We all know the adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Seems that some of us must be willfully ignoring our own history and what it can teach us about refugees.
In a highly publicized event in May–June 1939, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the St. Louis. The St. Louis appeared off the coast of Florida shortly after Cuban authorities cancelled the refugees’ transit visas and denied entry to most of the passengers, who were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States. Denied permission to land in the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe. The governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. Of the 908 St. Louis passengers who returned to Europe, 254 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust.(1)
In 1936, the State Department approved visas for about 7,000 German refugees. By 1938, that number had increased to more than 20,000. But an opinion poll revealed that 82 percent of Americans still opposed admitting large numbers of Jewish refugees into the United States. Despite pleas by American human-rights organizations, the U.S. State Department refused to increase the German quota any further.(2)
Of course, American anti-Semitism never approached the intensity of Jew-hatred in Nazi Germany, but pollsters found that many Americans looked upon Jews unfavorably. A much more threatening sign was the presence of anti-Semitic leaders and movements on the fringes of American politics, including Father Charles E. Coughlin, the charismatic radio priest, and William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts.(3)
Some of us might think it’s unpatriotic or bashing America to face the unpleasant truths of the past. It’s not. A great nation doesn’t shy away or deny those truths. It learns from them.
How is it, then, that some of us are making the same mistakes, in both word and deed, as was made with Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany?
How is it that some of us can support politicians and refugee policies that discriminate against an entire population of human beings simply because of their country of origin or their religion?
I say ‘some of us’ because it’s not all of us.
It’s unfair to lump all Americans into any category, and I refuse to quietly be lumped in with some Americans who would have been right at home turning Jewish refugees away in their time of need.
I won’t let future generations think some of us didn’t speak up.
The fact that Trump is still leading Republican polls but that some in the party are finally starting to call him what he is, a fascist, is a hopeful sign.
Who really wants future generations to look back and shake their heads for how Syrian refugees are being talked about and treated?
Just as troubling, who wants our progeny to look back at the kind of person who led in the polls and perhaps who went on to represent one of the two major parties in America at this point in our history?
I’m calling on all Republicans to take your party back.
Turn your back on fear, hatred, cowardice, and xenophobia. Turn your back on Trump and people like him who are truly the existential threat to America.
Please, please don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. History will not be kind to you.