Click photo to download. Caption: With refugee advocates urging U.S. intervention, the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pictured, in 1938 initiated
an international conference in the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains from
July 6-15 to address the
persecution of Jews in Germany and Austria. Credit: Frank O. Salisbury.
By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org
The name “Evian” will forever be remembered as the site of an
international conference, 75 years ago this week, that was supposed to save the
Jews of Germany—but instead sealed their doom. Evian, however, should also be
remembered for its link to the rescue of a different group of refugees in the
1970s, the so-called “boat people” fleeing the Communist takeover of Southeast
Now, perhaps Evian will go down in the history books for yet
another reason—as a turning point in addressing the problem of the tens of
thousands of African refugees who have entered Israel in recent years.
With the persecution of Jews in Germany and Austria intensifying
in 1938 and refugee advocates urging U.S. intervention, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt
administration initiated an international conference in the French resort town
of Evian-les-Bains from July 6-15 to address the crisis. Thirty-two countries
agreed to send delegations.
In his announcement, President Roosevelt emphasized that “no
nation would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than
is permitted by its existing legislation.” The U.S. also assured Great Britain
that Mandatory Palestine would not be discussed as a possible refuge; the
British feared admitting more Jews to the Holy Land would anger the Arab
Click photo to download. Caption: An activist of the Tel Aviv-based Combat Genocide Association with homeless Darfurian refugees. Credit: Courtesy Combat Genocide Association.
The July 6 opening session at the luxurious Hotel Royal
was not well attended. The hotel’s chief concierge later recalled why: “All the
delegates had a nice time. They took pleasure cruises on the lake. They gambled
at night at the casino… It is difficult to sit indoors hearing speeches when
all the pleasures that Evian offers are outside.”
When they finally got around to addressing the issue, the
delegates made clear that everyone expected somebody else to solve the
problem. Typical was the Australian representative, who asserted, “As we
have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” The
only exception was the tiny Dominican Republic, which declared it would accept
as many as 100,000 Jewish refugees. But that project never materialized,
because the Roosevelt administration feared the arrival of so many refugees in
the nearby Caribbean would enable them to sneak into the United States.
Golda Meir, who attended Evian as an observer, concluded that
“nothing was accomplished at Evian except phraseology.” She remarked
afterwards: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is
that my people should not need expressions of sympathy any more.” Another
critic pointed out that “Evian” was “Naive” spelled backwards. The
problem, however, was not naiveté so much as it was calculated indifference.
In 1979, Evian was the site of another refugee conference—but with
a very different outcome. That year, hundreds of thousands of refugees, the
so-called “boat people,” fled the Communist takeover of Southeast Asia. In his
emotional keynote speech, U.S. Vice President …read more