The arguments against Syrian refugees sound a lot like the arguments against Jewish refugees before WWII

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In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks last Friday, more than two dozen governors pledged that they would not allow Syrian refugees to be placed in their states.

This was a disappointing development for many liberals, and was condemned by several leading Democrats. Many pointed to a similar situation in the 1990s, when the U.S. successfully welcomed Bosnian Muslim refugees escaping genocide and civil war. The refugees mainly settled around St. Louis, Missouri, and have become a huge part of that community.


The bigger disappointment, however, might be the moral consequences of not taking in the Syrian refugees. In the late 1930s, in the lead-up to the Holocaust and World War II, Americans and U.S. politicians spoke out against helping more Jewish refugees to flee Hitler and the Nazis. And as many on social media are pointing out, much of the language and sentiments that were used to justify that decision back then are being repeated in the present day.

Fusion's Jack Mirkinson, for example, found that GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's warning against Syrian refugees closely echoes a Daily Mail article from around the start of the war:

Here we have a poll of Northwestern students, in 1938, published in the Daily Northwestern.


And here's another poll, from Fortune. While it is likely based on economic arguments, it is still stunning.


As the Washington Post points out in a fascinating look at public sentiment toward German Jews in the late 1930s, Kristallnacht had not yet occurred, nor the forced wearing of yellow Star of David badges, when this particular poll had been conducted.

This poll, also from Historical Opinion, asked specifically about Jewish children fleeing Europe. The results are typically depressing:


A Rasmussen poll from late September asked about American support for accepting Syrian refugees; 49% of respondents told Rasmussen that they would prefer the number be zero.

Many of the current Republican presidential candidates joined state governors in opposing Syrian refugees. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, in an unfortunate echo of these polls, said Monday that his state would refuse entry to all Syrian refugees, even "3-year-old orphans."


In 1939, Senator Robert Taft, a Republican from Ohio, responded to a letter from a Jewish war veteran who had pleaded with him to vote on a bill that would allow 20,000 Jewish refugee children into the country. Here's his reply:


In the letter, Taft comes down against admitting child refugees because it would mean eventually admitting their parents as well, a prospect he describes as not "desirable" because it would "be hard for any humane person to resist." Taft ends saying he will vote against the bill. In a distant echo, Senator Ted Cruz has announced that he will introduce a bill in the Senate that would bar the United States from accepting any Syrian refugees.

The Syrian refugees, of course, have the support of the man in the Oval Office. The same could not be said for the Jewish refugees. President Roosevelt worried about a "fifth column" hidden among them.


It wouldn't be until 1944 when FDR and the U.S. truly acted to rescue Jewish refugees. By then, millions had been slaughtered in their homelands.


All this moment is missing is a 21st century Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic Catholic priest and radio host who was seen as a hero in Nazi Germany. Though the Vatican eventually turned its back on him, Coughlin was popular. He was "convinced that President Roosevelt and his "Jewish conspirators" were keeping the country from reaching its full potential." We'll be lucky if we're limited to one Father Coughlin this go-around.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, however. Scotland began welcoming Syrians into their country today with open arms; Germany, meanwhile, has been one of the most generous countries, having welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees over the past several months.


Further, the three Democratic presidential contenders are united in their support of President Obama's plan to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees. And, of course, President Obama still has the final word on whether the United States will admit Syrian refugees. He seems steadfast in his support for the policy.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been the most vocal though, saying, "we will not turn our backs on the refugees who are fleeing Syria and Afghanistan. We will do what we do best and that is be Americans–fighting racism, fighting xenophobia, fighting fear.”


There is little to fear, of course. As my colleague Kevin Roose pointed out, the total number of refugees accepted by America since 9/11 who turned out to be domestic terrorists is exactly zero.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him:

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