The specious comparison between Syrians and World War II European Jews

Historian Josh Zeitz has written an article for Politico called “Yes, It’s Fair to Compare the Plight of the Syrians to the Plight of the Jews. Here’s Why.” Zeitz argues that the current debate over admitting Syrians into the U.S. is comparable to the debate over admitting Jews during World War II because “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.”

How so? “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.”

Actually, it is a superficial, and ultimately meaningless, one. The real issue isn’t whether the language of security was invoked in both instances, but rather the nature of the “security” concerns.

The “security” concerns that Zeitz says found common expression in the case of Jews fleeing Hitler had nothing to do with security in any immediate or direct sense. These concerns are captured in Charles Lindbergh’s complaint about Jewish “ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our Government.” Some also worried about the political positions Jewish immigrants would embrace.

The concern about Syrian refugees is very different. It stems not from animus but from the fact that (1) ISIS is known to be trying to send terrorists here to kill Americans and (2) our ability to vet Syrians is in serious doubt. As to the second point, Jeff Dunetz reminds us:

At least three people labeled as refugees contributed to the attacks in Paris.

At a House Homeland Security committee hearing in February the Assistant FBI Director said the US does not have a way to properly vet incoming Syrian refugees “We don’t have it under control, Absolutely, we’re doing the best we can. If I were to say that we had it under control, then I would say I know of every single individual traveling. I don’t. And I don’t know every person there and I don’t know everyone coming back. So it’s not even close to being under control.”

A senate hearing during the first week of October saw Matthew Emrich, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) associate director for the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate confirm that the U.S. has no method of vetting the new refugees because the Syrian government doesn’t have an intelligence database to run checks against.

This past week, FBI director James Comey told the House Committee on Homeland Security hearing the federal government does not have the ability to conduct thorough background checks on all of the 10,000 Syrian refugees that the Obama administration says will be allowed to come to the U.S. “We can only query against that which we have collected. And so if someone has never made a ripple in the pond in Syria in a way that would get their identity or their interest reflected in our database, we can query our database until the cows come home, but there will be nothing show up because we have no record of them.”

Dunetz concludes:

Here’s the bottom line. Jews were denied entry into the U.S. because of bigotry. The Nazis did not embed terrorists within their ranks, nor was it remotely suspected. FDR and his administration simply did not want more Jews into the country. On the other hand, ISIS does embed terrorists in with the Syrian refugees. That is why Josh Zeitz’s claim in Politico is so very wrong.

Joel Pollak at Breitbart lists additional reasons why Zeitz’s comparison doesn’t hold up. For one thing, as we have also pointed out, Jews were singled out by Germany for religious persecution, making them the quintessential refugees. The majority of Syrians in question haven’t thus been singled out. Indeed, many are displaced persons fleeing a war zone, not refugees in the technical sense.

There are respectable arguments in favor of admitting 10,000 Syrians into the U.S. and respectable arguments against doing so (which I find more persuasive). Alleging bigotry against opponents of admitting Syrians is not a respectable argument, and neither is the specious comparison between contemporary Syrians and Jews fleeing the Nazis.