Many see me as a pro-Palestinian voice on this site. A couple of recent conversations made me think about the Evian conference which I’ve only discussed in passing. There was a diary around Helen Thomas’s retirement that mentioned Evian, but not much since. It deserves to be better known since it is a shameful episode and understanding it is critical to realizing the desperation and determination of the early Zionists to create a homeland that would serve as a permanent refuge for their people. It is crucial to understanding, and appreciating, the agony many feel over the deterioration or even demise of Israel’s Jewish character or Jewish majority. It is positively essential to the deep emotional connection many Israelis have with the idea of aliyah.
I cannot dismiss these concerns, and what happened at Evian has much to do with it. But first we have to talk quickly about the prelude.
Prior to World War I, much of Central Europe was a surprisingly cosmopolitan and diverse place. Under the Austro-Hungarian empire, professionals and merchants moved and settled across a broad swath of central Europe. Russia continued to experience pogroms and its institutions forced re-settlement and practiced harsh discrimination towards Jews. In Central Europe though discrimination was present, it was not as overt. Levels of international trade as a portion of global GDP were comparable to where they are today (partly due to colonial exploitation), and a global supply chain existed for many manufactured goods (as it does today for most). From many perspectives, the world looked quite tolerant and inter-connected. As it does to many today.
There is a real case to be made that our own interconnected world is just a thin, brittle veneer over deep, un-shakable tribal divisions that can flare up at any time. A subtext of exploitation, charged with race could be used by demagogues to embark once again on mass slaughter (as indeed we have seen in numerous episodes in Asia and Africa post World War II). If you look around you, there are places in the world (some in the Middle East) where things look quite horrific. As liberals we look for the humanity and good in all human beings, but we have to be aware of this criticism and acknowledge it as we work against such an outcome.
But back to Central Europe in the inter-war years. The Nazis acquire power in 1933 and begin implementing their campaign promise of racial purification. Zionists had already seen what was to come and frantically negotiated the Haavara agreement which offered to purchase German goods so Jewish emigrants could leave and realize some value, however small, for their property. In 1934, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna, is shaken by shelling during the Austrian Civil War between various factions on the left and right, including fascist and Nazi elements (Patrick Leigh Fermor’s magnificent trilogy describes these incidents, which he witnessed). In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed, Jews are no longer citizens, and Jewish life becomes untenable in Germany. The Nazi’s annex Austria (the Anschluss) in March 1938 and suddenly Jews are as persecuted in cosmopolitan, vibrant Vienna as they were in Germany.
Those who can, have been fleeing Central Europe through the 30s. This is possible for those with means and easier for those who have assimilated into modernist European society. The poor and those following traditional ways have limited opportunities.
It is in this context that FDR convenes a conference in Evian-les-Bains in France during early July 1938. The intention was to discuss what, if anything, could be done for Jewish refugees who faced limited opportunities to emigrate. The US still operated on the national origins formula which severely limited the immigration of many peoples, including Jews. *
Hitler made the following statement when informed of the Evian conference:
I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.
The national origins formula capped immigration at 30,000 a year from Germany/Austria. At Evian the US representative “magnanimously” made the entire quota available to Jewish refugees from those countries (though in practice it ended up being a bit higher). After the conference, Britain modified the refugee quota for mandate Palestine to permit 75,000 Jewish refugees a year to enter. It did not offer resettlement in its other colonies, though some Jewish refugees did find their way to India, and others made it as far as the diaspora community in China. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and much of South America explained their refusal to accept additional refugees by pointing to the depression. The tiny Dominican Republic offered to accept 100,000 refugees and set aside land for them but in the end only 800 refugees received visas and were re-settled.
In the end, the free world failed the Jewish populations of Germany and Austria. And it failed all other Jewish communities in Central Europe that swiftly found themselves subject to the same persecution as more nations fell to the Nazi onslaught. What sticks in many throats is that though Golda Meir was at the conference, she was not permitted to speak, only observe.
I’m for one state in Israel/Palestine, with a federal character and equal rights for all. It seems to me to be a difficult, but just and sustainable answer. In any such state, Jews will eventually be a slim majority or a sizable minority. The equilibrium state is likely to be very similar to Lebanon’s Christian minority. Israel/Palestine also has a 6-10% Christian/Druze population. Any such proposal has to overcome the objection that if the Jews do not have a homeland where they are a secure majority, the unthinkable is possible.
This objection is not just about a resurgence of a genocidal threat, which may sound far-fetched to many ears. It is also about the abject, shameful failure of the free, western world to provide a refuge at the exact moment when it was both necessary and possible.
And here’s the lesson for us on DKos. For liberals who idolize him, this is particularly distressing, because it was FDR. It doesn’t matter whether it was a failure of imagination, analysis or simply an unwillingness to exercise power. Nor does it matter that Poland and Romania demanded the same “right” to expel their Jews they saw the Nazis being offered, multiplying the number of possible refugees ten-fold to over four million. The fact is that FDR’s administration did not grasp the opportunity when it was presented. One of the most liberal administrations in American history, one we still hold as a lodestar in any discussion of social justice saw almost five million souls held in a vice and failed them.
I support one state in Israel/Palestine, with a federal character and equal rights for all. But it is a difficult cause to support given Evian (among many other events). It is difficult for me, as a gentile to support it given all that history. I understand how thoroughly impossible it may be for those who consider themselves a part of the Jewish people. It may be difficult to remember all this deep in a comment thread with those who support two-states or those who object to anything that would compromise Israel’s ability to defend it’s borders and further compromise its severely limited strategic depth. But let us all strive to remember the deep and true reasons for their views, and respect them.