France gifted us the Statute of Liberty. It became the iconic symbol of who and what we are. In 1883 thirty-four year old poet Emma Lazarus, daughter of a Sephardic Jewish family that had settled in New York long before the Revolution, penned the defining verse affixed to its wall. They were words of welcome:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Generations of refugees, my parents included, sailed past in New York Harbor, giving special meaning to Lazarus’ verse of welcome. They became and are America. Aside from the very few who can claim indigenous roots, we all descend from immigrants, many of them refugees from one tyranny or another. We are a wonderful brew of races, ethnicities and religions. It remains our unique identity.
It’s instructive that Lazarus’ words speak specifically to the “huddled masses”, the “wretched refuse” and the “homeless”. Am I missing something, or have the xenophobic Republican presidential candidates, governors and legislators, not heard these words — even piously recited them at some patriotic event? Apparently they are read or spoken by rote, without understanding. Shame on them! Of course, these are not the first American officials to turn their backs on endangered refugees. In the early days of World War II, anti-Semitic State Department bureaucrats blocked Hitler refugees in the face of impending slaughter. Japanese-American citizens were rounded up and put in detention because of who they were, not what they had done — nothing.
This past week, the governor of North Carolina joined mostly Republican colleagues across the country is asking the Obama Administration to halt its plans to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees during the coming year. He most certainly doesn’t want them in his state. The House (with the support of 47 Democrats) passed a bill directing the director of the FBI, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence to personally certify each individual refugee. Right. Consider this in the context of the fact that since 9/11 we have welcomed 784,395 refugees. Of these 3 — that’s right 3 — individuals have been arrested on terrorist charges. On the other hand, between 2001 and 2013 406,496 Americans have died from gun violence verses 3,800 from acts of terrorism. Since 2011 (a White House email told me) the UN referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the United States resettlement program. Less than a third of them (7,014) qualified for Homeland Security interviews. Of them only 2,034 were admitted, that’s about 500 per year. The average wait is one-two years.
I could go on. These numbers remind me that many of the same governors defend state adopted vote supression laws to combat non-existant voter fraud. But even worse than last week’s sorry display were suggestions by cadidates Bush and Cruz that we welcome only Christian refugees — our kind of folks. Not to be undone, Donald Trump, who as the current front runner must be taken seriously if only that he has a substantial following among GOP voters, asserted that all Muslims in America be somehow registered so that we can keep tabs on them. As the child of immigrants who fled Nazi Germany and as Jew I am particularly sensitive to — no outraged by —any such notion. I have my maternal grandparents German identity cards, each bearing a yellow “J” (Jude) to set them apart from their “pure” German fellow citizens. We can trace both of their ancestors back to the 1600s.
Thankfully, they too came to the United States (1939), but so many
others did not. Many died because they
were turned away from here or elsewhere.
So I look at the homeless huddled masses from Syria as sisters and
brothers to whom we should be lifting or light holding arms in a sign of
|My grandfather Max Goldsmith's identity card.|
It’s hard not to single out Donald Trump here, despite his opponents in the nomination race being no different. His first words as a candidate disdained immigrants, in this case Mexicans. He advocated building a wall to contain us, a barrier to their onslought. At the start of his campaign many of us looked at The Donald as a showman, a bafoon in some mock reality show role. I’ve changed my view. I think he is more like Huey Long than a circus barker. He is a demogogic who leverages fear and hate for his own power hungry ambitions. He brings to mind numeroius dictators who came to power either after a coup or equally often by espopusing an ersatz populism that speaks to the worst human instincts. He has to be taken seriously not only as an individual, but also as one who has, depspite the most outragerous pronouncements, found a substantial following.
I’ve written in other posts that this is an important election. In light of the hysteria inflamed by candidates and public officials in the last week, 2016 will also be a test for America and our democracy. Lady Liberty represents who we have been, our openness, hospitality and largesse. The question is whether she reflects the America of both our time and going forward? It seems to me that the task we face is to wipe the tears running down her cheek and, through our votes, reaffirm that we remain and will always be a home for the free and the brave.