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The Syrian Refugee Crisis: We Cannot Repeat History

Created: 18 November, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
4 min read

When we are faced with troubling modern events, it is helpful to turn our lens toward history in an effort to find patterns and precedents that can be applied today. For example, to address our current debate about the allowance of Syrian refugees into the United States, it might help to turn back the page to how Jewish refugees were mistreated prior to World War II.

The Holocaust is often considered the most tragic scar on the history of Western Civilization. Approximately six million Jews were systemically detained, imprisoned, and murdered by Nazi Germany.

The Allied Forces can lay claim to liberating thousands of internment camp survivors after toppling the Third Reich. However, many more lives could have been saved without the conscription of a single soldier or the firing of a single bullet. All that was needed was policy reform—more specifically, an open and responsive refugee policy.

The Allies could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives if they had granted asylum to the Jewish refugees who were attempting to flee the dark specter of 1930s Europe.

The increasing hostility toward Jews in Germany in the 1930s led to an increasing flood of immigrants, which in turn became an escalating international crisis. Leadership from the United States, Great Britain, France, and dozens of other countries convened during the

Evian Conference of 1938 to discuss the emerging refugee crisis taking place in Europe.

The goal of the conference seemed simple: The international community needed to open its doors to the beleaguered Jewish refugees. Hitler even offered his support to ease the emigration of Jews from his occupied territories. In response to Evian, Hitler stated that he was willing to place Jews on “luxury ships” to countries who held deep sympathy for them.

However, the Evian Conference produced no substantial rescue effort for Jewish refugees, and is referred to as a “failure of the international community.”

The reason: The United States and Great Britain were unwilling to ease their quota systems and restrictive immigration process to accept more Jewish refugees. The United States didn’t distinguish between immigrants and refugees at that time, so everybody had to get in the same line — and that line was riddled with red tape.

Anti-Semitism was just as prevalent in the United States as it was in Europe. Henry Ford, America’s most prominent industrialist, blamed the Jews for WWI, labeling them the “international financiers (who) are behind all war.” He continued, “Here the Jew is a threat.”

Following the Great Depression, Ford’s sentiment was reflected in mainstream nativist America’s distrust of foreigners who might “compete for their jobs, burden their already beleaguered social services, or be tempted as impoverished workers by the promises of labor agitators or domestic Communist movements.”

The window of rescuing Jewish refugees closed in 1941 when Nazi Germany officially banned all Jewish emigration. Rescue wouldn’t come until 1944 when an effective effort was mounted by the Allies. By then, however, it was too late.

American conservatives traditionally postulate that German Jews could have thwarted or mitigated the atrocities of the Holocaust if they were not systematically disarmed by the Nazi regime. What they disregard though is that the reforms to immigration and refugee policy that followed World War II—the Immigration Act of 1965 and the Refugee Act of 1980—could have saved even more lives than any hypothetical retrofitting of the Second Amendment on the German constitution.

In fact, millions of lives were saved when the United States did the right thing by granting safe haven to refugees from the former USSR, Vietnam, Iraq, and many other war torn countries.

So why now the hesitancy with Syrian refugees?

Following the recent terrorist attacks on Paris, many lawmakers and political commentators have raised skepticism about the security of porous borders. However, threats of terrorism as the result of refugee settlement are overblown myths.

According to The Economist, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, approximately 750,000 refugees (including a large wave from the Middle East) have been resettled in the United States, and only two were arrested for terrorist activity—both of which didn’t target the American homeland.

Over three million refugees are displaced from the chaos occurring in Syria. The United States pushed the first domino down leading to the unfortunate chain of escalating horrors endured by this group. The horrifically misguided American invasion of Iraq destabilized the region, displaced Baathist loyalist who in turn strengthened ISIS, and inspired the subsequent conflict with Assad’s regime in Syria.

In the words of your local store clerk, you break it; you buy it. The United States has a moral obligation to help Syrian refugees—more so than we did with the Jewish refugees of the 1930s—because of our disastrous foreign policies that have created the conditions that disrupted their lives.

Hindsight is only 20/20 if you work to avoid the mistakes of the past. Hopefully, we don’t allow history to repeat itself.

Photo Credit: Alexandre Rotenberg / Shutterstock.com