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November 20, 2015

'Huge Differences' Go Unmentioned in Reporting on Syrian Refugees

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Recent coverage by major news media outlets comparing Syrian refugees seeking entry into the United States to Jewish refugees attempting to flee Nazi Germany has failed to highlight key differences between the two situations.

Washington Post “World View� columnist Ishaan Tharoor claims there are similarities between Syrians fleeing both dictator Bashar al Assad and ISIS, a Sunni Muslim terror group and German Jewish refugees who attempted to flee Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s (“Just say no to refugees? We’ve been here before,� Nov. 18, 2015).

Tharoor, whose analyses regarding Jews and Israel are too often superficial (see “Washington Post Blogger Mystified by Iran Deal and Much More,� July 30, 2015, CAMERA), here correctly states that Jews seeking entry into the United States faced “skepticism or unveiled bigotry.� “Popular sentiment in Western Europe and the United States,� the blogger says, “was largely indifferent to the plight of German Jews.�

Tharoor says that this “mood� is “worth remembering� when talking about the current debate over letting Syrian refugees into the United States, who are, similar to the Jews of 1930s Europe, fleeing a region engulfed in turmoil. Going beyond drawing a comparison, the blogger says: “Today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems is 1939’s German Jewish child.�

Although the Post blogger is correct that there is a prejudice today against admitting large numbers of Syrian refugees, the vast majority of whom do not pose any greater security threat than any other refugees, and that there was similar reaction against Jewish immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s—the comparison is also disingenuous.

Conceding that “there are huge historical and contextual differences between then and now,� Tharoor fails to elaborate on these for his readers.

But as the National Review’s Ian Tuttle notes (“There are serious, unbigoted reasons to be wary of a flood of Syrian refugees,� Nov. 18, 2015), Jews are an ethnic group, whereas Syrians are a national one. Tuttle, observing that comparing Syrian Muslims to German Jews is a more accurate “apples-to-apples comparison,� notes another important difference:

“There was no international conspiracy of German Jews in the 1930s attempting to carry out daily attacks on civilians on several continents. No self-identifying Jews in the early 20th century were randomly massacring European citizens in magazine offices and concert halls, and there was no ‘Jewish State’ establishing sovereignty over tens of thousands of square miles of territory, and publicly slaughtering anyone who opposed its advance.�

Tuttle notes that “the vast majority of Syrian Muslims are not party to these strains of radicalism and violence� yet “it would be dangerous to suggest that they don’t exist.� Referring to a recent Arab Opinion Index poll of 900 Syrian refugees showing that one in eight hold some positive view of ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or simply Islamic State], Tuttle writes: “A non-trivial minority of refugees who support a murderous, metastatic caliphate is a reason for serious concern. No 13 percent of Jews looked favorably upon the Nazi party.�

In addition to omitting the very different security concerns, Tharoor fails to mention other important history. Jewish refugees in the 1930’s had no place to go; they had no state of their own. Unmentioned by the Post blogger, Mandate Palestine—which had been set aside after World War I for Jewish settlement—was closed to virtually all new Jewish immigrants by the British after the 1936-1939 Arab revolt, led by future Hitler collaborator Haj Amin al Husseini. By contrast, numerous countries have admitted Syrian refugees—many of whom Tuttle notes are actually from other Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt.

Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s, where they were a minority, were long-standing victims of European antisemitism and anti-Jewish violence. By contrast, many Syrian refugees are Muslims fleeing Muslim-dominated lands, the victims of a group with a radical Salafi Islam ideology and/or the Syrian dictator Assad who has often appeased and funded Islamic terror groups.

Tharoor is not the only journalist to make the questionable comparison between Syrian refugees and German Jews in the 1930s.

His Post colleague Dana Milbank writes, “This growing cry to turn away people fleeing for their lives brings to mind the SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Florida in 1939� (“Republicans turning their backs on tolerance,� Nov. 17, 2015).

Except, as noted above, it doesn’t, not in the way Milbank assumes. Instead of describing key differences in their stretched comparisons, both Milbank and Tharoor imply that opposition to refugees is solely partisan in nature. Yet, Democratic politicians such as U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and New Hampshire Gubernatorial candidate Maggie Hassan have expressed opposition. On Nov. 19, 47 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives joined 242 Republicans in voting for a bill that supports greater security screening of refugees.

Another Washington Post columnist, Petula Dvorak (“Rescued from the Nazis, these Jews believe in helping Muslim refugees,� November 20) falsely conflates the different refugee circumstances. Although she does note “concerns that terrorists might hide among the refugees,� she fails to explicitly detail how this differs from security concerns over Jewish immigrants in the 1930’s.

A New York Times article (“They are us,� November 19) and USA Today editorial (“Rejecting Syrian refugees shames USA and aids ISIL,� Nov. 18) also repeat the comparisons made by Post reporters, while similarly failing to note important differences.

Writing about a politically sensitive topic, like Syrian refugees, can be difficult. But potentially misleading comparisons to previous situations does not help reader understanding—in fact, it may hinder it.

Posted by SD at November 20, 2015 01:35 PM


One in 8 out of 900 Syrian Muslims polled have a positive view of ISIS. They cannot live in a Democratic society. Their morality of honor killings, stoning, sharia law in not our morality. No they should stay in Muslim countries that share their beliefs.They are still fighting between themselves over a disagreement on succession of a Muslim ruler before Christ. No I don!t want them in US or Canada.

There were no security concerns about the Jews in 1939s. .

Posted by: Sheila Wolfe at November 21, 2015 08:19 PM

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