The seeds for this article began while sitting in a sukkah and realizing that every sukkah has a dual message.
It represents safety and protection, but also vulnerability. It’s a temporary shelter — a place for gathering with friends and community and sharing food — but also evidence that all of us are vulnerable to the forces of the world and dependent on the generosity and mercy of others.
A sukkah is literally a refuge. How can we sit here and welcome ushpizin, honored guests, without reflecting on the national conversation about refugees that is going on around us? This year it feels particularly important for us to say, “Our ancestors were wanderers in the desert. We were homeless wanderers for 2,000 years. We understand this experience. Our grandparents and great-grandparents lived this experience.” These families in need are our community’s ushpizin, and we have an historical responsibility to help them find a real, sturdy home.
America, the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, wasn’t always so. The very American idea of liberty and freedom for all grew very slowly. The first settlers to this new land, seeking religious freedom, were much more interested in their religious freedom than in ensuring it for others. Quakers, Lutherans, Catholics, and Jews were expelled vigorously from the Puritan colonies of New England. Throughout the Spanish colonies of the New World, the Inquisition actively persecuted and executed conversos — neo-Christians, converted Jews who proclaimed Catholicism but were suspected of secretly continuing the practice of their Judaism.
Even the generally tolerant Dutch tried to exclude all but members of the Dutch Reformed Church from their American colonies. But it was the first Dutch Jews who settled in the capital, New Amsterdam, that had much to do with altering the prevailing policy of intolerance.
In 1654, 23 Jews —men, women and children — all refugees, fleeing from the former Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil, landed in New Amsterdam. These Brazilian Jews were the descendants of perhaps 5,000 who had been living in Recife, most of them secretly, since the mid-1500s. When the Dutch captured portions of Brazil from the Portuguese and eliminated the laws of the Inquisition, some neo-Christians reclaimed their Jewish identity. When Portugal recaptured Brazil in 1654, these Jews feared the re-introduction of the Inquisition and fled. On their way back to Amsterdam, their ship was attacked by Spanish pirates, who stripped them of their valuables. A return to Europe now was out of the question. The refugees then made a deal with the ship’s captain. He would take them to New Amsterdam, which they thought would be a hospitable destination.
When the ship landed in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colonial governor whose anti-Semitism is well documented, seized what meager possessions the Jews still had and jailed two of them. Stuyvesant wrote to the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam, requesting the right to expel all of them. Stuyvesant noted that the Jews would be a burden on the community and told the company that he “deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart.”
In a letter now in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, the Jews of New Amsterdam wrote to their fellow Jews in Holland asking for help. The Dutch Jews petitioned the company on behalf of the New Amsterdam Jews, noting that Jews were allowed to live in Holland and even to invest in the Dutch West India Company. In April 1655, the company granted Jews permission to emigrate to and live in the colony, “so long as they do not become a burden to the company or the community.” Stuyvesant instituted several other restrictions to discourage Jewish settlement. When the English captured New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York, all the rights this small minority of immigrants had won from the Dutch were made into law under the new British regime.
Just over 100 years later, on August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote an epistle to George Washington, welcoming the newly elected president on his visit to that city. The Jews of Newport looked to the new national government, and particularly to the enlightened president of the United States, to remove the last of the barriers to civil equality confronting American Jews. The letter to Washington welcomed him to Newport. While the rest of world Jewry lived under the rule of monarchs, potentates, and despots, as American citizens the members of the congregation were part of a great experiment: a government “erected by the Majesty of the People,” to which they could look to ensure their “invaluable rights as free citizens.”
Not surprisingly, it is Washington’s response, rather than Seixas’s letter, that is best remembered and most frequently reprinted:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
The letter, a foundation stone of American liberty, is signed, simply, “G. Washington.” Each year, Newport’s congregation, now known as the Touro Synagogue, re-reads Washington’s letter in a public ceremony. The words deserve repetition.
Drawn by opportunities and a growing culture of tolerance unusual for its time, the American Jewish population grew. It was, however, the wave of Eastern European Jews fleeing poverty, oppression, and vicious and often state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that transformed the numbers and made the still small Jewish minority here a presence. Many of them entered through Ellis Island under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, at whose base we read:
“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-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door”
These last five lines, taken from the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, stands for the spirit of America that should greet every immigrant who comes through our gates. Lazarus herself, a fourth-generation American Jew, recognized that her own comfortable life was based on a foundation created by immigrants.
The life of immigrants then — and still today — is filled with challenges and difficulties. In overcoming those hardships, the newcomers transform themselves and in doing so strengthen our country as well. Immigrants have always brought with them the very best of their homes, and added those gifts to American society.
We used to talk about America being a melting pot — but the truth is that we are more of an American quilt, with every new immigrant wave and immigrant culture adding to the color and the vibrancy of what we so proudly call American exceptionalism.
Jewish immigration to the United States slowed in the 1930s, at a time when permission to immigrate was so sorely needed to rescue the endangered Jews of Europe. It was fear of the other that turned the S.S. St. Louis away from U.S. shores in 1939. The S.S. St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany, to Cuba, carrying 937 refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. Prohibited from landing in Cuba, the ship circled off the coast of Florida, hoping for permission to enter the United States. The U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, advised Roosevelt not to accept the Jews. Captain Schroder considered running aground along the coast to allow the refugees to escape, but acting on Hull’s instructions, U.S. Coast Guard vessels shadowed the ship and prevented such a move. These huddled masses yearning to breathe free were not welcome here.
The ship returned to Europe, docking at Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17, 1939. It is believed that almost a third of those refugees died at the hands of the Nazis.
The Great Depression spawned political opportunists who fed off the desperation of those hard times. The cheap tonic cure-all of religious and ethnic hatred that they sold then still is being hawked by haters selling fear today. The fact that some immigrants then did in fact become violent criminals only helped fuel the rhetoric. Meyer Lansky, the Irish mob, and even the Mafia were the poison Skittles of the day — but they weren’t enough to make America shut down immigration completely.
We take pride in our American immigrant experience but the welcome was not always friendly. The U.S. was not immune to anti-Jewish demagoguery then, just as so many fear new immigrants today. The intense provincialism and nativism that tried to block immigration in general and Jewish immigration in particular when Jews were trying to escape Nazi Germany still exists, leaving too many refugees in harm’s way today.
While fewer Jews are immigrating to the United States now, once again immigrants have become a political punching bag. Vulnerable outsiders of a different race, or religion, or ethnicity, are easy scapegoats; a ready, though inaccurate, target to blame for the real problems that too many people in our country confront. Syrian refugees are seen as a Muslim threat to our safety and not the victims of a war-torn battlefield. Some politicians again are screaming that the enemy is at the gates and we must lock them down tight.
It is important to note that more than 785,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States successfully since 9/11, and not one of those refugees has been responsible for a single terrorist act. On the other hand, during that same time period, 28 acts of violence have been defined as terror and each and every one of them have been performed by U.S.-born citizens.
Seven hundred eighty-five thousand refugees, new souls living and working toward the American dream, sounds like a good beginning. No, not really — a very poor halfhearted start would be a better description. There are more than 65.5 million refugees seeking a safe harbor — and that number grows by about 25 people a minute. The United States has accepted about 1 percent of those fathers, mothers and children and we have closed our eyes and our hearts to the rest.
It is true that the United States alone cannot solve this global problem, but it can lead by example and inspire others to join as well.
“The Other” always has been a convenient target. Too often that “other” has been us. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to be among the first to speak up. We have been instructed on how to treat the stranger. Leviticus 19:33-34 teaches us: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This commandment is mentioned 36 times. That’s more than any other commandment or prohibition. No other commandment in the Torah — not to love God, and not to keep the Shabbat, not to circumcise our sons and not to refrain from eating non-kosher foods, not the prohibition against lying or stealing — is mentioned as many times as the commandment to treat strangers with respect. We as the children of Abraham must stand and welcome the stranger as he did. We must build the sukkah for those who need. For us it is not an option. It is our birthright.
We have a choice. In each generation and in every place, there is a path and a fork. Fortunately, we American Jews have a wealth of history and experience to guide us. Let us recall the words that frame the foundation of the Statue of Liberty; the words written by an American Jew reflecting both her tradition as a Jew and her ancestors’ experience as American immigrants. Let us be strengthened by the ideals that our first president shared with our oldest Jewish congregation. Let us be reminded in this season of our shelter and its vulnerabilities and so inspired, let us reach out and welcome others knowing once we were strangers in a strange land.
We as a people are uniquely armed to stand up for the stranger, to protect the weak, and to defend the powerless. Therefore, it should surprise no one that these same political forces that are fast to label the victim as the enemy are harnessing a nasty anti-Semitism. In their grasp for power, they wrap their program behind an appeal to hate. They accept the support of white supremacists, as they try to wrap the red white and blue around them as camouflage and they care not who they harm or what they destroy in the process to gain power.
The immigrant, the minority, the vulnerable are the targets.
Democracy, liberty and freedom are the collateral damage.
The Statue of Liberty weeps.