November 20, 2019

The Republican debate’s $10 question

The easiest question of the second Republican presidential debate turned out to be the hardest: “Which woman would you put on the $10 bill?”

All of the candidates immediately got that deer-in-the-headlights look, except that a deer would have probably come up with better answer than Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher or the woman you happen to be married to.

Rosa Parks was a good pick, even though it later emerged that the civil rights pioneer was a supporter of Planned Parenthood, the Republicans’ Mordor. I can understand why the most obvious choice, Democratic first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was politically incorrect. Still, there was an even simpler, more obvious answer.

How come no one mentioned Emma Lazarus?

Lazarus is the poet whose sonnet “The New Colossus” adorns the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Born in 1849 to a Sephardic Jewish family that immigrated to this land in Colonial times, Lazarus was deeply moved by the plight of Eastern European Jewish refugees escaping the anti-Semitic pogroms and desperate for a safe haven in the United States. She advocated for their rescue, helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York to help them learn new skills and, in 1883, was moved to write the poem that would greet generation after generation of hope-filled immigrants to New York Harbor.

“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!”

Some 3 million Jews, most of them destitute, arrived in the United States from 1881 to 1920. More than a century later, it’s easy to romanticize the poet and the poem, but at that time, many Americans feared these immigrants would bring an inexorable decline in American culture. 

“I am perfectly conscious that contempt and hatred underlies the general tone of the community towards us,” Lazarus wrote.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Jews who arrived helpless on America’s shore turned out to become a vital engine of this country’s prosperity and greatness in the generations that followed. They found here the freedom and safety that enabled them to express the full measure of their gifts.

But Lazarus’ poem is not a celebration of Jewishness. It is a celebration of refuge, of opportunity, of second chances. She was also writing about the Chinese, Irish and Italians. She was writing, though she could never have imagined it, about Pakistanis, Koreans and Mexicans.

Lazarus’ sonnet, like a second national anthem, became the touchstone for those who believe in America’s value to the world’s homeless, and for those who understood the potential value of those homeless to America.

And it is a sad testament to how far we have moved from those ideals that not one candidate could summon the name Emma Lazarus, and that the primary message of the leading candidate, Donald Trump, calls for rounding up immigrants and tossing them out.

This week, the shrill anti-immigrant ghosts returned. When President Barack Obama’s administration announced a plan to take in up to 100,000 refugees from Syria’s brutal civil war by 2017, critics in Congress and in the media warned darkly that to do so would open a spigot for terrorists to enter the United States. A recent poll shows Americans divided on how many of these refugees to take in, with a plurality of 35 percent saying the figure 10,000 per year is “too high.”

The correct answer is we need to give refuge to as many of the 4 million Syrian refugees as possible, and it is possible to handle many.

The collapse of Syria and the relentless ongoing war is not America’s fault, but Obama bears some responsibility for allowing it to fester. It’s unclear whether intervention by the United States could have made things better, but Obama’s policy of non-engagement there has, in any case, helped bring us to this low, tragic point.

At the turn of the 20th century, one of the most persuasive arguments against taking in Jews was that Eastern European Jews would bring a strange culture, anti-American values and a criminal element. They wouldn’t integrate, and they would drain the economy. Those who level these same charges against the Muslims of Syria show not only how little faith they have in strangers, but how little they have in America. Give us your tempest-tost and we’ll give you back Cpl. Kareem Kahn, recipient of the Bronze Star, killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Steve Jobs — the son of a Syrian immigrant.

We seem to go through fits of collective forgetting, of being unable to reconcile our noble intentions with our deepest fears and apathy. We see it playing out on the streets of Los Angeles, where America’s internal refugees, the homeless, have taken up permanent, growing residence in the shadows of 10,000-square-foot homes and luxury high rises. And we see it playing out at our borders and shores, where this century’s Jews are once again met with “contempt and hatred.”

But I believe that most Americans prefer leaders who see America as a shelter for the wandering and wretched of the world. Fear will take you far in the polls, but faith — in human potential, in America itself — will take you further.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of Tribe Media Corp./Jewish Journal.