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Desperate refugees flee persecution and war, but American politicians — worried about security risks — refuse to accept them.

That’s the situation today, but it’s also the shameful way we responded as Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In the shadow of one World War, and on the eve of another, Americans feared that European Jews might be left-wing security threats.

“Jews are not Communists,” Rabbi Louis I. Newman of Manhattan noted, pleadingly, in December 1938, trying to assuage the xenophobia. “Judaism has nothing in common with Communism.”

Yet, in January 1939, Americans polled said, by a 2-to-1 majority, that the United States should not accept 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children from Germany. That year, the US turned away a ship, the St Louis, with Jewish refugee children; the St Louis returned to Europe, where some of its passengers were murdered by the Nazis.

That is a stain on the American conscience that risks being repeated. Some 26 Republican governors are trying to block entry of Syrian refugees. All the Republican presidential candidates say that America should bar Syrian refugees or apply a religious test and accept only Christians.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey says America shouldn’t accept Syrians even if they are toddlers and orphans. And the House of Representatives was set to vote last week on legislation to impede the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

One Syrian family — a man who once ran a clothing store, his wife and their four-year-old child — were supposed to arrive in Indiana last week. Then Governor Mike Pence announced that Syrians were unwelcome and the family was settling down in Connecticut instead.

Remember what a Syrian immigrant looks like — the father of Steve Jobs.

Thank goodness that when my father came to America as a refugee from Eastern Europe in 1952, politicians weren’t fearmongering. My dad sailed to New York, bought a copy of the Sunday New York Times to teach himself English and took the train across the country to a welcoming Oregon. When Indiana today shuns desperate refugees, it is shunning people like my family.

Yes, security is critical, but I’ve known people who have gone through the refugee vetting process, and it’s a painstaking ordeal that lasts two years or more. It’s incomparably more rigorous than other pathways to the US.

If Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, it wouldn’t ask a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at, say, Indiana University. Hey, governors, are you going to keep out foreign university students?

Or Daesh could simply send fighters who are French or Belgian citizens (like some of those behind the Paris attacks) to the US as tourists — no visa required. Governors, are you planning to ban foreign tourists, too?

Refugee vetting has an excellent record. Of 785,000 refugees admitted to the US since 9/11, just three have been arrested for terrorism-related charges, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. If Republican governors are concerned about security risks, maybe they should vet who can buy guns. People on terrorism watch lists are legally allowed to buy guns in the US and more than 2,000 have done so since 2004. The National Rifle Association has opposed legislation to rectify this.

Although Donald Trump fulminates about President Barack Obama supposedly wanting to bring in 250,000 or more Syrian refugees, that’s preposterous: Obama proposes admitting only 10,000 Syrian refugees over a year. That’s tiny, just 1 per cent of the number that Lebanon has accepted.

Daesh is trying to create a religious divide and an anti-refugee backlash, so that Muslims will feel alienated and turn to extremism. If so, American and European politicians are following Daesh’s script.

Let America be careful about not following that script further and stigmatise all Muslims for Daesh terrorism. As a young British Muslim man, Kash Ali, wrote in a post that went viral on Twitter: “I don’t understand why non-Muslims think we British Muslims can stop [Daesh]. Mate, I can’t even get a text back from the girl I like, and you expect me to stop a terrorist organisation?”

Look, accepting 10,000 refugees is not a solution. Indeed, there is a risk that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s admirable compassion will lead far larger numbers to undertake the difficult journey and die on the way. The top priority must be making Syria habitable so that refugees need not flee. This is where I believe Obama has failed — Syria is his worst foreign policy failure, but it’s good to see him push back at the hysteria about Syrian refugees.

Helping Syrian refugees today doesn’t solve the Middle East mess any more than helping Jewish refugees in 1939 would have toppled Adolf Hitler. But it’s the right thing to do. Syrians, no less than those Jewish refugees, no less than my father, are human beings needing help — not flotsam.

— New York Times News Service