When America denied refuge to Jews fleeing the Holocaust, it had more to do with isolationism and economics than anti-Semitism, according to the senior historian for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Much of the anti-immigrant sentiment was fueled by fears the newcomers would take away scarce jobs in a worsening economy or live on the public dole, Dr. Peter Black told NJJN in a phone interview from the museum after speaking in Manalapan on April 13. Such xenophobia was codified with the 1924 Immigration Act, which set immigration quotas.
“To put it in context, the push to keep all immigrants out of the United States was extremely popular after the first world war,” said Black. The prevailing sentiment, he said, was, “If it’s my relative it’s okay, but anyone else keep out.”
Black spoke at Congregation Sons of Israel to commemorate Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I tried to give the audience a way to understand U.S. behavior at the time,” said Black. “I tried to give them tools in thinking about what this means for the future and what we could and couldn’t do at the time.
“We certainly could have been more generous with immigration prior to World War II, and I do believe we could have been much more focused on developing the War Refugee Board earlier in time and provided it with much more funding.”
The War Refugee Board, established in 1944, rescued some 200,000 Jews.
Prior to that, anti-immigrant sentiment ran high. Isolationists feared communism, organized labor, and the rise of fascism, while many remembered, and resented, the heavy price paid by American troops in World War I.
While Jews were indeed fleeing ingrained persecution, there was a widespread suspicion that they, like others, “weren’t really refugees but were seeking economic opportunities.”
“It really makes you think about what’s going on today,” added Black, who in the 1980s and 1990s worked for the federal Department of Justice Office of Special Investigations as part of a team tracking and prosecuting suspected Nazi war criminals.
The Great Depression further hardened opposition to immigration.
Despite fairly high levels of anti-Semitism at the time, polls conducted in the late 1930s showed that 75 percent of all Americans believed the United States should help Europe’s Jews. However, 85 percent also said the immigration quota should not be expanded to allow them entry, a result, he said, less of anti-Semitism than “concern that poor immigrants would come in and take their jobs,” said Black.
In addition, in 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt “was probably at the weakest point in his presidency,” said Black, the Republicans having won control of both houses of Congress. “It was not the best time to issue a presidential order to do what 85 percent of the population was dead set against.”
Black also refuted criticism by “folks who assumed the Allies knew everything about the Holocaust in 1935 or 1940.”
Extermination “was still in the planning stage until 1941, and these were highly secret” plans, to which, Black said, few American diplomats still in Europe were privy. However, by 1942, he said, the United States “was certainly aware of the policy to annihilate the Jews of Europe.”
American officials decided that “the best way to save as many as possible was to win the war as fast as possible,” although there was some direct action to halt the slaughter, most notably in Hungary in 1944.