The St. Louis Manifest

StatueOfLiberty

I wasn’t able to join in the massive protests at JFK over the weekend – not being able to jet off on short notice is one disadvantage of having a baby to care for, alas – but I was cheered up to see them. After a dark few months where it seemed as if America’s progressive spirit was dead, this is one of the first real signs of a backlash against the poisonous racism that’s wormed its way into our government.

Even so, the illegal Muslim ban, decreed with no warning or debate, has already exacted an enormous human cost. Families are being shattered, lives uprooted: a twelve-year-old Yemeni girl, the only member of her family who isn’t a citizen, alone in a foreign country; an Iraqi translator who risked his life to help Americans; a Somali women and her two children detained 20 hours with no food; an Iranian Ph.D student stranded abroad, her car still parked at the airport, with no one to take care of her dog… the list goes on. And those are just the people who already had roots in America – not the many more refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, fleeing persecution and death who’ve just had the door slammed shut in their faces. The courts may yet step in and put a permanent stop to this, but it’s too soon to know.

There’s a grim historical parallel here with the St. Louis, a ship that crossed the Atlantic in May 1939 carrying Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. Their goal was to disembark in Cuba and apply for American visas, but bigotry threw a wrench into that plan:

Even before the ship sailed from Hamburg, right-wing Cuban newspapers deplored its impending arrival and demanded that the Cuban government cease admitting Jewish refugees… Both agents of Nazi Germany and indigenous right-wing movements hyped the immigrant issue in their publications and demonstrations, claiming that incoming Jews were Communists.

…Reports about the impending voyage fueled a large antisemitic demonstration in Havana on May 8, five days before the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg. The rally, the largest antisemitic demonstration in Cuban history, had been sponsored by Grau San Martin, a former Cuban president. Grau spokesman Primitivo Rodriguez urged Cubans to “fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.” The demonstration drew 40,000 spectators. Thousands more listened on the radio.

Turned away by the Cuban government, the ship set out for Miami. But the U.S. met them with the same isolationism and xenophobia. A restrictive quota system meant there was already a long waiting list for visas, and in addition to plain anti-Semitism, there was widespread suspicion that immigrants would take jobs away from more-deserving native citizens (does any of this sound familiar?):

Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration.

President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order admitting the St. Louis passengers, but he chose not to. When neither Cuba nor the U.S. would allow the vast majority of passengers to disembark, the ship had no choice but to return to Europe.

Some of its passengers found refuge in the U.K., but many of them went to countries in western Europe. When Hitler’s armies swept across the continent, they fell under the Nazi shadow they’d been trying to escape. The Twitter account St. Louis Manifest is tweeting the names and pictures of the people from that ship who died in Nazi death camps because the U.S. wouldn’t take them in:

Seeing these picture, I was unavoidably reminded of the old photographs of my own family that I wrote about in December. My great-grandparents were Jewish. They came to America before the Great Depression or the Third Reich, so they never had to face what those refugees faced thirty years later. But if history had gone a little differently, it could have been one of my own ancestors on that ship.

Of course, that kind of personal connection may make the parallel especially piercing, but it shouldn’t be necessary for empathy. The knowledge of how cruelly we once failed people in need, the shame of that fact, should be enough. It should redouble our resolve never to let this happen again. But it is happening again, just as it did the first time. America chose racism and xenophobia all over again, and the same fear, ignorance and bigotry are playing out as inexorably as a play reenacting the same script.

If anything, our culpability is greater. When future generations judge us for what we’ve done, no one will be able to say we had no historical lessons to draw from. We won’t be able to say that we’d never imagined anything like this could happen.

It’s not, yet, too late to reverse our mistake. America has already done grave damage to its trustworthiness and moral standing, but we can still do right by the people whose lives were caught up by this ill-conceived decree. We can open our doors again and be the land of freedom and fresh chances we’ve always believed ourselves to be. I have to admit I’m not optimistic, given that nativism and white supremacy seem to be in full control of our government. But it may be that we need a moment like this, a clarifying test that shows us what’s at stake if we abandon our national ideals, to inspire the American people to rally to their defense and start a new mass movement for liberty.

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