When Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) took place on 9 November 1938 – a night that Jewish homes, businesses, schools and synagogues throughout Germany were attacked and, in many cases, destroyed – my parents, my older sister and I were living in Berlin. After that, we knew we had to leave. But where could we go? The United States had closed its doors to most Jewish refugees. The same was true almost every place else. Fortunately for us, in the late 1930s Britain accepted several tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Germany and Austria. My sister, then aged 10, was one of about 10,000 unaccompanied children who made up the Kindertransport. She traveled to England in spring 1939. My parents and I were able to follow a few months later. We arrived when I was two years old, on 16 August 1939, two weeks before the start of the second world war in Europe. Almost certainly that saved my life.
Admitting so many Jews was controversial. At the time, Britain suffered from high unemployment; taking in people who would compete for jobs was problematic. There was also a fear of spies and saboteurs masquerading as refugees, who would harm the country if war broke out. And, of course, some of those opposing admission of refugees were antisemites who wanted to maintain Britain’s racial purity. Yet those espousing humanitarian principles prevailed. Among them, standouts included two members of Parliament, Colonel Josiah Wedgwood (of the famous pottery family whose 18th-century ancestor of the same name had fought against slavery) and Eleanor Rathbone, a longtime campaigner for women’s rights. They enjoyed strong support from this newspaper, then known as the Manchester Guardian, which played a crucial role.
Some in the US also sought the admission of Jewish refugees. A bill was introduced in Congress to accept 20,000 unaccompanied children, along the lines of the Kindertransport to Britain, but it failed. A ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees from Germany was denied permission to land in the United States in June 1939. Antisemites in the state department played a leading role in killing various proposals to admit Jewish refugees. The failure of President Franklin D Roosevelt to take a stand, despite the efforts of his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, allowed the antisemites to prevail.
After the war, and after revelations about the Nazi death camps, expressions of antisemitism in the United States were muted. The Truman administration took strong stands against racism and, starting a couple of years after the war, admitted significant numbers of Jews and other refugees, my parents and I among them. Unlike our admission to Britain, this was not life-saving, but it provided us with opportunities. My family’s experience helped to set me on a path in which my entire career has been devoted to protecting rights.
In subsequent years, the largest number of those admitted as refugees to the United States were escaping communism. They included Hungarians fleeing after their failed revolution against the Soviet Union in 1956; Cubans who left after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959; Vietnamese who fled after the triumph of North Vietnam and the Vietcong in the early 1970s; and Jews from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and the 1980s. The United States also admitted refugees from rightwing military dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere, and from military conflicts in different parts of the world, but not on the scale of those seeking refuge from leftwing regimes.
Over the years the US has accepted, in absolute terms, more refugees than any other country. In proportion to population, however, the US has accepted fewer refugees than the United Kingdom and far fewer than Canada.
Though American attitudes toward refugees have fluctuated since the second world war, there has never before been hostility to refugees and migrants comparable to that generated by Donald Trump. He has banned all migrants to the US from several predominantly Muslim countries, suggesting that they are terrorists; he has labeled Mexican migrants rapists; and he has described the arrival of those fleeing violence in Central America as “an invasion”. Since beginning his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has made hostility to migrants, including asylum seekers, the running theme of his appeals to his most fervent supporters.
Whether or not Trump is re-elected, the antagonism to refugees that he has generated will not soon disappear. Trump made it the main focus of his effort to secure support exactly because he recognized its popular appeal. Yet I do not think that the nationalistic and xenophobic strain in American attitudes that the president has cultivated and brought to the fore will necessarily continue to prevail.
In Britain on the eve of the second world war , when the country was in great danger, and more recently in countries such as Canada and Germany, a small number of political leaders proved capable of securing extremely generous responses to humanitarian crises. The Latin American countries currently accepting millions of Venezuelans are demonstrating a similar spirit. President Trump’s policies have polarized public opinion, arousing revulsion from many Americans as well as enthusiasm from others. I think it is possible that some Americans who are appalled by Trump’s scorn for refugees could turn the country around and demonstrate that America is also capable of great generosity.
- Aryeh Neier is an American human rights campaigner. He was the president of the Open Society Institute from 1993-2012 and a founder of Human Rights Watch. His most recent book is Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights