Trying to be more like Vichy

US immigration authorities in Houston nearly deported a well-known French historian who had arrived to deliver a lecture. He’s a historian of the Vichy regime, so that’s deeply ironic. It’s also, of course, disgusting.

Henry Rousso is one of France’s most preeminent scholars and public intellectuals. Last week, as the historian attempted to enter the United States to attend an academic symposium, he was detained for more than 10 hours — for no clear reason.

On Wednesday, Rousso arrived at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport after an 11-hour flight from Paris, en route to Texas A&M University in College Station. There, he was to speak Friday afternoon at the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study.

But things did not go according to plan: Rousso — an Egyptian-born French citizen — was “mistakenly detained” by U.S. immigration authorities, according to Richard Golsan, director of the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at Texas A&M.

Well, look at it from their point of view. He’s foreign.

Fortunately the university sprang into action when Rousso phoned Golsan with his news, and Rousso was released – after, please note, ten hours in custody following an 11 hour flight. I’ve taken 11 hour flights and I wouldn’t be very delighted to be incarcerated at an airport at the end of one.

It remains unclear what about Rousso was identified as suspect by immigration authorities.

Egypt — from which Rousso and his family, as Jews, were exiled in 1956, after a slew of anti-Semitic measures imposed by the administration of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz — was not among the seven nations in the travel ban, which had been suspended by the time he arrived in the United States.

Egypt is not on the list plus Rousso and his family are Jews – so if the boneheaded goal is to stop Mooslims from those 7 countries, they are doin it rong.

Rousso’s scholarship focuses on the memory of the Vichy regime, the darkest chapter in modern French history, when the government of unoccupied France collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II. Vichy authorities are particularly infamous for assisting the Germans in rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of Jews from France during the Holocaust, which Rousso once called “the past that does not pass.”

There’s an extraordinary French tv series about that history, that makes the ugly behavior of the Vichy authorities very vivid. It’s agony to see us emulating that. (Yes we’re not sending people to extermination camps, but neither were the Vichy authorities at first. These things happen in stages.)

Fellow historians took to social media after news of Rousso’s experience, many pointing out what they considered the uncomfortable irony of the arbitrary detention of a Holocaust historian.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University, said on Twitter, “His work on cost of forgetting past (Vichy) so relevant.”

“It is now necessary to deal with the utmost arbitrariness and incompetence on the other side of the Atlantic,” Rousso wrote Sunday in the French edition of the Huffington Post. “What I know, in loving this country forever, is that the United States is no longer quite the United States.”

It’s not. I hope we can get it back very soon.

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