The Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC features an outstanding exhibit on European Jewry’s struggle to escape from Hitler’s clutches.  Throughout the 1930s, the Nazis officially encouraged Jewish emigration.  The catch: By definition, every emigrant from Nazi territory had to become an immigrant to non-Nazi territory – and by the 1930s, almost every country tightly restricted immigration of all kinds. 

“Almost every country” includes, of course, the United States.  When Jews in the Russian Empire faced pogroms before World War I, about two million found refuge in America.  By the 1930s, such a welcome was unthinkable.  Why?  Public opinion.

Results from a 1938 survey: When asked “What is your attitude toward allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come into the U.S.?,” a bare 5% of Americans favored raising the immigration quota.  Two-thirds didn’t even want to fill the extremely low quota of the era.


Slightly different wording yields very similar results: “If you were a member of Congress, how would you vote on a bill that would open the doors of the U.S. to a larger number of European refugees than are currently allowed?”


Was anti-Semitism the problem?  I doubt it.  Public opinion would have been roughly the same for virtually any group of foreigners.  For any nationality you can imagine, the U.S. public would have played what I call Misanthropy by Numbers: Picture the outgroup, rattle off every negative that comes to mind, ignore all positives (or twist positives into negatives), ignore all remedies other than exclusion, and try not to think about the horrors you forbid this outgroup to escape. 

American immigration policy in the 1930s – the policy that trapped millions of Jews in Nazi territory – wasn’t a weird aberration of a by-gone era.  It epitomized the misanthropic mind-set that continues to drive immigration policy around the globe.