“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Inscribed over the entrance of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ poem illuminates some of our country’s best values. We are descendants of the women, men and children who came here looking for rights, liberty, security, and hope. Our ancestors came here because they saw a nation of laws, designed by the people and for the benefit of all people. They saw in the United States the value of diversity, unified by opportunity and possibility.
So, it makes sense that a nation of immigrants – the descendants of people who fled persecution, who escaped collapsing governments, or sought better opportunities and religious freedoms, desperately want to preserve and protect the borders and the values of the United States. We have so much for which to be grateful. We want to protect what we value.
We can recite Emma Lazarus’ poem all we want – as long as we also know that our country has – in different eras of our history – turned our backs on immigrants and in some cases we have been complicit in causing pain. Great countries, like great people, are complicated. We have values. But we don’t always live up to them.
This is not the first time our nation has demonized immigrants, closed the door, or turned our backs. In 1939, Gallup took a poll questioning Americans about our willingness to bring 10,000 refugee children– most of them Jewish – to escape Nazi Germany. 61% of American’s responded “no.” With growing acts of violence, well documented pain and suffering at the hands of a fascist regime, in 1939 the majority of American’s treated children and refugees with ambivalence and outright hostility.
While there are historical and contextual differences, it’s hard to ignore the echoes of the past in the present cries. In 1939, the SS St. Louis – a ship carrying Jewish refugees and children was turned away from the United States. They were told to “wait their turn. ” The St. Louis sailed back to Europe. Only, half of the ship’s passengers survived the Nazi regime. 254 people on the ship were killed in the Holocaust.
As a country, we want our laws to protect us and keep us safe. But so often, the laws and quotas, make us indifferent to the plight of children and their families. We we have to ask ourselves, what will become of the children separated from their parents? What will become of the families seeking asylum, if we send them back to collapsing societies, murderous governments, and terrorizing gangs? What will we tell our own children of how we acted towards kids their own age?
This is where policy and heart conflict. As Jews, we know what it felt like to be tired and hungry and homeless, seeking a better life, and to be told “go back, you are not welcome here.” We know what it feels like to be demonized – characterized and branded an “Enemy of the State.” In these dark moments – it is up to us to light the path of hope
The Jewish prophets called upon each of us to live by a covenant of conscience, to care for the poor, the widow and the stranger – to love our neighbor – to protect the children and to keep families intact. That covenant of conscience calls upon us: reach out with open arms and helping hands; live with mercy in our hearts, and to walk humbly, with each other, and with God.
May we have the imagination and vision to see the light of kindness and compassion.