Endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to accept Syrians fleeing the chaos of a civil war raging at home, Deborah Lipstadt argues that the current refugee crisis isn’t at all comparable to the plight of European Jews before and during the Holocaust.
SEATTLE — Deborah Lipstadt is one of the world’s best-known Holocaust scholars. In her work, she has railed against the moral indifference and outright hostility of the U.S. government toward Jewish European refugees both before and during the Holocaust.
She also took on one of the foremost Holocaust deniers, David Irving, in a libel lawsuit he brought against her. That trial has become a bellwether in free speech law, and the book she wrote about it, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” solidified her reputation as a champion of historical truth regarding the Holocaust. And she has since forged an international reputation as a moral avatar and wise sage.
Lipstadt recently weighed in on one of the most profound moral challenges in recent memory: the Middle East refugee crisis. A number of commentators had previously weighed in, comparing the streams of displaced Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans and Kurds crossing the seas and seeking asylum in Europe to those earlier Jewish refugees fleeing what was certain death at the hands of the Nazi extermination machinery. One might have expected Lipstadt to offer a sympathetic voice to the refugees’ plight in the op-ed she published this week in the Jewish Forward.
Lipstadt on Middle East refugees
In her op-ed, “4 Reasons We Should Think Before Acting Rashly on Migrant Crisis,” the Holocaust scholar offers perfunctory condolences to these victims and says how awful their fate is. She decries the suffering and wonders how anyone could not be moved by it.
But then she stops and says:
Hold on. This isn’t going where you think it is. I’m not going to argue that this new surge in refugees is reminiscent of the Holocaust. I’m not going to urge a moral duty on Europe or anyone else to take in these unfortunate souls — this crisis is different.
“But how is it different?” readers may wonder. Here is how she introduces and defends her moral temporizing in the face of the current catastrophe:
“For some, the very thought of hesitating to act while working through questions in the face of traumatized children is to be hard hearted. Act now, they say, and question later. Yet the decisions that are being made now have tremendous long-term implications. With deep and abiding respect for the dead, there is still much to be learned. We need to go beyond the emotional response to desperate images and grapple with the social, political and moral implications inherent in our response.”
Imagine Lipstadt writing about a Word War II-era politician or historian commenting on the Jewish refugee crisis in 1939. Imagine such a figure saying: Hold on, despite our sympathy for Jewish refugees, rescuing them and bringing them to safety in the United States or Palestine would have “tremendous long-term implications.” Imagine if such a figure warned that instead of falling prey to a plaintive cry for justice, we “need to go beyond the emotional response to grapple with the social, political and moral implications.”
Lipstadt would have savaged such a figure in her scholarly studies. She would have derided such moral temporizing and linked it to a lingering anti-Semitism lying just beneath the surface of the Western “civilized world.”
In short, she is guilty of the same moral inadequacies she derides in others, including the Roosevelt administration, which refused to help when called upon to save European Jews. Her arguments about today’s crisis evince the same prejudices which prevented U.S. and European leaders from galvanizing a response to the slaughter.
She goes on to commit the unpardonable sin of attempting to minimize the plight of a portion of the current wave of refugees, saying they’re not in danger for their lives. Rather, they’re looking for economic opportunity:
“Are these migrants fleeing for their lives, or are they trying to find a better economic and social future for their families? Some are coming because of intolerable and swiftly deteriorating security conditions; others may well see a strategic opening. We must be vigilant about humanitarian issues and more wary of an unquestioning open-door policy.”
Perhaps we should ask Lipstadt to spend a few hours in the battered streets of Homs or Daraa, or a Jordanian refugee camp, before opining that these millions of survivors of atrocities back home are really just migrants leaving because they want cushy jobs and a pension from a German car company.
And what is “a strategic opening?” Is she raising the specter of ISIS militants disguising themselves as refugees so they may infiltrate Europe and plan terror attacks? Donald Trump, the current Republican presidential front-runner, similarly warned that accepting Syrian refugees would eventually lead to a military coup against our government. Saying it “could be the ultimate Trojan horse,” he told Fox News’ Eric Bolling:
“This could be one of the great military coups of all time if they send them to our country — young, strong people and they turn out to be ISIS. … Now, probably that won’t happen, but some of them definitely in my opinion will be ISIS.”
When Lipstadt warns of the need to be “more wary of an unquestioning open door policy,” she once again echoes the fulminations of the U.S. isolationists from an earlier era who warned against opening our doors to Europeans fleeing Hitler.
Further, just as Lipstadt labels David Irving a Holocaust denier, she practices a form of denialism in her essay. Irving raised doubts about the historicity of this tragic event (he now claims “only” 2.4 million Jews were murdered instead of 6 million); and so Lipstadt questions the legitimacy of the claims of the current round of Middle Eastern refugees (i.e. they aren’t all fearing for their lives, and even if they are, they’re simply not suited to life in the civilized West). In doing so, she practices the rankest form of intellectual hypocrisy.
She attempts to come to terms with some of the inconvenient ironies of her argument:
“I say this well aware of the fact that both my parents came to this country in search of a better economic future. But they were immigrants who moved here as part of an articulated immigration process; they did not uproot themselves and make their way across the border.”
In fact, Lipstadt, perhaps deliberately, over-simplifies the complex motivations of Jews who fled Europe from 1900-1924, when the U.S. ended its open immigration policy. Many Jews did come to America in search of economic opportunity. But they had at their backs screaming Cossacks who slaughtered Jews in pogroms. Rivers of Jewish blood were flowing in Eastern Europe. Further, many of these societies were riddled with anti-Semitism, penalizing Jews at every turn for practicing their religion and observing their culture practices. Discrimination also posed insurmountable obstacles to Jewish political expression and economic advancement.
So, Jews fled Europe even before the Holocaust, due to a hostility that would later morph into the Nazi’s Final Solution.
Ultimately, Lipstadt fails in her attempt to distinguish the flight of her own parents and millions of other European Jews from Middle Eastern immigrants and Mexican migrants “uprooting themselves and making their way across borders.”
My own family offers proof of the continuity between the earlier European Jewish migration to America and the Holocaust. It’s a little-known fact that approximately one in three new immigrants returned to Europe after coming to these shores. One of them was my maternal grandmother’s brother, my great-uncle, someone I never knew. When he left New York to return to Poland, he told his sister he was leaving because it was a gneyvishe land (“a thieving country”). He could not have known at the time what a tragic fate awaited him on his return: he died in the Holocaust.
What follows is the most troubling portion of Lipstadt’s essay, in which she exposes an Islamophobia that is little different from the anti-Semitic attitudes she found in bureaucrats of that earlier era she studied:
“How will this influx of people change the face of Europe? Will they prove willing to be integrated into European society? And conversely, is Europe willing to do what is necessary to integrate them?
I do not care if they do not become aficionados of European art and culture. That is not sacrosanct. What I care deeply about is the extent to which these new immigrants will commit to democratic principles and to the messiness of a democracy.
Will they prove able to accept that democracy entails the willingness to have one’s most basic belief challenged? Do they understand that the freedoms of speech and expression have no ‘but’ associated with them? Will an influx lead to a powerful right-wing nationalist backlash? And if so, how can that be addressed and prevented?”
Throughout the history of this country, there were nativists decrying the “flood” of dirty, violent, criminal immigrants who would marry their daughters and pollute the white Anglo-Saxon gene pool. This was the appeal of the Ku Klux Klan to millions of Americans. Nativists and Know Nothings said the same about Irish immigrants in the 1880s, and Italians and Jews in the 1900s.
Such hate was a prime reason for the founding of American Jewish defense organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
But in truth, the various waves of European immigration during this era enriched this country. Children of these newcomers became the entrepreneurs, inventors, artists and scholars who helped build the thriving economic and cultural engine that America became after World War II.
The original immigrants came here as Irish, German, Italian or Jew. They dressed differently than Native Americans. They spoke a foreign language. They had different religions and customs. But in a generation they and their children became American. So why need we fear that with the right will and spirit on both sides, the same can’t happen in Europe?
What did these newcomers know about American democracy before they reached our shores? What did they know of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, presidents, Congress, or even free speech and a free press? They learned.
Similarly, what is to prevent a Syrian fleeing certain death in Daraa from becoming an upstanding German or French or British citizen in a generation?
Humans have always been wanderers since the dawn of our species. This is how we came out of Africa and peopled the continents of Asia, Europe and the Americas. We have moved. We have crossed boundaries, whether geographical or national. Those who argue against such migration are not only against human nature; they are arguing against our best interests.
Then, Lipstadt offers more anti-Muslim finger-pointing:
“And why, for that matter, have so many Muslim countries shut their doors to them? While huge numbers of those fleeing Syria have found refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, what of the oil-rich Gulf States? They have welcomed none.
Muslims are asking the same question.”
Yet, as she notes, neighboring Muslim states are bursting at the seams accepting millions of these desperate people. Their hospitality should be cheered and should offer a model of what other Western states might do.
The Gulf states historically have been even more resistant to foreigners than the West. They are homogeneous, largely closed societies. While they do employ hundreds of thousands of Syrians, who live there on work permits, the Gulf states don’t have systems in place specifically for refugees, as Bill Frelick, the refugee program director at Human Rights Watch, pointed out to NPR. Then, there’s also the financial support they are offering in the form of humanitarian relief.
Lipstadt ‘almost agrees’ with Netanyahu’s rejection of Syrian refugee suffering
When Lipstadt addresses Israel’s response to the crisis, she offers one of her most controversial statements, endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of any resettlement within its borders:
“What about Israel? … I find myself almost agreeing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to accept any refugees. Israel has given extensive medical aid to Syrians caught in the bloody civil war. Many of them, while grateful, hide the fact that Israel helped them, and they do so because of the open hostility Syria’s citizens feel toward Israel.”
How can someone “almost agree” with Netanyahu’s refusal to harbor Syrian refugees? It’s either agree or disagree, and Lipstadt clearly agrees. She offers no criticism of his stance.
Her justification for Israel’s rejection of its responsibility to house refugees is all the more feeble considering the suffering of Jews as exiles and refugees throughout history, not to mention Israel’s foundation on the backs of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors who were themselves refugees.
Israel has not, as Lipstadt claims, given “extensive” medical aid to Syrians. It has offered such assistance to a carefully selected group of al-Qaida-affiliated militants wounded in the fighting inside the country. Israel has touted this as offering “humanitarian aid” to Syrian civilians. But Israel rarely does anything for solely altruistic reasons. There is almost always a strategic or intelligence purpose behind such acts of “goodwill.” And that, of course, is the case here.
Anyone who observes Israel’s increasingly ultra-nationalist politics doesn’t expect its government to accept Muslim refugees. The country already treats the Palestinian minority who are citizens of the state as a Fifth Column, whose loyalty is suspect. Why would it wish to take in more such “infiltrators,” or, in Hebrew, mistaneyn (מסתנן) — the term used to describe Palestinians who sought to return home after being expelled in 1948.
There’s the additional matter of the 50,000 African refugees who’ve crossed the Sinai to get to Israel. They too are mistreated, thrown in detention centers in the middle of the desert, arrested and terrorized. Israel has a terrible record when it comes to addressing the refugees it already has. So it’s unsurprising it refuses to accept more, no matter how tragic the circumstances.
Further, Israel benefits strategically from the turmoil throughout the region. Syria in the midst of civil war means one less frontline state that can threaten its security. In a region rife with ethnic strife, Israel prides itself as standing out as a haven of stability. Or, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak so infamously stated: “a villa in the jungle.”
If Israel was truly the democracy its leaders proclaim it to be, instead of a Jewish ethnic state as it really is, it would take in refugees. It would see itself as a multi-ethnic society fully integrated into the Middle East. It would not wall itself off from its Arab-Muslim neighbors. It would, if not embrace them, at least show it could play a responsible role in contributing to the region’s stability by taking in refugees from conflict.
Lipstadt’s tortuous obfuscations represent not just an abdication of moral responsibility but a betrayal of her previous scholarly work on behalf of the battered souls of European Jewry. A true historian doesn’t reject historical comparisons between eras merely because they cause personal discomfort. Historians are meant to understand not just the history of past eras but the ways in which our own are similar to the historical past. If we understand these parallels we can avoid or mitigate the repetition of past suffering.
Lipstadt betrays these Middle East refugees by belittling them and their predicament, by seeing them as alien to the West, rather than as fellow humans in desperate need of safe harbor. In doing so, she betrays our fundamental human bond.