It was reassuring to see that hundreds of people of many faiths stood united in Evanston against Islamaphobia in Fountain Square the night of December 15th. There are many reasons for me to be concerned about the rising tide of hatred against Muslims. One of many reasons that I feel affected by this development has been my volunteer work with immigrants and refugees some of whom are Muslims. I've heard their stories and learned about the cultures from which they came. The experience of sharing has enriched my life. I feel that are lives are all made better by meeting and learning from each other.
Another reason is that for me as an American Jew, it feels wrong for this country of immigrants to be against immigration. It does not promote justice and is against everything our better selves stand for. Except for the Native Americans, all of us or someone in our families came from somewhere else at some point. There are only about 5.2 million Native Americans left in the United States. That leaves about 325 million of us whose families were originally immigrants.
My great-grandparents and grandparents left Russia and Hungary fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms. If immigration laws and quotas had been in existence at that time, I wouldn’t be here now. Thanks to the first Amendment of the United States Constitution, we have Separation Between Church and State and my ancestors were given safe shelter here for which they were always grateful. Now political leaders such as Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump are suggesting that we only let Christian Syrians enter the United States. Will they think about kicking me out next? The whole prospect is extremely frightening.
America has done better than it’s doing now as far as immigration is concerned. That’s why we have people from so many different countries living here enriching each other’s lives. We’ve had our moments of shame as well. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II comes quickly to mind. The turning away of the S.S. St. Louis from Miami does as well. I remember my grandmother telling me stories about how her father, my great-grandfather, stood with other Jewish leaders in Miami pleading with the government to let these refugees in promising to take care of them so that they wouldn’t be a burden to society. These efforts were for naught and the refugees were returned to Europe to face the gas chambers. We need to stand up to the forces that want to descend to that level of darkness again.
This moment brings to mind the poem by Martin Niemoller. The son of a pastor, he was born in Lippstadt, Germany in 1892.
By Martin Niemoller
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.
As we confront the rising tide of hatred in our country, let us all keep this poem in mind. We as Americans need to and can do better. It's the best part of who we are.