Almost exactly 80 years ago, the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner, set sail from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba. The ship carried 937 passengers, almost all of whom were Jewish men, women, and children fleeing the Third Reich. Cuba was meant only to be a temporary stopover, where passengers could stay until the US visas they’d applied for had been granted. Instead, passengers were forbidden from disembarking in Cuba, victims of bitter feuding within the Cuban government. For many Cubans, the Jewish refugees were seen as unwanted competition for scarce jobs. Others labeled the incoming Jews unwanted communists.
By the time the St. Louis landed in Cuba, only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark. The rest were left relatively powerless, begging any who would listen to grant them the necessary paperwork to be able to enter the United States. Their pleas for amnesty, and asylum, sadly, were ignored. Despite intense media coverage, President Roosevelt denied the ship passengers their visas. At the time, the United States had strict German-Austrian immigration quotas. To have granted visas to the passengers of the St. Louis would have meant skipping over many who were on a years’ long waiting list. And, it was not like the American public was ready to greet these weary Jews with open arms.
Like their counterparts in Cuba, most Americans saw Jewish refugees as competition for jobs in an already depressed economy. The refugees had no choice but to return to Europe. They were sent back to the horrible conditions they fled from. They were, and this is no exaggeration, sent back to die. Our government leaders during the 1930s and 40s had forgotten the words of the first president of the United States, George Washington, who in 1783 stated proudly “The bosom of America is open to receive…the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.” They had forgotten Emma Lazarus’ famous words, immortalized on the Statue of Liberty:
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!
They had forgotten what America stood for, what it was a symbol for: a dream of freedom, a place to start a better life away from pain, war, and oppression.
Well, friends, it seems our government leaders have forgotten who we are again, as we see the tragedy of the St. Louis unfold in epic proportions; we see that the words of our founders, the poetic words on our doorstep, are being desecrated by racist, xenophobic leadership once again. We saw it during the times of the Third Reich; we saw it when America turned away Irish, Italian, Russian, German, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants. We saw it during the Red Scare, we saw it when this administration enacted a Muslim ban, keeping out men, women and children from Syria and other war-torn countries. And we see it today, with those seeking asylum through the appropriate legal means being greeted NOT by the shining lamp of the Statue of Liberty, but instead by age old xenophobic phrases such as “We are not the world’s bread basket,” “let’s take on our homeless problem before we take on the world’s,” “they’re rapists and cartels,” and they’re “criminals breaking into our house.”
These migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, Haiti, Central and South America are, like us, human beings looking to escape terrible conditions in search of a new world, a new home in which to raise their children. And it is racism and xenophobia, cloaked in lies about criminals, jobs, and quotas, that is keeping them from becoming effective, contributing members of society in our country. To turn them away is heartless, to separate them from their children is cruel, to deny them basic human needs is atrocious, and to allow them to die in our care is a denial of our most precious precept, that all human beings are B’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God, and contain within them the spark of the divine.
We who were born in the United States should be quick to remember that it was only by the grace of god—or chance—that we were born here, a land where so many who are plagued by violence, hunger, and real fear look to for hope and freedom. Why should our birthplace, of which we had ZERO control, mean that we are somehow more entitled to freedom from persecution and fear than someone else?
In Deuteronomy 26:5, a verse that beings each one of our Passover Seders, we read the phrase “arami oved avi,” translated as “My father was a wandering Aramean.” “My father” references Abraham, the father of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The verse here reminds us that we were all once refugees—migrants, men and women without country, wandering from place to place looking for a home. Indeed there is not a single race or religion that has not, at one point in their history, wandered, migrated, been removed from or kept out of borders. Those that blindly shut the door to the immigrants following in our footsteps have forgotten their own histories. Basked in privilege, they forget what their forefathers went through to get them into their comfortable borders; as they build walls around themselves to keep others out, they forget that their ancestors were immigrants who were granted a better life in a better country.
How dare they! How dare those who ventured across the sea a century ago view themselves above those who venture across the desert. How dare they forget not only the history of the United States but also the history of their own families. How dare they change the narrative and insinuate that their family was never covered in dirt, packed in boats or trucks, with nothing but the shirt on their backs and the hope for a better life. How dare they look down upon others from the ivory tower built by immigrants to turn other immigrants away. How dare they.
In the Talmud, one of Judaism’s sacred texts, we read: “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Every life is precious. Every life holds value, meaning, and purpose. No life–Jew, Christian, Muslim, citizen, immigrant, refugee–is more deserving than another. No child more innocent or more entitled than another. These are the laws of humanity, and humanity has somehow been lost. Well, we must find it again. This is not an America we are proud to be. And we will not rest—we will not stop marching, we will not stop writing, we will not stop chanting, we will not stop protesting—until the America we know, the America that was built on the backs of immigrants, returns once again.