As Syrian refugee debate continues, a US duty to remember Holocaust

As the U.S. debates the security implications of accepting refugees from the Syrian crisis, Americans should remember our history with Jewish refugees during World War II, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said Tuesday.

There are some unfortunate similarities between the American reaction then and now, said Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The U.S., separated from the crisis by an ocean, can close its doors in a way that Europe cannot.

House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Tuesday that he would lead an effort to force a “pause” in admitting Syrian refugees. Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have proposed litmus tests for Syrians based on religion, tests President Barack Obama said ran counter to American values.

“At the moment Americans are looking at retrenchment, these refugees are looking to the U.S. to be the shining city on the hill,” Hudson said. “That appeals to the better nature of Americans.”

When thinking about how to treat those fleeing atrocities in Syria, Hudson said, Americans should remember the failure of the international community to protect the victims of the Holocaust.

“You look at the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, we built high walls, we stopped legal immigration,” he said. “We’re not quite at that point yet, but there’s a growing backlash.”

The United States did accept thousands of Jews through regular immigration procedures during World War II but until 1944 didn’t have a program to address the flow of refugees fleeing the Nazis. Beginning in 1940, U.S. policy made it difficult for Jewish refugees to gain admittance, and U.S. consulates were ordered to delay visa approvals on national security grounds.

For the Holocaust Museum, the refugee crisis is just one symptom of the U.S. failure to respond to the mass atrocities in Syria.

“Nobody can reasonably argue that the response from the international community has been enough,” Hudson said. “As an institution we have a mandate to be the voice that the Jews of the 1930s did not have.”

But the Jews of Europe in the early 20th century did have more advocates in the U.S. than today’s Syrians do. Those advocates constantly pushed the U.S. government to be compassionate and to take in more refugees. Syrians have little such support. But they do have precedent on their side. They continue to hope American morality will trump fear.