How the US put up 'paper walls' to keep out Jews fleeing the Holocaust

US grapples with its history as Biden administration launches first national strategy to combat anti-Semitism

Jewish refugees from Europe and other passengers aboard a ship that was passed around to several countries in 1939 before being allowed to dock in the US. Photo: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
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As countries marked World Refugee Day this week, the US was facing up to its own chequered immigration history, particularly discriminatory policies enforced during the Holocaust.

Eighty years after the genocide, the administration of US President Joe Biden has unveiled a new strategy to combat a growing wave of anti-Semitism in the country.

The State Department erected “paper walls” to keep European Jews out of the country, even though they fulfilled all the “necessary and strict regulations” imposed by Congress, Deborah Lipstadt, US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, told the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group.

Ms Lipstadt has been charged with leading the Biden administration's new strategy to counter discrimination against Jews.

Discrimination against Jews was once common in US government circles, and State Department officials worked to limit the number of Jewish immigrants even as Adolf Hitler's Nazi party came to power in Germany in the 1930s and began a genocidal campaign across Europe.

The US failed to do all it could for the refugees fleeing a genocide in Europe in part because, at the time, immigration policy was based on a racist quota policy set under the 1920s-era Johnson Reed Immigration Act that sought to prioritise white Protestants over Jews, Asians and other groups, according to the Holocaust Museum.

“The whole point of that law was really to set quotas based on race,” Rebecca Erbelding, a historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, told The National.

“And so it really prioritised immigration from Northern and Western Europe, and made it very difficult, and in some places impossible, to immigrate to the United States from areas that were considered less 'racially desirable'.”

Under that system, Germany had the second highest quota of any country in the world. According to the museum, about one sixth of all immigrants permitted to enter the US could be those coming from Germany.

“That really shows you that in 1924, Congress did not expect the largest number of people fleeing in the 1930s to be Jews from Germany, or they likely would have limited those numbers even further,” said Dr Erbelding.

As the crisis in Europe escalated, US laws did not adapt. Dr Erbelding said that the US did not enact any new laws throughout the 1930s or 40s to specifically “let more Jews in or to keep Jews out”, but domestic concerns were tightening Washington's broader immigration limits.

With the Great Depression increasingly gripping the US in the early 1930s, President Herbert Hoover issued an instruction to the State Department to “limit anybody that would be considered likely to become a 'public charge',” said Dr Erbelding, explaining that this meant excluding anyone the government suspected would be in need of federal financial or social assistance on arrival in the US.

That decision led to a sharp decline in immigration to the US after 1933, with a little more than 8,000 immigrants coming to the country that year in total – the lowest number in recorded history.

Even after Hitler's rise to power, the US was not fulfilling the already limited quotas for immigration that it had set, with more than 100,000 unused slots in the mid-1930s.

“So people who legally could have come, and the State Department and the [Franklin] Roosevelt administration do not support lessening that public charge restriction or ramping up immigration,” said Dr Erbelding.

“What you see through most of the 1930s is the State Department always treated this [immigration] quota number as a cap, not a goal that they were trying to reach.”

After 1940, the difficulties for Jews and other immigrants attempting to get to the US increased when Breckinridge Long became assistant secretary of state and took the helm of State Department visa concerns.

“It's really hard to tell from his diary, whether he's a nativist or an anti-Semite, or mix of both,” said Dr Erbelding.

“He put in roadblocks that seem really difficult to overcome. It was on the refugee or the immigrant to prove that they were not a threat to the United States, and how does one go about doing that?”

That bleak picture is also painted by some State Department officials and diplomats stationed in Europe having to act on their own to assist Jews, she added.

“A lot of State Department officials who were personally sympathetic would use to the fact that it would take a week or two to hear from Washington … to kind of act and use their own way to make decisions. There are definitely State Department diplomats who were doing everything they can.”

As the survivors of this era become increasingly lost to history, there are signs of hope amid the current alarming rise in anti-Semitism in the US and around the world.

In the US, Jews are the victims of 63 per cent of reported religiously motivated hate crimes, while accounting for slightly more than 2 per cent of the US population, according to the FBI.

The White House last month launched the strategy on anti-Semitism in an effort to combat this, including more than 100 new actions the administration will take “to raise awareness of anti-Semitism and its threat to American democracy”.

That push has extended beyond the US, too.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to the US, last week discussed the recent launch of the Manara Centre, a platform that promotes coexistence and the countering of extremist ideologies.

Mr Al Otaiba was joined by Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL, which has joined forces with the UAE on the initiative.

“The ADL obviously focuses rightly on the increasingly anti-Semitism in the US and around the world,” Mr Al Otaiba said on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

“We have the same problem when it comes to extremism, hate speech, incitement – we don't think enough was being done about it, quite honestly, until it becomes a terrorism problem until it becomes Daesh or ISIS.”

As the world marked World Refugee Day, Dr Erbelding emphasised that the lessons of the Holocaust teach that sympathy and understanding are not enough for those fleeing persecution.

She pointed to her research recording more than 500 petitions sent to the State Department and White House asking the Roosevelt administration to “do something to help the Jews in Europe”, as well as a New York rally against Germany's treatment of Jews that became the city's largest protest to date.

Dr Erbelding added that polls at the time showed that a majority of Americans expressed sympathy for the Jews in Europe, but “81 per cent remained opposed to increasing immigration rates into the country”.

“It wasn't that there was a lack of sympathy. The lack of sympathy just didn't extend to opening immigration,” she said.

Updated: June 23, 2023, 7:43 AM