As we commemorate Yom Hashoa V’hagevura — Holocaust Remembrance Day — on May 5, the world faces a crisis in which millions of Middle Eastern and Latin American refugees are seeking new homes. Each element in this humanitarian challenge merits evaluation on its own terms. So too, the plight that faced Jews hoping to escape from the Nazi genocide needs to be seen in its unique context.
The Jewish catastrophe uniquely took place during a period of instability, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the violence of World War II. In contrast to 2016, at Evian, France, in 1938 and again in 1943 in Bermuda, the major powers met and collectively decided to close their doors to Jews in desperate circumstances. Countries like the United States had in place discriminatory immigration laws, implemented soon after World War I, with annual quotas much smaller than those of today. Moreover, these numbers were infinitesimal from countries whose national origins like Poland and Eastern Europe did not correspond well with the U.S. Census of 1920.
At the time, anti-Semitism was socially acceptable and widespread. Father Coughlin, the infamous “Radio Priest,” broadcast weekly tirades warning of the Jews’ alleged plot to take over the world. Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, circulated chapters of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the vile forgery of czarist Russia alleging a Jewish capitalist quest for global domination. The overtly anti-Semitic German Bund had chapters throughout the country, including in New Jersey. FDR’s unprecedented openness to Jews in his Cabinet led to the accusation that “President Rosenfeld” was “a Manchurian candidate.”
Procedural impediments made Jewish entry into this country all the more unlikely. In order to receive a visa, a prospective immigrant had to show proof of a secured job lest he or she become “a public charge.” However, if an immigrant did obtain employment, that individual’s visa could be denied in accordance with “the contract labor” edict, which aimed to prevent immigrants’ taking jobs away from American citizens. An additional Catch-22 required the applicant to present a boat ticket prior to being issued a visa. But in order to purchase such a ticket, the applicant was required to show a certificate of “good behavior” from the local authorities — the Germans!
Additionally, “America Firsters” such as Charles Lindbergh accused “the Jews” of manufacturing “atrocity stories” in order to drag the United States into war against “natural allies against communism,” i.e., the Nazi regime in Berlin. Once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered the war, Jews from Germany and other German-held lands were denied entry to the United States as “possible enemy agents.” The anti-immigrant pressure exerted upon the Roosevelt administration and a State Department bureaucracy riddled with anti-Semitic officials sustained a U.S. hard line even when the shocking reality of the death camps was affirmed.
On Yom Hashoa, we are sensitized to the plight of all refugees, just as we were recently reminded at our Passover seders that “we, too, were slaves in Egypt.” Nevertheless, in joining with others who seek to aid all human beings in peril, we ought not lose sight of the distinctive nature of the indifference faced by our relatives 75 years ago. As Elie Wiesel has taught, the Nazi Holocaust reminds us that sometimes the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. “Do not stand idly by the blood of other human beings.” (Leviticus 19:18)