In 1941, with hundreds of thousands of Jews seeking to flee the tightening garrote of Nazi Germany, North Carolina Sen. Robert Reynolds warned that “with every 25 or 50 refugees who come here there are agents of Hitler and Stalin.” (Earlier, Reynolds railed about what he called “Aliens and the Unemployment Problem.”) Popular magazines picked up the “fifth column” theme. Hardly fringe ideas, these fears of Jewish “infiltration” and competition influenced U.S. policy. Obtaining a visa to enter the United States became stricter and more complex. It was not until January 1944 that President Roosevelt took action to rescue European Jews, and by then it was mostly too late.
Today, refugees from Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and other violence-torn countries are seeking haven in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and across Europe. Remarkably and sadly, Jews are among those asking “practical” questions about the current refugee crisis that echo the economic and security anxieties that cost Jewish lives in the 1930s and ’40s. One respected Holocaust historian wonders if some of these refugees are merely trying to “find a better economic and social future for their families,” and whether this “influx of people” will “change the face of Europe.” The U.S. makes it hard for Syrian families to resettle here out of fear of creating what one leading lawmaker calls “a federally funded jihadi pipeline.” Israeli leaders are engaged in a painful debate over accepting a token number of refugees from Syria.
Despite this chin-scratching, numerous Jewish organizations are embracing their historical role as champions of the dispersed. In Great Britain, World Jewish Relief is providing assistance to refugees in Turkey and Greece, and is advocating for England to expand its goal for accepting refugees. In America, HIAS, founded to resettle millions of Jewish immigrants, hopes to have resettled nearly 100 Syrian refugees by the end of the month. HIAS also hopes the U.S. rolls out the welcome mat for more refugees from Syria’s civil war. The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is collecting funds that will go directly to the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees coordinated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. (Click here for more information.)
Exaggerated fears of terrorism, economic competition, and cultural transformation have slowed the response to the global refugee crisis. And other Muslim countries should and must do their fair share. But our own history demands that we take action. As Zoltan Radnoti, chairman of a Hungarian-Jewish umbrella group that is assisting Middle Eastern refugees in his country, told JTA, “As Eastern European Jews, we carry the knowledge of how it feels to flee our homes.”