Among politicians and their clingers-on, journalists, nothing takes hold like a bad historical analogy. Thus as politicians — 29 governors chief among them — call for a halt to our Syrian-refugee-resettlement program on the grounds that it might be exploited as a conduit for terrorists, pundits are invoking the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Germany in an effort to soften American hearts. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote Monday, “This growing cry to turn away people fleeing for their lives brings to mind the SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Florida in 1939,” while his colleague Ishaan Tharoor contended: “Today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child.” Meanwhile, a Daily Kos headline shouts: “Replace ‘Syrian’ with ‘Jewish’ and we’re back to 1939.”
This is prima facie nonsense, which should be obvious from the terms being compared: Jews, an ethnic group, with Syrians, a national one. An honest, apples-to-apples comparison would line up German Jews and Syrian Muslims — the relevant ethnic group within the relevant political entity. But do this, and the failure of the analogy becomes clear.
The first, and most obvious, difference: There was no international conspiracy of German Jews in the 1930s attempting to carry out daily attacks on civilians on several continents. No self-identifying Jews in the early 20th century were randomly massacring European citizens in magazine offices and concert halls, and there was no “Jewish State” establishing sovereignty over tens of thousands of square miles of territory, and publicly slaughtering anyone who opposed its advance. Among Syrian Muslims, there is. The vast majority of Syrian Muslims are not party to these strains of radicalism and violence, but it would be dangerous to suggest that they do not exist, or that our refugee-resettlement program need not take account of them.
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On a related note, the sympathies of Syrian Muslims are more diverse than those of Nazi-era German Jews. A recent Arab Opinion Index poll of 900 Syrian refugees found that one in eight hold a “to some extent”-positive view of the Islamic State (another 4 percent said that they did not know or refused to answer). A non-trivial minority of refugees who support a murderous, metastatic caliphate is a reason for serious concern. No 13 percent of Jews looked favorably upon the Nazi party.
#share#Third, European Jews in the early 20th century were more amenable to assimilation than are Syrian Muslims in the early 21st. By the time of the rise of Nazism, Jews had participated in the intellectual and cultural life of Germany for a century and a half — a life that, despite regional particularities, indisputably fell under the broad banner of Western civilization, in which America participated, too. Moving from Munich to Miami took some getting used to, but you could hear Beethoven in both. Syria stands largely outside of that tradition. For 500 years, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire. When it collapsed, Syria fell briefly under French rule, eventually gaining independence only to succumb to the dictatorship of the Assads, père et fils. The intellectual, cultural, and political traditions of Syria are not in concert with those of the West, and it would be foolish to think that that does not matter — especially when combined with the uncertain sympathies noted above.
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Finally: Jewish refugees — for example, those in the SS St. Louis — were coming from Germany (or Nazi-controlled Austria or Czechoslovakia), but most Syrian refugees seeking entry into the United States have already found refuge elsewhere. Of the 18,000 refugee-resettlement referrals that the United States has received from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “the vast majority,” according to the State Department, are from Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt (and Iraq, parts of which remain sanctuaries from the Islamic State). It is one thing to rescue Jews from imminent danger; it is another to offer greater safety to those who already have it.
#related#But because they are invested in condemning skeptics of this resettlement program as “xenophobes” and “bigots” — Milbank’s words — many have papered over these concrete historical differences, preferring to scold America for a failure of “compassion” 75 years ago, and to warn against a similar failure now. As Refugee Council USA tweeted: “B4 WWII Americans didn’t want Jewish #refugees -we came to regret not letting them in. We can’t do same w/ Syrians[.]”
“No regrets” is a hashtag, not a policy proposal. There are serious, bigotry-free reasons to be wary of accepting Syrian refugees en masse, and historical comparisons should aim to illuminate the situation, not obscure it.