Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Counterpoint: Syrian refugee ban has same flawed rationale as refusal of Holocaust refugees

There are all kinds of sayings reminding us that if we fail to learn from the tragedies of the past, we are doomed to relive them in the future. We appear to have failed to heed that warning. 

On May 31, 1939, the German ship St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba with more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives from Nazi Germany. They were offered respite in Cuba temporarily until their visa applications would be approved to enter the U.S. But anti-Semitic rallies of thousands of people were instigated throughout Cuba, demanding that these Jewish refugees be kept out. These money-hungry immigrants, exhorted the protesters, were not be let in to take away their jobs. The Jewish refugees were turned away. 

The St. Louis then attempted to dock in Miami. The country that welcomes the homeless and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” also denied entry to the Jewish refugees seeking asylum, although the president and the State Department knew that they would be sending them back on a perilous and hopeless journey by refusing to let them land. With nowhere to go, the St. Louis was compelled to return to Europe. The Jewish refugees were disbursed to fend for themselves, with 254 of them served up to be killed in the Holocaust. Thousands of other Jewish refugees were to be martyred having been denied entry into the U.S. by immigration laws deliberately kept strict to keep them out.

The reason given for refusing to rescue Jewish refugees from Hitler was to protect the country. The expressed fear was that the Germans could turn Jewish refugees into spies, by holding their families hostage back in Germany. Yet not one case of such espionage was ever documented to give credence to that fear. 

The noted Holocaust historian Prof. Deborah Lipstadt concluded that the Jews were denied entry due to the State Department’s wartime paranoia and outright bigotry. Sound familiar? The State Department stated that the Jewish immigrants presented a national security risk. Sound familiar?

These are the exact reasons why the U.S. has now decided to refuse entry of any of the 1 million Syrian refugees who have fled their country seeking safety from the devastating ravages of a civil war, and in effect, like the Jews, are now told to seek asylum elsewhere. 

As a result of the largest humanitarian crisis and displacement of human beings since World War II, 12 million Syrians have fled their homes. More than 6 million of them remain trapped and displaced within Syria. Five million of them have been taken in by caring neighboring countries. The U.S. had made a very limited commitment, but at least a commitment, to allow 100,000 of the remaining one million Syrian refugees—mostly single mothers and children—to immigrate to America, on top of the 16,000 who were already admitted.

However, a presidential executive order has just been issued barring all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. indefinitely, and severely restricting immigration and travel from six other Muslim-majority countries. “National security” once again was being used as a rationale for barring entry to certain types of refugees—this time to deal with the threat of terrorism. This is the fear, or more appropriately stated the scare for demanding an extreme scrutiny of Muslims trying to seek asylum in our country, though there is already a successful vetting program in place. The vetting process is already extreme in nature, with biometric and database screening, security screening and multiple interviews of prospective immigrants by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center. This vetting process takes up to two years to complete before allowing an entry. Importantly, with this scrupulous vetting system, not one American has been killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee from Syria or from any of the other six Muslim-majority countries targeted by the current travel ban.    

Prof. Lipstadt’s historical finding of the past is just as instructive today, and bears remembering by every Jewish-American citizen. Jews were denied entry solely due to wartime paranoia and outright bigotry.

Any American Jew who is unwilling to stand up and oppose this similar wartime paranoia and bigotry denying innocent Syrian-Muslim refugees’ asylum from the ravages of their war-torn country, and oppose the executive order’s religious discrimination, must be concerned about forfeiting his or her right to criticize the U.S. for its past failure to give asylum to innocent Jewish refugees who faced the unspeakable Holocaust.

Honorable Albert L. Kramer has served as the Presiding Justice of the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts, a Chief Policy Adviser to the Governor of Massachusetts and a Massachusetts state legislator. The Quincy District Court is distinguished for receiving many national awards for Judge Kramer’s innovative programs—two of which were featured segments on the CBS program “60 Minutes.”


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