5778 Moses and Lady Liberty versus Pharaoh and Latter-Day Nativists

(Emma Lazarus, American-Jewish Poet)
We are Jews by virtue of the stories we tell and the patterns of behavior, grounded in those stories, which we perform. The most fundamental of all of our stories is the saga of the birth of our nation in the iron cauldron of Egyptian slavery, our extraordinary liberation, and our subsequent “Mt. Sinai moment”, where we reached the take off point on our journey through history as one nation, indivisible, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

No wonder that we, as Jews, feel the parallels to the story of the United States of America! Our America is a land where people oppressed in other countries can arrive, pursue their happiness, in keeping with the fundamental rights endowed on all by our Creator, and in so doing build up this country to greatness. That’s the story of your grandparents and mine. They came here as the “wretched refuse of the teeming shores” of countries where they had no citizenship, but only persisting civil disabilities. Upon arrival, they found, not streets paved with gold, but a land of opportunity. They seized those opportunities, worked hard, sacrificed present consumption for the education of their children, and made America better even as they improved their own lives.

Well…. That’s not quite the consensus story of America. Our Jewish parallel is with one particular story of the United States of America. As it turns out, our story as Jewish Americans is often challenged by other stories, also told by Americans, but with a very different moral. A story coming out of both governmental and red-neck circles, with increasing venom, is that we are not quite equal to other Americans. According to this counter-story, the America of the Founders was a Christian country, and since we are not Christians, in some sense, we are not quite first-class Americans. Others, too, suffer from that put-down: Latinos, people of color, those with gender identities other than the majority…

Our Jewish-American story is in line with the constitution of the United States, and with what Dr. King called the arc of history, slowly bending towards justice. America the real was never America the ideal, but in some ways, it has approached it with every advance of liberty, every extension of the voting franchise, every incremental egalitarian transformation of the aristocratic or plutocratic privilege brought here by Old World bigots and selfishly promoted by their American-born followers.

Our story of America is grounded in our story of the Exodus. As a Jew, I believe that our story is the correct one, because the Bible clearly shows us where the roots of the counter-story, the bigots’ story, lie. Those who think that Jews are not full-fledged Americans, even if they go to Church every Sunday, are not followers of Moses. They are followers of Pharaoh:

Pharaoh began the enslavement of the Israelites by a demagogic appeal to the nativism of Egyptians: those foreigners are growing too numerous for us! Let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they harm our country!

Pharaoh’s words were echoed by the immigration restrictionists in Congress, one hundred years ago, who succeeded in slamming the door to this country, barring most of the people arriving from “undesirable” countries (I won’t stoop to repeating the words attributed to the president about such countries). Then, as now, nativists wanted Nordic immigrants. The leading American nativist of a century ago, Madison Grant, warned that unrestricted immigration would lead to “The Passing of the American Race”, which, of course, meant the race of White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants.

The answer to Pharaoh was given by God, through Moses: “You shall be a kingdom of priests [all of you, first-class citizens], and a holy nation”. Much later, the answer to the Madison Grants of this country was penned by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus and inscribed at the base of 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-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Michael Panitz

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