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Shame on America

For the second time in a long life, I feel shame for my country. This time it is for my adopted country, the United States of America. The first time was decades after the end of World War II, when the truth began to emerge about my native Switzerland's shameful actions before and during the war.

Throughout my childhood and youth I was inculcated with the narrative of my country's long history of democracy and neutrality that nurtured a liberal and humanitarian spirit. And I have a very personal reason to be grateful to Switzerland, since I owe my existence to the fact that my father, a Swiss journalist, rescued my Jewish mother by marrying her. They had met while he was covering the first large-scale anti-Jewish demonstration in Germany, the "Judenboykott," an action against Jewish businesses and individuals orchestrated by the Nazis on April 1, 1933.

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This was just before the Germans — at the suggestion of Swiss authorities — started stamping the passports of all their Jewish Citizens with a "J," so that they could be more easily identified and denied admission. In the late 1930s and during the war, Switzerland turned back tens of thousands of desperate Jews at its borders, condemning them to a certain death.

That other nations, including the U.S., put similar draconian restrictions on Jewish immigration during those years in no way diminishes my sense of shame. Nor does the stated concern that too many refugees would have overwhelmed the country's ability to feed its own people because it is abundantly clear that anti-Semitism was a driving factor in the decision not to admit refugees of Jewish parentage.

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As I follow the coverage of the most recent humanitarian catastrophe, I am sadly reminded of the famous slogan, coined at the time, that "our boat is full." This time it is hundreds of thousands of mostly Syrian refugees, overflowing neighboring countries that are flooding Europe. Germany has taken in 800,000 this year alone and has contributed $1.8 billion to Turkey, which is dealing with 2 million Syrian refugees. Switzerland has accepted 129,000 and is expecting to shelter another 30,000 next year. But tens of thousands more are waiting for help.

In the meantime, the American media continue to report at length about the chaos in Europe, rarely, if ever, mentioning its root causes. An editorial in the New York Times ("A Test of Conscience for Europe," Sept. 11) chided Europe for its "disarray and incompetence in the face of this flood." The same article went on to say that the influx of refugees would certainly be within the ability of a rich and united Europe to manage.


But what of America? In a largely symbolic gesture, the president of the United States of America, which is materially responsible for the state of affairs in Afghanistan and Iraq and by extension Syria, announced that the U.S. will take an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees this year — a number that under closer inspection shrinks to 2,000 because the rest had been approved earlier. To its credit, The Times commented on this news at the very end of its editorial by pointing out the obvious, "That paltry sum sets a terrible example for other nations asked to step up to this urgent challenge." Today, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. would raise its cap on worldwide refugees to 85,000 next year, from 70,000, and to 100,000 in 2017 — a relatively small increase compared to the size of the emergency.

Indeed the ones who should be taken to task are not the hapless Europeans faced with a crisis that is not of their making, but the government and people of America, the most powerful and prosperous country in the world, who out of fear of some potential terrorists sneaking in among the survivors of persecution, war and unimaginable hardship refuse the helping hand that Lady Liberty, our national symbol, promises to "the huddled masses" and "wretched refuse" of other shores.

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And as it was with the Jews, fear about a supposed threat to our nation seems largely informed by racial and religious prejudices — this time against Arabs and others, fleeing for their lives.

It is certainly true that the E.U.'s futile wrangling over the adoption of a quota system to distribute refugees equitably throughout its borders poses a sad spectacle. But the way America refuses to step up to the plate to meaningfully ease this humanitarian crisis, let alone accept responsibility for it, makes me deeply ashamed.

Sabine Oishi is a retired psychotherapist living in Baltimore. Her email is sabineoishi@hotmail.com.

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