.
Now 83, Messinger is a doctor in New York. "The Jews did not pose any threat to the U.S. ... It's really unforgivable," he said.
Spotlight On An Ugly Time In History
Today, there is once again anxiety about whether to admit refugees to the U.S. or turn them away. The question has returned the spotlight to the decision -- and other decisions that U.S. officials regret -- about the St. Louis.
On Nov. 13, the Islamic State group killed 130 people in Paris, France. Also known as ISIS, the extremist group wants to start its own country under its version of Islamic law. Its fighters have taken over parts of Syria and Iraq. Millions of people have fled, causing a massive refugee crisis. President Barack Obama has announced a plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Most of them are Muslim.
There are differences between what Jews faced during the Holocaust and what Muslims face now. But there are also disturbing similarities, scholars say.
"No historical parallel is perfect, obviously," says Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C.
Arguments For Barring Refugees Have Resurfaced
During World War II, the U.S. put strict limits on the numbers of refugees who could come to the United States. Some in the government did not like Jews and so they did not want to let them into the country. They were also worried that the Nazis would put spies among the Jewish refugees, Lichtman said.
"Those arguments are chillingly similar to the arguments being made against the admission of the Syrian refugees," he said.
Lichtman isn't alone in making the comparison.
On Monday, Peter Shulman of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio posted results from a 1938 public opinion poll on Twitter. It showed that Americans overwhelmingly rejected admission of German Jews in the years leading up to World War II.
One of his tweets about the poll has been shared 4,600 times.
U.S. Will Regret Closing Border, Lawmaker Says
Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said the U.S. later regretted sending Jews back to Germany. "We will regret this as well," he said.
On Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio criticized a number of Republican governors for opposing admission of Syrian refugees. He also mentioned the poll. In 1938, 67 percent of Americans said the U.S. should try to keep German and Austrian refugees out of the country. Also, 61 percent did not want to allow 10,000 German Jewish children to enter.
Ian Tuttle writes for the National Review, a conservative magazine that reflects the views of some people in the Republican party. He said there is no comparison between German Jews in the 1930s and Syrians now. The biggest difference is that the Jews were not trying to carry out attacks on civilians, unlike the Islamic State group, he said.
Only 3 Out Of 784,000
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the U.S. has taken in 784,000 refugees. Of them, just three have been arrested on charges of planning terrorist activities, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a group that tracks the movement of people around the world.
Messinger sees some similarities between his experience and the people fleeing Syria. But it's not exactly the same, he says.
Jews escaped from Europe because of discrimination and mistreatment based on their religion, he said.
But the Syrians are leaving because they live in a war zone, not because they are being treated unfairly because they are Muslim, he said.
What's more, there is a fear that terrorists may sneak into the country. Yet nobody aboard the St. Louis was a threat, Messinger said.
We Can, Should Stop Suffering, Documentarian Says
Robert Krakow's SS St. Louis Legacy Project has researched the history of the voyage. That project won an apology from the U.S. government for turning the ship away. He sees more similarities than differences between the Jewish and Muslim refugees.
"Ultimately, it's all grounded in the human condition. It's grounded in human need and suffering, and here's a case where we can do something," he said.