A struggle rages in Congress between a bi-partisan group of moderates and liberals seeking a fair-minded, compassionate set of immigrations reforms and the hardline Republican right which seeks a punitive immigration bill. Thankfully, the immigrant communities of this nation are rising up against the latter and saying “Enough!” Enough racism, enough Know-Nothingism, enough anti-immigrant animus masquerading as national policy.
This is the season of Passover, which commemorates an ancient Jewish migration to Egypt which led to my people’s enslavement and eventual liberation through the Exodus. When I think of contemporary Jewish exoduses, the mind travels back to the period before the Holocaust when hundreds of thousands of Jews were on the move, seeking refuge from the Nazi onslaught. There were very few places in the world that would have them. And the U.S. was NOT one of them. Our borders were closed. In fact, anti-Semitism was so prevalent in 1930s America, that I have no doubt that Jews were the wetbacks of their day. Remember that horrid Nazi propaganda picturing Jews as slovenly beasts with long noses and avaricious eyes? Perhaps Americans weren’t as overt in their hatred, but anti-Semitism was there right beneath the surface if not on the surface.
No event more poignantly illustrates this than the tragic fate of the S.S. St. Louis, the ship carrying a thousand German Jewish refugees which sailed around the western hemisphere seeking refuge until it was turned back to Europe where many of the passengers died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust:
Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, passengers on the “St. Louis” cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never answered the cable. The State Department and the White House had already decided not to let them enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and then qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” American diplomats in Havana asked the Cuban government to admit the passengers on a “humanitarian” basis…
President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit additional refugees, but chose not to do so for a variety of political reasons.
American public opinion, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, still favored immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of Americans unemployed and fearful of economic competition for the scarce few jobs available…
Few politicians were willing to challenge the mood of the nation. At about the same time that the “St. Louis” passengers were seeking a haven, the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have permitted the admission of 20,000 Jewish children from Germany outside the existing quota, was allowed to die in committee. On the Wagner-Rogers bill and the admittance of the “St. Louis” passengers, President Roosevelt remained silent. Following the U.S. government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the “St. Louis” sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939.
After their return to Europe, 250 of the 937 St. Louis passengers died in the Holocaust.
Is there any doubt that the xenophobia and lack of compassion exhibited by America under FDR (remember he also refused to bomb the rail lines leading the extermination camps) stalks the halls of Congress today? People like Eric Maher (who I assume is Jewish) should be ashamed of themselves for ‘shaking a stick’ at America’s illegal immigrants and telling them to ‘get in line’ just as the State Department told the Jews of the St. Louis. We Jews know what it’s like to be oppressed whether as immigrants in Egypt or as non-persons in the days leading up to the Holocaust.
A nation or people that no longer cares for the plight of the downtrodden migrant does not deserve to be called the “land of liberty.” Rather, it should be called the land of “I’ve got mine Jack.”