Skip to main content

The refugees have become a visibly different presence in the streets of Europe's cities. Their hollow, bedraggled look sets them apart, as do the covered heads of the women. Among the men, there is an air of roughness and desperation that begins to alarm ordinary Europeans, as does their tendency to stick with people of their own religion and background.

After an initial period of sympathy, motivated by understandable shock at the genocidal horrors and mass murders they have fled, Europeans begin to ask whether these people, who arrive in the hundreds of thousands, can ever be integrated into European values or whether they will actively defy those values.

A group of U.S. scholars warns that, if taken in too many numbers, the refugees will "undermine American culture and superimpose their own throughout the land." Some call for literacy tests to ensure that the right sort of refugees are chosen.

And there is the hot-potato battle among Western countries over who should take them. With the number in Western Europe approaching a million, many countries talk about border security and walls. But the question then, is where the refugees should go.

The above paragraphs describe the exact situation in Europe almost a century ago, in the first decades of the 20th century. Europe and North America were then facing an unprecedented refugee crisis, involving millions of genocide-fleeing families entering the continent, all of them illegally and without papers, many of them paying smugglers to get there. They were from the East, and they were Jewish.

As such, they were seen in most countries, including Canada, as being impossible to assimilate, civilizationally remote and destined to become a long-term social problem.

I was reminded of this last weekend, when I spent a day in the new Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. It's like Ellis Island or Pier 21, but in reverse: It is from these buildings that the refugee floods of Europe escaped to North America (when they were allowed in). Typical of them was a kid named Israel Isidore Baline, smuggled illegally from Belarus by his parents and run out of most European countries, and deloused in this building before boarding a ship. He settled in New York, changed his name, and wrote God Bless America and White Christmas.

People such as Irving Berlin were seen exactly as the Syrian refugees are today. We may like to believe that the current refugee crisis is a different sort of thing: Unlike previous ones (they happen every couple of decades), this involves huge numbers of people whose culture and values are incompatible with Europe's. So we say.

We easily forget. The Jews were coming from a place that in the early 20th century was further from Europe, physically and culturally, than Syria is today. Yet, we felt exactly the same about them (even many established Western Jews felt this way, and feared the millions of refugees would ruin their reputation).

"For the most part, these newly arrived Ashkenazic Jews from East Central Europe had come out of an isolated premodern civilization in which they had shown little interest in adopting the host culture," writes historian William Brustein, in his peerless work, Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust.

That was no excuse for the anti-Semitism that greeted them almost everywhere, but it provided fodder for the hateful literature of the time: They were illiterate, conservative, religious, illegal and given to extreme views.

To many liberal-minded people, the pogrom refugees seemed different and impossible to assimilate, Dr. Brustein writes: "The Eastern European Jews were typically less assimilated, more predisposed toward the Yiddish language and religious orthodoxy, less likely to intermarry and maintain a low birth rate, and more likely to hold lower-middle-class or proletarian jobs and to support Zionism or socialism."

Two conclusions. First: We have become impatient. Those early-20th-century refugees, whether eastern Jews or southern Catholics, took at least two generations to become integrated. They rarely learned the language at first. Their children typically did worse in school. The grandchildren got university degrees and excelled.

And second: We have come to believe, again, that everything was neat and orderly before those people arrived. But, then, we've always believed that.