Kristallnacht may seem like an event in the distant past with little relevance to the United States today, but anti-Semitism, nativism and anti-immigration sentiments in the United States abound. In fact, this week, the Trump administration initiated a new restriction on asylum claims. To be sure, President Trump condemned the mass-shooting rampage at Tree of Life synagogue two weeks ago. But his continued deployment of anti-Semitic tropes, such as the specious claim that George Soros is funding the Central American immigrant caravan and his abolishing of asylum for people coming from the southern hemisphere shows how the lessons of Kristallnacht still need to be made clear.
Racism and bigotry in defining asylum eligibility is nothing new, as Kristallnacht itself highlighted. Beginning in 1933, Jews in Germany had clamored to find new homes. As Jews were subjected to increasingly repressive policies, they applied for visas to settle in new homes. Facing an economic depression, however, few nations agreed to alter their immigration policies to let German Jews enter their countries even as the danger facing Jews in Germany increased.
But Kristallnacht vividly revealed to the world that Jews were walking around with targets on their backs. Upon hearing of the violence in Germany, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill convinced Parliament that it had to stand up to Hitler not only in foreign affairs, but also through the deployment of immigration policy. Churchill pushed Parliament to agree to a program that allowed children to come to England, which eventually welcomed between 9,000 and 10,000 Jewish unaccompanied minors.
The response of the United States, however, was quite the opposite.
Deploying rhetoric that cast German Jews as suspect or spies, the State Department sent a message that it would not alter its immigration policies despite the death and destruction in Germany. German Jewish asylum seekers were not welcome.
The tragic journey of the SS St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying 937 German Jews fleeing the Nazis exemplified the American response. While all the passengers on the ship had official documents with quota numbers that provided for eventual American visas and entry in the coming years (recognized as visas by the German government), they were denied entry to the United States out of the preposterous fears of their being Nazi spies. Called “fifth columnists” who were sneaking into the United States as refugees, these 937 future American Jews were sent back to Europe as they waited for their visa numbers to be called. While waiting, some 250 of them perished in the Holocaust.
Not only did this decision seal the fate of over 250 people who were recognized as refugees and holding valid documents from the American government for future entry, it also sent a clear message to the Nazi regime that Jews were dispensable and that mistreating them would have no consequences. The U.S. response to events like Kristallnacht convinced members of the Third Reich that the world did not care much about Jewish refugees and perhaps the United States would not speak up as the Nazi war machine killed millions of innocent Jews.
Years later, the State Department issued an apology to the surviving passengers of the St. Louis. Just three days ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged how Canada in its past “used our laws to mask our anti-Semitism, our antipathy, our resentment” in an apology to the remaining passengers of the St. Louis. But these apologies do not bring back those lives lost decades ago.
Today, however, the United States must reflect on Kristallnacht as it thinks about how families at our borders seeking asylum are being portrayed. The excuses of the 1930s no longer hold weight (not that they should have at the time either). Indeed, the United States is not enmeshed in a Great Depression but, according to many leading economic indicators, has its strongest economy in decades.
Because racism and nativism persist and remain central to the Trump administration’s understanding of the asylum system. Violent anti-Semitism is not a European problem of the past; it is an American problem of the present. Americans should not forget that in the same week that police say Robert Bowers gunned down 11 worshipers in their synagogue over Jewish ties to helping refugees, the president escalated his war on immigrants, suggesting an end to birthright citizenship and sending masses of troops to the border to protect it from “invaders.”
Eighty years ago, racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism in America, not Europe, made it impossible for Jewish asylum seekers to find a new home and condemned them to death. As we listen to the conversation surrounding the asylum seekers from Central America and listen to Trudeau’s apology this week “to the mothers and fathers whose children we did not save, to the daughters and sons whose parents we did not help,” we must think what apologies North American leaders will be making 80 years from now if we let stand the decision that anyone entering America’s south is ineligible for asylum.
Correction: An earlier version of this article used shorthand to describe the documents that passengers of the SS St. Louis had. The actual official documents in their possession have been clarified.