News of anti-Jewish violence in Nazi Germany and growing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe for the United States brought increasing awareness of the plight of German Jews to US college campuses in the 1930s.1 Many US colleges were reluctant to admit Jewish students, however, and many Americans did not favor admitting more Jewish refugees to the US.
Shortly after the organized anti-Jewish violence of November 1938—often referred to as Kristallnacht—multiple articles regarding refugee students appeared on the front pages of the student newspaper of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The featured pages of the November 22 issue of the Swarthmore Phoenix contain a survey of students and faculty about their opinions about efforts to sponsor refugees2 fleeing Nazi Germany. Participants were asked, "Do you think it advisable that Swarthmore College students, faculty, and administration help defray the costs of education for German refugee students?" Of the ten surveyed, only one person expressed strong disapproval.
These efforts and the campus community's support both were exceptional at a time when many Americans were reluctant to allow increased immigration for German Jewish refugees.3 This may have been due to the college's strong ties to the Religious Society of Friends (also known as Quakers), a socially active religious movement which was instrumental in aiding refugees from Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.4 Although Swarthmore had only been officially affiliated with the Quakers until 1908, the college's campus culture continued to reflect their ethical principles. And many students, faculty, and community members still identified as Quakers in the 1930s.
The lone voice in opposition to the plan—a junior named James Zimmer—expressed suspicion over an "extensive migration” that he feared would "drive young Americans from important positions." Zimmer expressed his specific discomfort with "a large German-Jewish immigration" because he saw German Jews as too foreign to integrate into American society. He argued instead that the world should "find some colony" for the Jewish refugees to live.
Zimmer was not alone in this view—other students and faculty voiced similar opinions. Zimmer's call for a separate Jewish "colony" was echoed by an English professor, who thought that funds to support Jewish refugees should support their "bare subsistence" in a "colonization scheme." Antisemitic plans to resettle European Jews to a faraway colony—typically Madagascar5—had existed for decades by the time the Nazi regime briefly considered the idea in 1940. In contrast, the Zionist movement believed that establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was necessary to protect the Jewish people from antisemitism.
Others who responded in favor of sponsoring German Jewish refugees reasoned that they were motivated by humanitarianism or the "ideals of Christianity." Yet even among these more vocal supporters, there were limits to their enthusiasm—some called for measures that would ensure only "worthy" refugees would be eligible for immigration to the US.6