Syrian Refugee and Jewish Displaced Person, Are We Making the Same Mistakes?

With the current refugee crisis facing Europe and the United States, there are many people and policymakers who are debating how to ethically deal with all of the refugees. There are currently many different ways in which countries are aiding refugees.  In Italy there has been a huge influx of refugees, over 153,000 in 2015 alone according to the online newspaper West. The Italian government is working with the EU to provide aid. According to the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Centre, last March Italy pledged more than 19 million USD to provide aid and humanitarian support to the Syrian refugees in Italy, see Syrian Refugees: Aid and Asylum Map. The United States has been under heavy criticism for being extremely selective in who they will allow to seek asylum. In many cases, EU countries do not have that option. Agence France-Presse correspondent Dave Clark wrote that “U.S. President Barack Obama has promised that the United States will admit 10,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement over the next 12 months, after criticism that America is not doing enough.” (Business Insider UK). One thing I have found extremely interesting while listening to the debate surrounding current events, is how much the approach to Syrian refugees is similar to how Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) were dealt with following the Holocaust and World War II.

The basis of this comparison resides in the religious xenophobia suffered by refugee groups: for the DPs, a fear of Judaism, and for the Syrians a fear of Islam. Jewish people have been feared and scapegoated for centuries, but in particular, during the World War II era, many  people were afraid of the Jews because they feared Communism, and Jews were considered to be sympathetic to the Communist Party. Josh Zeitz of Politico Magazine writes that Blue Star Mothers, an anti-Semitic group that was active at the time, warned that there were “200,000 Communist Jews at the Mexican border waiting to get into this country. If they are admitted, they will rape every woman and child that is left unprotected.” This rhetoric, which is uncomfortably close to Donald Trump’s statement about Mexicans being “rapists” last year, parallels the religious and political fears people also have about Syrian refugees. People fear Islam, terrorism, and the idea of someone who is not white and Christian entering the country. Quoted by Zeitz in the same article, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey stated that “Even 5-year old Syrian orphans should be barred from entering American shores” and Ted Cruz stated he would only allow Christian Syrian refugees into the country.

Unfortunately for today’s refugees and yesterday’s DPs, this xenophobic attitude in the United States has also made it more difficult for them to obtain citizenship, leaving millions in limbo. The struggle between these two groups is not entirely the same, however. The most obvious difference is that the Jews were allowed to settle in Palestine and later established the state of Israel, and according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, up to 170,000 Jewish people had moved to Israel by 1953. The Syrian refugees today, however, don’t have a “safe haven.” Beyond this, the Jewish people of World War II were Europeans, and they were not emigrating to Europe for the first time. Many Allied countries were willing to let the Jewish population return to their home countries. Even the United States passed legislation to allow more Jewish Displaced Persons into the country than quotas normally allowed. The Immigration to the United States website explains the legislation that allowed this, which was called the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. The most surprising element of the bill was that it called for the U.S. Displaced Persons Commission to handle the processing of Jewish immigrants instead of the U.S. State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service because it was believed the DP Commission would be more sympathetic and permissive. Today, with the Syrian refugees, Clark cites that “Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States,” a stark contrast to the facilitated process the Jewish people experienced after the Holocaust (Business Insider UK).

Why does it seem like today’s Syrian refugees don’t evoke the same sympathy? While many criticize making this comparison, it is important to make connections and learn lessons in order to find smart solutions for current problems. The inability to learn from the past and grow as a society is detrimental to our future. In our history, we have not stayed true to the original purpose of the United States as a place of liberty for all despite race, religion, or ethnicity. We are a nation of immigrants and those trying to better themselves, and until we embrace this fact, we will not be living up to our full potential as a nation.


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: The Aftermath of the Holocaust

Syrian Refugees: Aid and Asylum Map

Business Insider UK: How the US Plans to Welcome 10,000 Syrian Refugees

Politico Magazine: Yes, It’s Fair to Compare the Plight of the Syrians to the Plight of the Jews. Here’s Why.

Immigration to the United States: Displaced Persons Act of 1948

Welfare Society Territory: Refugees, Asylum Seekers in Italy

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