Pittsburgh’s silent call

Rebecca Erbelding         November 2018

It is Saturday morning, October 27, 2018. There has just been a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the third act of terrorism committed by radicalized white supremacists to make national news in the United States this week.  Antisemitism, racism, and nationalism are on the rise throughout the United States and much of Europe. This can be quantified: the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that antisemitic attacks have risen 57% in the United States over last year, the largest single year increase on record.

Initial reports about the Pittsburgh shooting indicate that the murderer, Robert Bowers, shouted “All Jews must die” as he entered the Tree of Life synagogue in the historically Jewish area of Squirrel Hill.  Prior to the attack, Bowers posted: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.” HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) was founded in 1881 to assist Russian Jews fleeing pogroms. They helped tens of thousands of Jews escaping Nazism in the 1930s and early 1940s, and in recent decades expanded their outreach to aid refugees worldwide. Their motto is “Welcome the Stranger. Protect the Refugee.”

Bowers’ post echoes right-wing conspiracy theories about Jews (particularly George Soros) paying for a caravan of men, women, and children travelling from central America to the southern border of the United States to seek asylum.  Conspiracy theorists—including President Donald Trump—have claimed that people from the Middle East (who are dangerous in the minds of the conspiracy theorists) are hiding amidst the asylum seekers. Trump has threatened to close the southern border to keep the refugees out, although he admits there is no proof any Middle Easterners are among them. HIAS has loudly opposed Trump’s rhetoric and vowed to guard the rights of refugees.[1]

For decades, there has been tension in the United States between those who advocate for the rights and dignity of refugees and those who believe refugees to be a threat. Lately, the fearmongers have been winning. The United States did not have a refugee policy prior to World War II—in fact, the US did not sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, only signing the Protocol (which expanded the convention) in 1967. The United States finally passed the Refugee Resettlement Act, the first comprehensive law related to refugees, in 1980. The Act established qualifications for refugee status (echoing the UN definitions) and allowed the president to set an annual refugee cap. In 1980, Jimmy Carter set the first year’s cap at 231,000; 207,000 refugees entered the country that year. In 2018, Trump set the cap at 45,000; fewer than 25,000 refugees entered the United States. The 2019 refugee cap is 30,000.

In the 1930s, when no country had specific legislation to welcome those fleeing persecution, immigrants to the United States had to submit a wide range of documents attesting to their identity, health, and economic status, including proof of support from an American financial sponsor who guaranteed the immigrant would not become a “public charge.” (The Trump administration recently announced it will heavily enforce the still-extant “public charge” stipulation.) Jews fleeing Nazi persecution were subjected to the same criteria; as the episode of the 1939 refugee ship MS St Louis clearly shows, they could not claim asylum.[2]

US government officials at the time feared that allowing the St Louis passengers (who did not hold US immigration visas) to enter the country would encourage Jewish organisations (like HIAS) to charter boats, fill them with refugees, and simply land in the US. At a time when 2/3 of Americans believed that European Jews were at least partly to blame for their own persecution—and 83% did not want their member of Congress to expand immigration—granting asylum to Jewish refugees was politically a non-starter.

And yet, more refugees entered the United States in 1939 than in 2018.  In quota year 1939, 43,450 people who self-identified as “Hebrew” immigrated to the United States, more than 32,000 of them from Nazi Germany or German-occupied areas. Jews made up more than half of all immigration to the United States in 1939. Hundreds of thousands more were on waiting lists for US visas. Many, including Anne Frank—whose family had been working with HIAS to obtain immigration visas—were killed in the Holocaust.

After World War II began in September 1939, most Americans wanted the US to remain neutral in the conflict.. After the defeat of France in spring 1940, US government officials, including President Roosevelt and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, seeing that Great Britain stood as the only bulwark between Nazi Germany and the United States, stoked national security fears. Even Jewish refugees, Roosevelt said in June 1940, could be “Trojan horses,” their loved ones held hostage in Nazi Germany in exchange for acts of spying and sabotage in the United States.  Immigration from Nazi Germany dropped by 40% in 1940, and yet more than 33,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi occupation arrived in the United States that year—again, more than the total number of refugees welcomed into the United States in 2018.

Amid the terrible news of this week, Canada announced that the Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau will formally apologise for Canada’s failure to accept the passengers of the St. Louis. Trudeau has made similar statements in the past, and he is not alone in expressing his country’s regret. The United States issued a formal apology to the passengers in 2012 and presented letters of gratitude to representatives of the four western European countries that accepted the passengers so they would not be returned to Nazi Germany.  HIAS, and other organisations assisting Jews fleeing Nazism, had been on the right side of history. Jewish refugees were not terrorists or Trojan horses. They were seeking safety, and the United States (and other nations) welcomed too few of them.

The ADL announced that the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is the scene of the deadliest antisemitic attack on the Jewish community in American history. It was perpetrated by a man who ingested rhetoric that Jews assisting refugees are actually aiding terrorists. This rhetoric is spreading, fueled by antisemitism, and if history tells us anything, the victims will lay far beyond just Pittsburgh.


Rebecca Erbelding is an historian of American response(s) to the Holocaust. She is the author of Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Effort to Save the Jews of Europe (Doubleday 2018). www.rebeccaerbelding.com


[1] In an October 26, 2018 statement, Mark Hetfield, the President and CEO of HIAS, said, “The individuals arriving at the Southern border are not a threat to our safety…Once again, we remind the President that seeking asylum is not illegal, and that the U.S. must respect the rule of law.”


[2] In May 1939, The St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, to Havana, Cuba, carrying 937 passengers, most of them German Jews. The vast majority of the passengers were on the waiting list for the United States but did not possess US immigration visas. When Cuba refused to allow the passengers to disembark, the United States did not take any steps to admit the passengers. They returned to Europe and were divided between Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium. Although none of the passengers were returned to Nazi Germany, many of them fell under Nazi occupation in spring 1940, and 254 were eventually murdered in the Holocaust.