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The Bad-Faith Analogy Between Syrian Refugees and Jews Fleeing Nazi Germany

Why the comparison is more ‘virtue signal’ than productive policy stance

James Kirchick
December 04, 2015
Wikipedia; Louisa GouliamakiI/AFP/Getty Images
(L-R) Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939; Syrian migrants stand the hull of the Greek government-chartered Eleftherios Venizelos ferry upon their arrival at the port of Piraeus on August 21, 2015.Wikipedia; Louisa GouliamakiI/AFP/Getty Images
Wikipedia; Louisa GouliamakiI/AFP/Getty Images
(L-R) Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939; Syrian migrants stand the hull of the Greek government-chartered Eleftherios Venizelos ferry upon their arrival at the port of Piraeus on August 21, 2015.Wikipedia; Louisa GouliamakiI/AFP/Getty Images

The flood of refugees fleeing war in Syria, and the heated opposition to their resettlement in Europe and America, have inspired comparisons to the plight of European Jews who attempted to escape Nazi clutches over seven decades ago. “The people who want to close the door on Syrian Refugees are no different from those who closed doors to me and my family in 1939,” declared Aryeh Neier, president emeritus of the Open Society Institute, who as an infant fled Nazi Germany with his family for the United Kingdom. “This growing cry to turn away people fleeing for their lives brings to mind the SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Florida in 1939,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently wrote about the “xenophobic bidding war” instigated by the likes of Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson, all of whom have appealed to the basest fears of the American public. It would take a blog post by one of Milbank’s colleagues, however, for the analogy to go viral. Highlighting a 1939 Gallup poll reporting that 61 percent of Americans opposed accepting 10,000 Jewish refugee children—coincidentally, the same exact number of Syrians that the Obama administration has pledged to take in 2016—Ishaan Tharoor, a writer for the Post’s WorldViews blog, concluded, “Today’s three-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child.” (In September, Tharoor had made the same point about European reactions to the crisis, in a post entitled, “Europe’s fear of Muslim refugees echoes rhetoric of 1930’s anti-Semitism.”

Invoking the Holocaust for contemporary political debates is an inherently tricky business, and as far as such comparisons go, this one is certainly more appropriate than People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ “Holocaust on Your Plate” shock campaign, which implicitly equated the vast majority of human beings who are carnivores to Himmler and Mengele. Tharoor would later boast that his piece likening past American attitudes about Jewish refugees to present day antipathy toward Syrian migrants was “one of the most read articles on our Web site,” garnering some 2.5 million reader views. My own perusal of social media indicates that the piece has become a prime illustration of “virtue-signaling,” the largely Internet-driven phenomenon whereby one demonstrates his moral superiority, (more specifically, in the words of the writer who coined the term, that he is “non-racist, left-wing or open-minded”) by “saying the right things violently on Twitter.”

Indeed, a necessary consequence of broaching the Holocaust in the discussion of contentious, political debates is that one invariably characterizes those who disagree with him as, at best, indifferent to the monstrous crimes of racist genocide, and at worst approving of them. Writing about the criticisms he received for his post, Tharoor cast them all as fundamentally bigoted. “It was repeatedly argued that (with varying degrees of profanity) Muslims can’t assimilate, represent an evil religion and seek to wreak violence on the West.” While it is true that many people’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis has been cruel, there are several wholly legitimate, non-racist reasons to be concerned about the influx, not to mention important factual differences between the predicament of European Jewry circa 1939 and Syrians today, that render Holocaust comparisons facile.

Unlike the passengers of the doomed St. Louis, Syrian refugees pouring into Europe are not fleeing imminent death. They are leaving refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey that, though hardly ideal, are not Auschwitz. In 1939, moreover, there was no Israel to protect the hunted Jews of Europe, whereas today more than a handful of ostentatiously rich Arab Muslim countries have barely lifted a finger to alleviate the plight of their brethren. As to the deeper question of assimilation, while there were no legitimate concerns as to whether Jewish refugees from Europe shared the liberal democratic values of American society, or whether they might become susceptible to radicalization by a global terrorist movement, the same can hardly be said about today’s Syrians (this observation applies more to Europe than it does America, which does a far better job assimilating immigrants, Muslims or not). Those who, like Tharoor, breezily assert that only the ideological descendants of Father Coughlin could feel unease at the massive, sociocultural challenge facing a European continent already beset by economic stagnation and societal strife need to grapple with the fact that the assimilation of Muslim communities in Europe, even those that have lived there for generations, has been a miserable failure. They would do well to read the warning that the interior minister of Germany, the country that has led the way in opening its door to Syrians, felt compelled to issue to Middle Eastern refugees entering his country. “Everyone who comes here must know what we stand for: This country has a special commitment to the Jews and to the state of Israel,” Thomas de Mazière wrote. “This country has a very good reason to protect Jewish life and encourage its free expression. This country is a place where Jews should never again have to live in fear of persecution.” A rather frighteningly ironical coda to Tharoor’s Holocaust analogy, that.

Tharoor’s sympathetic appropriation of the Jewish refugee experience to shame those who question Western governmental capacity to absorb millions of Syrians is ironic given the sedulous efforts he has made in lecturing others—mainly Jews and Israelis—who dare mention the history of Jewish suffering as a means of contextualizing its present-day manifestations. A survey of his work shows that Tharoor uses Holocaust allegories when they’re suitable to his political goals and dismisses them as cheap propaganda whenever they’re employed to make points with which he doesn’t agree. Adopting a schoolmarmish tone to censure tribalist Jews for making inappropriate Holocaust comparisons, he takes after that self-appointed high priest of American letters, James Fallows, who is fixated on reproving Jews, and only Jews among all minority groups, for special pleading. In so doing, Tharoor is guilty of exactly the same malapropism for which he holds his ideological adversaries in the dock: exploiting the memory of the Holocaust for his political purposes while smearing those who disagree with him as ahistorical Neanderthals.

Last year, when two Palestinians armed with meat cleavers hacked five Jews to death in West Jerusalem, Tharoor took to his keypad to scold Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for stating that the murders were the result of a “blood libel” against Jews. Such language was “explosive,” Tharoor claimed, while neglecting to describe, never mind attach adjectives to, the hair-raising anti-Semitic incitement emitted on a daily basis from official organs of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Talk of blood libels “summons a deep, long and traumatic history for Jews,” Tharoor continued, “one which Netanyahu thinks is apt to invoke in the context of an already fraught, volatile situation in Jerusalem,” the volatility of which owes far more to the sanguinary bombast—redolent, a casual observer might conclude, of Nazi rhetoric—expressed by Palestinians than it does to anything emitted from the prime minister’s office.

In a May post titled “7 things that are not like the Holocaust,” Tharoor compiled a list of what he considered the most preposterous examples from the reducto ad Hiterlum genre. Like his post on the supposed connections between Syrian and Jewish refugees, it was the sort of easily-digestible, intellectually shallow, international affairs-themed clickbait that his predecessor at the WorldViews blog, Max Fisher, minted before moving onto Vox, which publishes “explainers” like the gem claiming that a “bridge” connects the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, or that Hong Kong protesters holding up their hands in the international sign of “I’m unarmed” was a “deliberate nod” to the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” gesture immortalized in Ferguson, Missouri. Alongside “Killing baby seals” and “abortion,” Tharoor listed “The actions of Islamists” as being “not like the Holocaust.”

“As leader of a state that emerged directly after the horrors of the Holocaust, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may feel he has a particular moral right to invoke the evils of the Nazis when inveighing against his present-day enemies,” Tharoor inveighed. “But that doesn’t mean he’s right in making the parallel. Netanyahu raises the specter of Nazism frequently in speeches criticizing Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, the terrorist Islamic State, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, a geopolitical foe.” As a purely analytical exercise, a cursory sampling of these entities’ anti-Semitic greatest hits—ranging from a “covenant” that calls for the murder of “warmongering Jews” to the actual bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina that killed 85 innocents—merits at least passing contrast to the ideology of Nazism, certainly as much as the dilemma of Syrian refugees. But to this soi-distant arbiter of Holocaust analogies, sympathy for dead Jews extends only to those murdered 75 years ago, by Germans, as it is those Jews who can be wielded as a cudgel against American and European right-wingers. (By contrast, consider Tharoor’s posting a list, compiled by a pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper, of the names of Palestinian children killed during last year’s war in Gaza, a tribute he appears not to have offered to the victims of any other world conflict in his capacity as the editor of a blog entitled “WorldViews.”)

Lest his readers suspect him of being soft on Iranian anti-Semitism, Tharoor avers that Iran is “no fan of the Jewish state,” a rather tepid way to describe a regime that has led weekly incantations of “Death to Israel” for the past 36 years, holds Holocaust denial conferences, has long pursued a nuclear weapons program in open defiance of international agreements, and has funneled untold sums of money and provided extensive logistical support to organizations constitutionally committed to the murder of Jews around the globe. Yet it’s Netanyahu’s nerve to relate all this apocalyptic, institutionalized Jew-hatred to the last bout of successful anti-Semitic genocide that represents “astonishing hyperbole,” Tharoor writes, as opposed to the Mullahs’ annual Holocaust cartoon contest, which he dismisses as merely “provocative.”

In a post last March titled, “Sorry, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Iran is not the Islamic State,” Tharoor instructed his readers that, “Iran’s theocratic rulers are hardly champions of religious pluralism and tolerance, but they are not crazed fundamentalist jihadists, bent on smashing idols and butchering religious minorities,” an assertion that would come as news to the countless Sunnis in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere across the Middle East who have been slaughtered by Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militias in sectarian bloodletting. “There are long-standing communities of Christians and Jews in the country, who are better protected in Iran than they would be in other parts of the region,” Tharoor wrote of Iran’s captive religious minorities, whose existence is cynically maintained as a sort of Potemkin Village for credulous Westerners of the sort who, like Tharoor, write of the “regime’s democracy” as “flawed.”

When not tut-tutting Israel and her advocates for exaggerating or inventing anti-Semitism, Tharoor goes out of his way to obscure or excuse it. In October, when Netanyahu falsely claimed that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had bequeathed Hitler with the idea for the Final Solution, Tharoor was not content to (rightly) criticize Netanyahu for this dubious claim. He downplayed the Mufti’s fanatical Jew-hatred by enveloping it within a broader narrative of legitimate anti-colonial struggle. “In hindsight, World War II lends itself to a simple, stark binary as a conflict between genocidal fascists and their opponents. But for myriad communities that experienced the invasions of the Germans and Japanese, the war offered something else—the prospect of liberation from other occupying empires.”

What most interests Tharoor about the Nazi-Arab axis is not the genuine ideological affinity that Palestinians felt with German national socialists, or its deleterious legacy of fomenting bigotry across a wide swathe of the Middle East, (the effect of which, according to Professor Jeffrey Herf, author of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, was to “fuse secular Arab anti-Zionism with the Islamist and thus theologically inspired hatred of the Jews and Judaism,”) but rather its manipulation by “neoconservatives” as a “convenient ideological scarecrow.” Exploring the connections between the Third Reich and the Palestinians “obscures the real forces that drew someone like Husseini into the Nazi orbit,” forces which were purely utilitarian, not unlike the motives that drove America’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union (a country that, as Tharoor explains in a piece handily linked at the bottom of his post rationalizing the Nazi-Palestinian alliance, and which could have been written by a Russian embassy press attaché, “saved the world from Hitler”).

Concerning the question of Syrian refugees slated to enter the United States, I find the arguments marshaled against their admission by various and sundry Republican officeholders and aspirants (and, for what it’s worth, a majority of my fellow Americans) to be factually deficient and morally unconscionable. America is defined by the immigrant experience, something that Jews understand especially well. We have little to fear from 10,000—or even 100,000—poor souls escaping the charnel house of Syria. On the contrary, such people would be assets, with their successful homesteading in the United States serving as a stinging rebuke to the Islamist barbarians laying waste to the Middle East. That said, implying that anyone who expresses any skepticism whatsoever to the long-term effects of mass Muslim immigration to Europe is the equivalent of Charles Lindbergh or worse is precisely the sort of bad-faith discourse that has contributed to the continent’s increasingly worrisome political situation, whereby frustrated voters are flocking to the far right after years of being told by mainstream parties that questioning the cultural and economic effects of immigration is inherently racist. From France to Sweden, long the most hospitable European country to migrants, nationalist parties are surging to the fore.

Invoking the American nativism of the 1930s to win points in the current debate over Syrian refugees is ironic, moreover, because going by that analogy it’s not just xenophobic conservatives who are guilty of reviving the chauvinist spirits of America First but isolationist progressives as well. Led by the President of the United States, they have counseled a hands-off policy towards Bashar al-Assad, whose depredations in Syria have led to 300,000 dead and half the country’s population displaced. Would not those who truly learned the universal lesson of the Holocaust, “Never Again,” have done everything in their power to put an end to the source of the refugee crisis, that is, the murderous barbarism of the Assad regime, just as the victorious Allies destroyed Nazi Germany, tormentor of the Jews and the enemy of human civilization itself? How appropriate that one of the most popular pieces of journalism to emerge from the Syrian catastrophe would be an Internet meme parroting the sanctimony of a presidency whose foreign policy, from its “Atrocity Prevention Board” to #bringbackourgirls, has been one, long virtue-signaling charade.


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James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.