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February 8, 2017 11:51 am

Trump’s Refugee Ban Echoes Past US Wartime Paranoia and Outright Bigotry

avatar by Albert L. Kramer /

President Donald Trump. Photo: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons.

President Donald Trump. Photo: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons. — There are many axioms reminding us that if we fail to learn from the tragedies of the past, we are doomed to relive them in the future. We appear to have failed to heed that warning.

On May 13, 1939, the German ship the St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba with 937 Jewish refugees on board, almost all fleeing for their lives from the Nazis. They were offered temporary respite in Cuba while they waited for their applications for US visas to be approved. But then, the situation in Cuba changed, and the president rescinded all recently issued landing certificates, and antisemitic rallies, which drew thousands of people, demanded that these Jewish refugees be kept out. These money-hungry immigrants, exhorted the protesters, were not to be let in to take away our jobs. The Jewish refugees were turned away.

The St. Louis then attempted to dock in Miami. The country that welcomes the homeless and the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” also denied entry to the Jewish refugees seeking asylum, although the president and the State Department knew that they were sending these people back on a perilous and hopeless journey.

With nowhere to go, the St. Louis was compelled to return to Europe. The Jewish refugees were dispersed, left to fend for themselves, and 254 of them were killed in the Holocaust. Thousands of other Jewish refugees were murdered after similarly being denied entry into the US via immigration laws determined to keep them out.

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One of the arguments given in the US for refusing to rescue Jewish refugees from Hitler was to protect the country. The expressed fear was that the Germans could turn Jewish refugees into spies, by holding their families hostage back in Germany — yet not one case of such espionage was ever documented.

The noted Holocaust historian, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, concluded that the Jews were denied entry due to the State Department’s wartime paranoia and outright bigotry. Sound familiar? The State Department stated that the Jewish immigrants presented a national security risk. Sound familiar?

These are the exact reasons why the US has now decided to refuse entry to any of the million Syrian refugees who have fled their country seeking safety from the devastating ravages of a civil war, and in effect, like the Jews, they are now being told to seek asylum elsewhere.

As a result of the largest humanitarian crisis and displacement of human beings since World War II, 12 million Syrians have fled their homes. More than six million of them remain trapped and displaced within Syria. Five million of them have been taken in by caring neighboring countries. The US had made a very limited commitment — but at least it was a commitment — to allow 100,000 of the remaining million Syrian refugees, mostly single mothers and children, to immigrate to America, in addition to the 16,000 already admitted.

However, a presidential executive order has now been issued barring all Syrian refugees from entering the US indefinitely, and severely restricting immigration and travel from six other Muslim-majority countries. “National security” once again is being used as a rationale for barring entry to certain types of refugees — this time to deal with the threat of terrorism.

The order seeks to implement extreme scrutiny of Muslims trying to seek asylum in our country, though there is already a successful vetting program in place. The vetting process is already extreme in nature, with biometric and database screening, security screening and multiple interviews of prospective immigrants by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center. This vetting process takes up to two years to complete before allowing an entry. Importantly, with this scrupulous vetting system, not one American has been killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee from Syria or from any of the other six Muslim-majority countries targeted by the current travel ban.

Professor Lipstadt’s historical finding of the past is just as instructive today, and bears remembering by every Jewish-American citizen. Jews were denied entry solely due to wartime paranoia and outright bigotry.

Any American Jew who is unwilling to stand up and oppose this similar wartime paranoia and bigotry, denying innocent Syrian-Muslim refugees asylum from the ravages of their war-torn country, and oppose the executive order’s religious discrimination, must be concerned about forfeiting his or her right to criticize the US for its past failure to give asylum to innocent Jewish refugees who faced the unspeakable Holocaust.

Honorable Albert L. Kramer has served as the Presiding Justice of the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts, a Chief Policy Adviser to the Governor of Massachusetts and a Massachusetts state legislator. The Quincy District Court is distinguished for receiving many national awards for Judge Kramer’s innovative programs — two of which were featured segments on the CBS program “60 Minutes.”

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