Alan Silverstein

Indifference to Jewish Refugees Fleeing Nazi Europe

As we commemorate Yom HaShoah VeHagevura [Holocaust Memorial Day], the world faces a crisis in which millions of Middle Eastern and Latin America refugees are seeking new homes. Each element in this humanitarian challenge merits evaluation in its own terms. So, too, the plight that faced Jews hoping to escape from Nazi genocide needs to be seen in its unique context.

First, the Jewish catastrophe uniquely took place during a period of instability, the “Great Depression” of the 1930s and the violence of WWII, creating conditions adverse to receptivity to refugees. Second, in contrast to 2016, at Evian, France in 1938 and then again in 1943 in Bermuda, the Major Powers met and collectively decided to close their doors to Jews irrespective of their desperate circumstances. Third, countries like the USA implemented discriminatory immigration laws soon after WWI. Consequently, American annual quotas were dramatically smaller than today. Moreover, the quotas were infinitesimal from countries whose national origins [like Poland and Eastern Europe] did not correspond well with the US Census of 1890: 51,000 annually from Germany. 34,000 each year from Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Yet only 6000 from Poland and 2000 from Russia.

Fourth, anti-Semitism was socially acceptable and wide-spread. Father Coughlin, the infamous “Radio Priest,” broadcast weekly tirades to millions of listeners warning of the alleged plot by Jews to take over the world. Coughlin’s call for a “united Christian Front” launched rallies by Christian Fronters assailing J3ews as “communists, international bankers and war mongers.” Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, continued its pattern of the 1920s by circulating segments of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery composed within Czarist Russia which alleged a Jewish quest for global domination. The overly anti-Semitic German American Bund had chapters in New Jersey and throughout the country. FDR’s unprecedented openness to welcoming Jews in his Cabinet earned for him the canard that he was “a Manchurian candidate,” e.g. “President Rosenfeld.”

Fifth, procedural impediments by anti-Semitic US customs bureaucrats made Jewish entry into these shores all the more unlikely. For example, in order to receive a Visa, a prospective emigrant had to show proof of a secured job lest they become “a public charge” during an era of economic Depression. However, if the porpective immigrant did obtain employment in advance, their Visa would be denied in accord with “the contract labor” provision added to US immigration laws, i.e. taking away a job from an American citizen. An additional “Catch 22” required the applicant to present a Boat Ticket prior to being issued a Visa at a US consulate. Yet a Boat Ticket purchase mandated elusive certification of “good behavior” from the local authorities, the Nazis! As a consequence of these artificial barriers, between 1933 and 1937, fewer than 40,000 Jews were able to enter the USA.

Additionally, as of the summer of 1940 “America Firsters” such as Charles Lindberg accused “the Jews” of manufacturing “atrocity stories” in order to drag the USA into war against “natural allies against Communism,” the Nazi regime in Berlin. Once Pearl Harbor was attacked and America entered the war, Jewish immigration next was opposed by those who warned of possible entry by “enemy agents.” The anti-immigrant pressure exerted upon the Roosevelt Administration and a State Department bureaucracy riddled with anti-Semitic officials sustained a US hard line even when the shocking reality of the death camps was affirmed.

On Yom HaShoah each year it is incumbent upon us to be sensitized to the plight of all types of refugees, just as Passover reminds us that “we too were slaves in Egypt.” Nevertheless, in joining with others who seek to aid 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 no stand idly by the blood of other human beings [Leviticus 19:16].”

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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