Photo Credit: Dr. Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoff

It happened just last week, but it seemed liked 1942 all over again. The United States finally acknowledged that genocide is underway, yet human rights activists were left wondering: now that you’ve said it, what are you going to do about it?

For more than a year, the Obama administration resisted calling the actions of ISIS “genocide,” even as ISIS carried out mass beheadings of Christians, the mass murder of Yazidis, and other atrocities against targeted non-Muslim minorities.


But an outraged Congress finally set a deadline of March 17 for the administration to take a stand on the genocide issue. That’s what brought about Secretary of State Kerry’s belated acknowledgment that ISIS is carrying out genocide.

Something similar happened during the Holocaust. The Germans’ mass murder of Europe’s Jews began in the summer of 1941. Despite mounting evidence of mass atrocities, President Franklin D. Roosevelt remained silent. Acknowledging that the Jews were being singled out for slaughter “would expose [the Allies] to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people,” one State Department official wrote in a memo to his colleagues.

Eighteen long months passed. Finally, as the evidence of genocide became overwhelming, and with public criticism growing, the U.S. and its allies issued a statement in December 1942, acknowledging that the Germans were carrying out a “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination” of Europe’s Jews. (The term “genocide” was not yet in use.)

Many major American daily newspapers failed to give prominence to the Allies’ declaration. It appeared on page 10 of the Washington Post, page 16 of the Los Angeles Examiner, and page 28 of the New York World Telegram.

Sadly, the coverage of last week’s ISIS-genocide declaration was not much better. The Washington Post ran it only on page 10; The New York Times buried it at the bottom of page 12.

The media coverage, then and now, was disappointing. But the most important question about the genocide-acknowledgement was then, and is today: what is the U.S. government going to do about it?

In the 1940s, the Roosevelt administration refused to follow up its genocide acknowledgement with any action to aid the victims. Expressing the common sentiment in the administration, senior State Department official R. Borden Reams warned his colleagues in 1943 of “the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.”

Since the U.S. would not and should not grant haven to “these people,” Reams continued, America would get blamed – “the onus for their continued persecution would have been largely transferred from the German government to the Allied nations.”

It took public protests (organized by the Bergson Group), pressure from Congress, and a threatened expose by Treasury Department staffers to force Roosevelt’s hand. Late in the war, facing a possible election-year scandal over his abandonment of the Jews, FDR reluctantly established the War Refugee Board. Despite little government funding (Jewish organizations had to provide 90 percent of its budget!), and meager cooperation from other government agencies, the WRB helped some 200,000 Jews. It was clear evidence that when there’s a will, there’s a way.

Does the Obama administration have the will to assist those it says are the targets of ISIS genocide? Human rights activist Nina Shea, of the Hudson Institute, has suggested several initial avenues of action:

* More visas for Christian refugees from the Middle East: Shea reports that only sixty Syrian Christians, and one Yazidi, have been given U.S. refugee-resettlement visas in the past five years. California congressman Dana Rohrabacher has submitted legislation to expedite the processing of immigration applications submitted by foreigners who are the targets of genocide, but the Obama administration has been opposing the bill.

* Targeted humanitarian aid: The refugee camps the United Nations has set up for displaced Syrians in the Mideast are “too dangerous for minorities,” Shea points out. Syrian Christian refugees have sometimes been abused by Syrian Muslim refugees. Some Jewish survivors of Nazi death camps faced a similar problem – the Allied armies that liberated the camps often housed both Jewish prisoners and captured Nazi guards in the same barracks. The Obama administration needs to do what the Truman administration did (after an outcry): establish physically separate living quarters for genocide victims.

* A seat at the peace table: Representatives of the Christians and other persecuted minorities should be included in the ongoing Syrian peace talks. Borders are being drawn and constitutions are being drafted, Shea points out; the voices of the genocide victims “need to be included, lest they be marginalized in, or even shut out of, whatever replaces the old Syria.”

So far, the response of the Obama administration to the ISIS genocide has been slow and ineffective. But it’s not too late to change course – if the genocide acknowledgment was sincerely meant to signal a new policy, and not just as a gesture to appease critics of the administration’s lethargy.


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Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 18 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.