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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The Evian Conference, 80 Years Ago: Tragically, Israel Did Not Yet Exist

In July 1938, almost exactly 80 years ago, the U.S.-initiated Evian Conference was held in the French city of Evian-les-Bains to discuss the plight of German and Austrian Jews who sought to flee Nazi Germany. The conference ended in failure: None of the 32 participating countries agreed to accept Jewish refugees, with the exception of the Dominican Republic—which committed to 100,000 Jewish refugees but ultimately admitted only 800.

At the time, the Nazis were still willing to expel Jews, rather than exterminate them. Had Israel been created in May 1938 instead of May 1948, it would have gladly admitted each of these refugees, saving hundreds of thousands—eventually perhaps millions—of innocent Jewish lives.

Nazi Policy: From Expulsion to Extermination

After Adolf Hitler’s accession to Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Nazi persecution of the Jews gained momentum. Under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Jews were stripped of their German citizenship and declared “enemies of the race-based state.” Gradually, they lost their jobs and businesses and bore the brunt of viciously anti-Semitic attacks in the Nazi-controlled German press. Violent attacks on Jews were not uncommon. After Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, its Jewish population was subjected to the same treatment. That was the background that prompted the United States to convene the Evian Conference.

Hitler himself, in a speech in Koenigsberg, was quoted as saying he would help the Jews leave Germany if other countries agreed to admit them:

“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.”

Indeed, as late as May 1939, the Nazis allowed the German ocean liner St. Louis to sail from Germany to Cuba, and then to the United States, with some 900 Jewish refugees aboard. They were refused admission and forced to return to Europe, where many of them perished in the Holocaust.

Reacting to the failure of the Evian Conference, the German government stated how “astounding” it was that “foreign countries criticized Germany for its treatment of the Jews but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when the opportunity offer[ed].” Hitler commented: “It is a shameful example to observe today how the entire democratic world dissolves in tears of pity but then…closes its heart to the ‘poor, tortured’ Jewish people.” 

A direct line led from Evian to the Holocaust. Barely four months after the conference, which the Nazis interpreted as proof of the world’s indifference to the fate of the Jews, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing, together with German civilians, perpetrated Kristallnacht—the “night of broken glass”—an organized pogrom in which at least 100 Jews were murdered, tens of thousands were arrested, and hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish businesses were demolished. Historians generally regard Kristallnacht as a precursor to the Holocaust. Indeed, once the Nazis realized they were unable to get rid of the Jews through emigration and intimidation, they resorted to extermination.

The United States and British-Mandate Palestine Spurn Jewish Refugees

The nearly 600,000 German and Austrian Jews placed their highest hopes for refuge in the United States—under the enlightened leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the conference’s convener (though he himself did not attend)—and British-controlled Palestine; under the terms of the 1920 League of Nations Mandate, Britain was required to promote the creation of a national home for the Jewish people and help settle them in Palestine, and a growing Jewish community was already established there. Those hopes were dashed at Evian.

Already before the conference, the United States and Britain reached an agreement: The British promised not to disclose that the United States was not filling its own immigration quotas, while any mention of British-Mandate Palestine as a possible destination for Jewish refugees was excluded from the agenda.

At the conference, the United States agreed, for the first time, to accept its full quota, but no more, of 27,370 immigrants annually from Germany and Austria—a drop in the bucket. The U.S. government operated under the sway of powerful isolationists, who opposed the admission of refugees; it did not even send a government official to Evian.

Britain declared that the island was “not a country of immigration” and was “already sufficiently populated,” and that its colonial empire “contained no territory suitable to the large-scale settlement of Jewish refugees”; it sought to appease the Arabs in order to secure their support in the impending war against Nazi Germany.

Less than a year after Evian and six months after Kristallnacht, the United States turned back the 900 Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis and Britain issued a White Paper that reduced Jewish immigration to Palestine to a trickle.

Other Countries Merely Express Sympathy

In its concluding statement, the conference noted that “the involuntary emigration of people in large numbers has become so great that it renders racial and religious problems more acute, increases international unrest, and may hinder seriously the processes of appeasement in international relations.” At the time, appeasement was regarded as wise policy.

Here is a sample of statements at Evian:

  • Argentina said it had already accommodated as many refugees from Central Europe as had the United States and could not admit any more;

  • Australia declared, “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one";

  • Canada cited its unemployment problem and declared it would only accept immigrants with farming experience, fully aware that the vast majority of European Jews lived in cities;

  • Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama stated they wanted “no traders and intellectuals”—i.e., Jews;

  • France, along with other countries, said it had reached "the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees";

  • New Zealand refused to lift its immigration restrictions;

  • South Africa agreed to take in only close relatives of South African residents;

  • Switzerland said its neutrality prevented it from taking any Jews.

From the time of the Evian Conference until the gates of emigration were closed by Nazi Germany at the end of the 1930s, all 32 countries represented at the conference combined admitted only a small fraction of European Jews seeking to escape the Nazis. Most of the rest perished in the Holocaust.

Israel Was Born 10 Years Too Late for Most of Europe’s Jews

In her autobiography My Life (1975), Golda Meir described her outrage at being in “the ludicrous capacity of the [Jewish] observer from Palestine [at the conference], not even seated with the delegates, although the refugees under discussion were my own people.” After the conference Meir said, “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.”

Fortunately, Meir not only lived to see the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948; she was elected its fourth prime minister in 1969.

But all this came too late to save the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Had Israel been born in May 1938 instead of May 1948, there would have been no need for the Evian Conference; Israel would have taken in all the Jewish refugees when the Nazis still allowed them to leave. A case can even be made that the existence of Israel might have prevented the Holocaust itself: The Nazis wanted to get rid of the Jews and shifted from encouraging emigration to perpetrating annihilation only after realizing that no one would accept Jewish refugees; Israel, of course, would have taken them in.

Under its 1950 Law of Return, Israel became the world’s only country where Jews no longer had to seek permission to be admitted; they were now granted the automatic right to become citizens upon—or after—arrival. The law stated:

Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [new immigrant]. …An oleh’s visa shall be granted to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel… A Jew who has come to Israel and subsequently to his arrival has expressed his desire to settle in Israel may, while still in Israel, receive an oleh’s certificate.

Indeed, during the first four years of its existence, Israel took in nearly 700,000 Jewish refugees—more than doubling its Jewish population. Had Israel existed in May 1938, it would have admitted and absorbed the entire Jewish population of Nazi Germany and Austria.

Unfortunately, it took World War II, which depleted the British treasury and led to the death of 450,000 British soldiers and civilians, for Britain to decide to abandon its Mandate for Palestine. Prior to the war, the Jewish community in Palestine was simply not strong enough to eject the powerful British army from the country and declare independence.

Conclusion: A Safe and Secure Israel Saves Lives

The Evian Conference proved that even the most enlightened nations can—and sometimes do—refuse to admit persecuted Jews. Indeed, as sovereign states, it is their legal right to do so. Only Israel provides all Jews with the right to automatic safe haven. Thus, it has taken in hundreds of thousands of persecuted Jews from Arab countries and nearly a million from the former Soviet Union. Perhaps most remarkably, it mounted a massive effort to rescue Ethiopian Jews. In May 1991, an Israeli El Al jumbo jet airlifted from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv a record-breaking 1,087 Ethiopian Jews fleeing for their lives. During that same month, non-stop flights of 35 Israeli aircraft transported more than 14,000 imperiled Ethiopian Jews to Israel within 36 hours. That was the first time in history that any nation had organized a large-scale operation to bring in black Africans not for enslavement but for life as free citizens.

Now that anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly head in Europe and elsewhere, Jews know that given the existence of Israel, there will never again be a need for another Evian Conference. Whatever happens, Israel will be there to receive them with open arms.

Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report