There are two reasons American schoolteachers bring their students to the Statue of Liberty each year.
The first is to teach them that there is nothing more fundamentally American than welcoming refugees. Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem, “The New Colossus,” inscribed in the statue’s pedestal, captures the essence of America in a few short lines.
“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch,” wrote Lazarus. The woman, “her name Mother of Exiles,” would comfort fearful arriving immigrants thus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The second reason is to remind students that in providing refuge for others, America also restores and replenishes itself. The diversity provided by immigrants is the fuel for American greatness.
Speaking at noon prayers at a Boston mosque last Friday to reassure Boston’s Muslims that the Massachusetts judiciary stands ready to protect their constitutional rights, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants did not merely create a teachable moment. He acted with historic wisdom, recognizing that at a time when America’s Muslim families go to work, attend schools and walk the streets in fear, it is the responsibility of civic leaders to assure them that they are not alone.
“I know that this is a difficult time for persons who practice the Islamic faith in this country,” said Gants, a widely admired jurist who is Jewish.
“I know that once, my forefathers were strangers in the land of the United States, as were the forefathers of nearly all of us, and many of us were not so welcome here,” he said.
Gants recounted the venom directed at different points in American history at Irish-Catholics escaping the famine; the Chinese and the Japanese; “Mexican-Americans [who] were scapegoated for the economic deprivation they did not cause”; Italians in the wake of the Sacco and Vanzetti prosecution, and “[t]he forefathers of African-Americans [who] came to this country in chains.”
If you add them all up, Gants noted, “you end up with the vast majority of this nation.”
Gants’ message was not only for the Muslim worshippers present, but for the rest of us. History will record who incited hatred and who insisted that hatred be resisted. His was a profound reminder at an important time.
This piece was originally published in The Boston Herald.