The Politics of Prejudice and the Syrian Refugee Question

December 14, 2015Carol Ascher

The many thousands of Syrian refugees seeking a safe haven on our shores are being twice victimized – first by the bloody civil war that caused them to flee their homeland, and a second time by the prejudice and fear making us indifferent to their suffering and squeezing their chance of asylum to a shameful trickle.

As Jews, indifference caused by prejudice and fear is all too familiar to us.

My uncle, Gerhard Ascher, was an electrical engineer who fled Nazi Berlin and thought he had found sanctuary in England. All that changed in September 1939, when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany and he was arrested as an enemy alien.

The British set up local tribunals to screen all German nationals in the country, including 73,500 German Jewish refugees with passports bearing the stigmatizing “J” for Jude. With anti-Semitism rampant, officials feared that young, single Jewish men like Gerhard might be working as German informants, or that Nazis disguised as Jews might be infiltrating their country. As Home Secretary Sir John Anderson admitted in a March 1940 letter to his father, “It is very easy in wartime to start a scare.”

Young Jewish men, including Gerhard, along with known Nazis and German prisoners of war, were thrown into internment camps dotting the English countryside. Many of the Jews had already been cruelly treated in German concentration camps, and the violence in the English camps, along with the prospect of another imprisonment of unknown duration, led to psychological breakdowns and even suicide.

In May 1940, with a German invasion on the horizon, Winston Churchill decided it was too dangerous to keep these “Germans” on British soil. While some were already quarantined on the Isle of Man, the British government asked Ottawa to subcontract responsibility for running camps on Canadian soil for duration of the war. Beginning the following month, some 7,000 prisoners, including Uncle Gerhard, were shipped to Canada. There, a baffled Canadian camp official is reported to have said that he didn’t realize “so many Jews were Nazis.”

Once in Canada, the Jews demanded and were granted the right to be interned separately from the Nazis and prisoners of war. Uncle Gerhard was among 600 Jewish men who had to convert an old railway warehouse outside of Sherbrooke, Quebec, into their own internment camp. I have the many letters he sent and received over the next three years, including his correspondence with reluctant Canadian officials about gaining citizenship after his release.

His efforts were in vain. Unknown to my uncle, when a Canadian official was asked how many Jewish immigrants the country intended to accept, he replied, off the record, “None would be too many.”

Now, 75 years later, Canada’s liberal government has opened its borders to a limited number of war refugees, offering to accept 25,000 Syrians. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, however, Ottawa revised its plan, excluding single males old enough for military service, unless they are accompanied by their families or are gay.

The United States – which, like Canada, held back Jewish refugees to a slow trickle during the Holocaust – has admitted only 1,854 Syrians since the outbreak of the civil war in 2012. Despite a request by the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) that the U.S. accept 65,000 of the most vulnerable refugees – including orphans and badly injured victims of torture and attack – President Obama’s modest proposal to accept 10,000 has been portrayed by his detractors as alarming and dangerous.

Two examples.

Hoping to prevent Syrian refugees from settling in his city, the mayor of Roanoke, VA, proposed that they be incarcerated in internment camps. In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, presidential candidate Donald Trump, playing on fear and prejudice, called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” A crowd of thousands cheered in response.

Indeed, it is easy in wartime to start a scare.   

Remembering the long ordeal endured by my uncle Gerhard and other Jews, who had thought they were safely out of Germany, only to be trapped a second time, I am pained by our indifference toward the Syrian refugees desperately awaiting a new life. As Jews, we need to remember that we too were refugees, feared and unwanted strangers, on the wrong end of baseless prejudice. We need to raise our voices in behalf of Syrian refugees who so desperately want to begin a new life in North America.

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