Refugees in Greece.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Holocaust Museum Sees a U.S. Duty to Syrian Refugees

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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As the U.S. debates the security implications of accepting refugees from the Syrian crisis, Americans should remember our history -- both good and bad -- of dealing with Jewish refugees during World War II, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum official 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, following the disclosure that one attacker in Paris may have used a fake Syrian passport to enter Europe. 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.”

The Holocaust Museum does not take positions on specific policies, such as President Obama’s plan to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees next year. But 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 specific 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 to the U.S., 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.

“The voices of moderation seem to be getting drowned out by people who are taking these very hard national security positions,” said Hudson. “Nobody can reasonably argue that the response from the international community has been enough. 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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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