Are Syrian refugees comparable to Jews fleeing the Nazis?

Postwar Jewish refugees in Halifax are assisted by a Jewish community worker CANADIAN JEWISH CONGRESS CC NATIONAL ARCHIVES 
Postwar Jewish refugees in Halifax are assisted by a Jewish community worker CANADIAN JEWISH CONGRESS CC NATIONAL ARCHIVES 

The conversation about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by Jan. 1 (which he’s now extended by six-eight weeks) was brought to the fore in the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks.

Amid news of politicians such as Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall urging Ottawa to suspend its resettlement plan and polls suggesting a majority of Canadians now oppose it – arguing either that six weeks is insufficient time for appropriate security checks or that 25,000 is too high a number – there’s been a steep rise in anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media.

Interestingly, both the voices that don’t want to see Canada take in Syrian refugees on the scale proposed (or at all) and the voices that consider resettling the refugees to be Canada’s moral duty have variously invoked the plight of Jewish refugees who were driven out of Hitler’s Europe.

In the former camp, there are some who underscore what they say are critical differences between Jewish refugees of the 1930s and ’40s and the Syrian refugees of today.

Conversely, some who are pushing for liberal resettlement policies have drawn strong parallels between the two groups.

Joel Pollak, a California-based editor at the conservative website Breitbart News Network, wrote an article Nov. 17 arguing that Syrian refugees shouldn’t be equated with World War II-era Jewish refugees.

Among his reasons were that Jews weren’t a threat to the countries where they sought asylum, whereas “as many as three of the terrorists in the recent Paris attacks allegedly hid among Syrian refugees”; that Jews in World War II had nowhere to go, while Syrian refugees “theoretically have many options,” such as the “57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation;” and that opposition to Jewish refugees was “‘racial,’” while resistance to the Syrians stems from “security concerns.”

Speaking to The CJN, Pollak dismissed the argument that North Americans of the 1930s feared that Jews were Communists, saying this was a fear from the 1920s that had largely abated by the early 1940s.

Pollak further acknowledged that both Syrian and Jewish refugees faced “impossible situations,” but he said “it’s not xenophobic to… not accept the number of Syrian refugees [the United States] has been talking about until we have a clearer idea of who these people are.”

And while Jews may be sympathetic to the suffering of displaced peoples, he said, “regarding [Americans] absorbing large populations into our society, I don’t see that as morally incumbent on us in anyway.”

University of Toronto historian Harold Troper is the co-author of None is Too Many (published in 1983), which tells of Canada’s refusal to admit Jews during the Holocaust. “Just as there are concerns today about the intake of Muslim refugees, in the 1930s, there was antipathy to bringing in Jews, which rested on the idea that they were outside the circle of assimilation,” Troper said.

He stressed that security was a key concern then, as it has been in most historical instances where people voice opposition to refugees. “There was a fear of ‘How will we make sure these people aren’t Communists or anarchists, or don’t have social or political ideas that are detrimental to Canada?’ This fear became more acute in the ’30s, as it was a constant drum-beat the Nazis used.”

Troper said that unlike back then, the present Canadian government is very interested in helping to ease the refugee crisis, but among the public at large, “there are those who are using this crisis to vent an awful lot of hostility. It’s given license to racists to crawl out from under rocks… and a new sense of tolerance to a level of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee views we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Irving Abella, a York University professor who co-wrote None is Too Many with Troper, said a key difference between the Jewish and Syrian refugees is that the Jews were escaping a genocide, while the Syrians are largely living in refugee camps in “relatively safe countries” outside of Syria.

“On the other hand,” he said, “the need to provide a home for these refugees is something that resonates with Jews, because for so long we were the ones seeking a refuge… It seems to me it’s the moral duty of the Jewish community to be as open and hospitable, as the world was closed and inhospitable to us.”

Martin Sampson, director of communications at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), acknowledged there are differences between Jews who fled the Nazis and the Syrian refugees. However, while he didn’t want to downplay the plight of the latter, he said it’s important to recognize that “as horrible as ISIS is, they’re not a state engaged in a program of industrialized genocide against a particular population… They’re a scourge, they are evil, guilty of mass murder and must be defeated, but to compare them to the Nazis… dishonours the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.”