September 6, 2015; Washington Post

The plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping the Middle East and North Africa, willing to risk death on the high seas in flimsy boats, only to be herded into refugee camps or booted from the countries by xenophobic, nationalistic rulers, as in Hungary under Viktor Orban, evokes memories and history.

In 1939, 900 Jews escaped Germany on the S.S. St. Louis, hoping to sail to Cuba and then somehow reach the U.S. However, the ship was refused permission to dock in Havana, and then subsequently denied access to ports in Florida despite direct appeals to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Only a year before, the furious violence of Kristallnacht had told the Jews of Germany that staying in Europe was tantamount to a death sentence. Refused access to Cuba, prevented from landing in the U.S. by a Coast Guard cutter, the S.S. St. Louis returned to Europe. The Joint Distribution Committee, an American organization, somehow negotiated to distribute the disembarking passengers to Holland, France, Belgium, and England, though the German onslaught through most of those countries meant that 250 would subsequently lose their lives.

To his credit, Pope Francis is countering the anti-refugee venom of Orban, whose Hungary is itself overwhelmingly Catholic. The Pope called on every Catholic church, monastery, and sanctuary to take in at least one refugee family. Finland’s prime minister, Juha Sipila, offered his family home in Kempele to a refugee family, commenting, “We should all take a look in the mirror and ask how we can help.”

Last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel pledged that Germany would accept 800,000 refugees, a number that is one percent of the German population. (The equivalent commitment from the U.S. would be accepting 3.2 million of these refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Libya, among other countries.) Merkel’s commitment is noteworthy because there is some sentiment among Germans that is violently opposed to the refugees. According to the Interior Ministry, some 340 attacks on migrant camps have occurred in Germany this year alone, largely fueled by right wing anti-immigrant movements.

Where is the nonprofit sector in this refugee crisis? In Orban’s Hungary, as police tried to shunt refugees away from highways where they were walking to Austria and Germany, Hungarian nonprofits—and Hungarian citizens—lined the route of the refugees’ exodus to hand out bottled water and food and express embarrassment at Orban’s anti-Muslim, anti-refugee policies and sentiments. Although the U.S. is an ocean away from the migrant tide in Europe, there are some nonprofits here doing what they can. In Illinois, for example, 95 Syrian refugees have been admitted and resettled, with the help of an array of nonprofits such as the Syrian Community Network and the Karam Foundation. A doctor named Mohammed Sahloul from Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn who has been flying to refugee camps overseas to treat Syrian refugees voiced his concern for the U.S. to help:

We don’t have the moral authority to tell others to open their doors when we’re not opening ours. We’ve done this for the Somalis, Bosnians, and the Jews. We’ve settled millions of people, but for whatever reason, maybe concerns of terrorism, which would be a tragedy, we’re exploiting the situation. We are sending humanitarian aid, but everyone of conscience should call the White House. They claim to be our champion, but they are letting our children drown and die in the Mediterranean. I think we should all be banging on the doors of congressmen.

Some politicians here have voiced support for attempts to resettle refugees. The Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, herself the daughter of Indian migrants, spoke up this past spring for resettling some refugees in her state. However, the state legislature conditioned its passage of the state budget with a rider that rejects state funding support for refugee resettlement unless the government of the county where refugees might be relocated approves. Spartanburg County is supposedly slated to resettle 60 Syrian refugees, but the county has taken no action so far, and a resident has gone to court to prevent the resettlement because of the “unnecessary burden” that the refugees will create and the alleged failure of the government to have the refugees “properly vetted.”

Despite the call from Isaac Herzog, the opposition leader in Israel, that the nation was obligated by its own history and the plight of Jews for several centuries to take in Syrian refugees—“Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for safe haven,” Herzog said—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused. Citing Israel’s lack of “demographic or geographic depth,” Netanyahu said that absorbing refugees simply wasn’t practical. It isn’t hard, however, to see another problem for Israel, that accepting refugees from war-torn Syria would raise questions about Israel’s position toward the millions of Palestinian refugees created by several wars. Netanyahu’s Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, said that at least Palestinians displaced from Syria should be allowed to come to and settle in the occupied West Bank.

Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt doesn’t elevate President Obama much above the level of Netanyahu on this score: “This may be the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies: not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.” Unlike the mass outpourings of American support for people displaced by famine and war in Biafra and Darfur, Hiatt sees no “Save Syria” signs comparable to the “Save Darfur” signs that appeared in front of churches and synagogues across the U.S. He suggests that this is the result of President Obama’s consistent position that doing nothing about Syria was the best and smartest policy to take, notwithstanding Assad’s using chemical weapons on his own population, al-Qaeda and ISIS laying waste to much of the country, and the Obama himself belittling the moderate opposition as mere “doctors, farmers, and pharmacists.” The result? “The anesthetization of U.S. opinion.”

The movie version of the St. Louis was Voyage of the Damned. That movie title clearly describes the travails of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have tried to survive crossing the Mediterranean in hopes of finding safe haven in the E.U.—and the thousands who have drowned in the waters, notably the Syrian-Kurdish toddler Aylan whose body was washed ashore in Turkey and just recently returned to Kobani for burial. In anesthetizing public opinion, many world leaders have made us all crewmembers guiding the “damned” to oblivion.—Rick Cohen