November 24, 2015– The issue of refugees from Syria and Iraq has dominated our consciousness of late and tested our moral resolve. This issue generates much heat and rarely any light. Some dismiss comparisons to the Holocaust as irrelevant or lacking proper historical context. Little could be farther from the truth. Many people, politicians and the public alike, are advocating for the intense restriction of immigration from this region, a place where ISIS is committing an active genocide against Shi’ites, Yazidi Christians, and others. We would do well to remember that we have heard similar rhetoric before. President Franklin Roosevelt himself said in 1940 that “It is rather a horrible story, but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”
In our own state, the mayor of Roanoke, David Bowers, appeared to invoke one of America’s most shameful pasts in order to justify a new future of injustice and intolerance. Referring to the mass internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during WWII, he suggested that such a policy was appropriate, requesting that no aid be given to refugees coming to his city.
Museums enter into the fraught world of politics rarely, but when they do it is because the issue is of great importance. In the case of refugees from Syria and Iraq, the Virginia Holocaust Museum joins the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in condemning fear-mongering and mass generalizations. One of the cautionary tales from the Holocaust is that of turning away a people fleeing genocide in favor of isolationism and hysteria. Certainly, the situations of Syrian/Iraqi refugees now and the Jewish refugees during the Holocaust differ in many ways. But they also present disturbing similarities, particularly the desire for an emigration policy based on race/religion and based on a largely illusory national security argument. The VHM seeks to remind us all that what makes America great is precisely that we grant safe haven to those fleeing evil. These are the values that make us a refuge for those fleeing genocide. We should not abandon them in a haze of fear and xenophobia when they are needed most.
Waitman Wade Beorn, PhD
Virginia Holocaust Museum
The above photo is of a displaced persons camp operated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Föhrenwald, Germany from the Julius Mintzer collection at the VHM.