The Man Who Highlighted the Comparison Between Jewish and Syrian Refugees Talks About Why He Did It

November 19, 2015 Updated: November 19, 2015

The historian who first highlighted the 1938 poll that showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to Jewish refugees from Europe has spoken out about why he did it.

Peter Shulman, a historian and associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, shared the interesting poll data on Twitter.

Taken from a July ’38 issue of Fortune, the poll asked: “What is your attitude toward allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come to the U.S.?”

67 percent of Americans answered “with conditions as they are we should try to keep them out.”

The comparison was drawn between the attitude then and the current prevailing attitude that the U.S. should not accept refugees from Syria.

The Epoch Times article about the poll proved to be popular, as did Shulman’s tweets on the issue.

Syrian refugees Hussam Al Roustom and his wife, Suha, in their home in Jersey City, N.J., on Nov. 9, 2015. They fled Homs, Syria, in 2013 with their two young children. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Syrian refugees Hussam Al Roustom and his wife Suha in their home in Jersey City, New Jersey, on Nov. 9, 2015. They left Homs, Syria in 2013 with their two small children. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)


Current Polls

The poll highlighting came as two new polls showed most Americans are opposed to Syrian refugees. A NBC poll showed 56 percent of Americans opposed allowing more refugees from Syria to enter the U.S., versus 41 percent who approve of allowing more of these refugees into the country.

Also this week, 53 percent said in a Bloomberg poll that they don’t want any Syrian refugees in the U.S., with 28 percent saying they want to proceed with the current plan to resettle 10,000 refugees without religious screening.

It also came as public officials push legislation forward that would halt the resettlement program until more barriers are put in place, in the hopes of preventing terrorists from slipping through.

The plan would not include religious tests, as suggested by some Republicans.

The Other Poll

A second tweet from Shulman showed another poll, taken after the start of World War II and Kristallnacht, or the night that coordinated attacks happened against Jews in Germany and other parts of Europe.

61 percent of people said that Jewish refugees–mostly children–shouldn’t be allowed into the United States.

Many people commenting on the article said that the situations didn’t line up, especially with fears that ISIS-affiliated terrorists can sneak in among Syrian refugees.

“The possibility of any of the Jewish refugees being terrorists was a big fat 0 percent chance,” said Max Murphee on the Epoch Times Facebook page.

“Can’t compare Jewish refugees who cherish democracy and freedom compared with Muslim refugees who are against our way of life, against american values. many of them want Sharia law,” added Jeremy Taylor.

Shulman responded to criticism of the thinking in a new interview.

Historian Responds With Added Context

“The situations are not exactly parallel and I’m not saying that they are,” he told TIME magazine. “But in terms of a heavily politicized, nativist response to a refugee crisis, we have been here before. And the example of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe in the late ’30s is most poignant because we know how it ended.”

Shulman noted that he’s heard from plenty of people that the comparison isn’t fair because there wasn’t a threat of violence from any of the Jewish refugees, but he said that while he understands the perspective the facts cited aren’t correct. 

“There was fear,” he said. “This was certainly expressed in Roosevelt’s government, that hiding among the refugees would be Nazis and they would bring the violence.”

The main goal, the historian said, was to help people understand what happened in the past and have it inform the present and future.

“A lot of history scares me, and a lot of the present scares me,” he said. “”You can think about all the other instances of looking back and saying we should have done something different. It’s almost predictable that the next generation will look back and say, it really should have been different. I don’t think it’s too late to do something more this time.”

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber