Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
– Emma Lazarus (Nov. 2, 1883)
Emma Lazarus wrote this poem, “The New Colossus,” which is engraved inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. At the time she wrote, many people were fleeing Europe due to economic and social disruptions
Lazarus was a Zionist before that was a term, and a social reformer working with Jewish Russian immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York City.
The opening of her poem echoes Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” in which the statue is broken and only the proud statement remains:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
But unlike Shelley, Lazarus saw a vision of a new land that would stand forever as a protector of those in need of help, of those forced to leave their homelands.
We are all immigrants; humans did not originate on the North American continent. Some came here because they were pushed out of their homelands or brought as slaves, but most of our ancestors came here for the promise of freedom from religious and economic persecution: pogroms, the Inquisition, the ghetto.
Whether they came to Newport in the late 1600s or to Providence in the early 1800s, their goal was the same: freedom and safety. We were all strangers in a strange land when we came to America.
We as Jews are enjoined to take care of the stranger in our midst. Several years ago, I became a Bat Mitzvah, and my parashah was Deuteronomy 8:1-11:1.
I posed this question: Who is the stranger in Deuteronomy 10:18-19? He was a member of the lower class, without citizenship rights, who needed protection, just as did the orphan and the widow. Moses says that we are to give him bread and clothing, and to care for him since we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 2:22 says, “And she bore him a son, and Moses called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.”
Because we have been strangers and suffered, we must now alleviate the suffering of others. This is the essence of humanity – to treat others as we would like to be treated.
How do we do this today? We work for human rights, believing that we must treat others well so that we are treated well. As Pastor Martin Niemoller famously said:
“First 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 for me.”
Now is the time for us to speak out and get involved, remembering the credo of the United States: With liberty and justice for all.
RUTH BREINDEL is president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.