Josh Zeitz writes: Peter Shulman, an associate professor of American history at Case Western Reserve University, [recently] caused a political stir when he tweeted results from a Fortune Magazine poll dated July 1938. “What’s your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian & other political refugees to come into the US?” Fortune asked its survey audience. Over two-thirds of respondents answered in the negative.
Shulman’s tweet went viral, igniting a spirited debate about whether opposition to welcoming Syrian refugees is morally or situationally equivalent to American indifference in the 1930s toward Jewish victims of the Nazi state. In what can only be described as a sharp reversal of prevailing norms, many conservatives, who these days seem inclined to liken every government overreach to Nazism, are incensed by the analogy, while many liberals, who have grown accustomed to rolling their eyes each time that Bill Kristol invokes the Munich Agreement, are sticking by it.
So is the analogy a good one? In short, yes. Contrary to what conservatives are saying these days, language commonly invoked in opposition to admitting Syrian refugees bears striking similarity to arguments against providing safe harbor to Jewish refugees in the late 1930s. Then as now, skepticism of religious and ethnic minorities and concerns that refugees might pose a threat to national security deeply influenced the debate over American immigration policy. For conservatives, this likeness is an inconvenient truth.
But the analogy doesn’t stop there. There may be no historic precedent for the rise of the Islamic State, but many current-day conditions in the Middle East are reminiscent of the broader context in which the Holocaust occurred. Europe in the 1930s and 1940s witnessed a systemic breakdown of national borders and civil society; brutal ethnic cleansing and population transfers; and a refugee crisis that strained the world’s creativity and resources. These human-made disasters do not just befall majority-Muslim countries.
For liberals, this raises its own inconvenient truth. Even had the United States admitted a large number of Jewish refugees in 1938, the underlying forces tearing Europe apart would not have abated. Winning this particular argument is important, but it does not resolve the larger challenge facing Syria or Iraq. [Continue reading…]