This week, as usual, has been filled with chatter about what people in Washington are saying about immigration. Several people commented on the familiar poem by Emma Lazarus especially the final words, which are framed as a quotation from 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!”.
Who was Emma Lazarus and why did she write those words? Well, one thing is certain, she wasn’t thinking about the current immigration debate. Born in 1849 in New York City, Lazarus came from a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family which had been settled in America since before the American Revolution. Lazarus was educated at home by tutors. She studied German and French as well as American and British literature and started writing poetry while she was very young perhaps inspired by the fact that her great-great-grandmother had been a poet.
Lazarus published her first book of poems and translations when she was eighteen and became a successful writer while she was still in her twenties. She published translations from European literature including works by Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich Heine, and Victor Hugo. She also wrote novels and plays. Her work was admired by critics such as William Cullen Bryant and was well-received by readers.
The Lazarus family, including Emma, was part of a cosmopolitan social world in New York and did not attend religious services or participate very much in Jewish events until the 1880s. It was the pogroms in Russia, which followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, that awakened Lazarus to the danger facing many Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. Lazarus became an activist, working to help the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who fled to the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century. She volunteered to work with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and also helped to found a technical high school for immigrants.
While Emma Lazarus was pursuing her writing career, other people were promoting the idea of building a Statue of Liberty. In 1865, Edouard de Laboulaye, a French philosopher and a strong abolitionist, had proposed that a monument be built as a gift from France to the United States. He wanted the statue to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln. Ten years later, in 1875, an agreement was reached by which France would pay for the statue while Americans would provide the pedestal on which it would be installed.
Fundraising is never easy and the Americans who supported the building of the statue tried a number of ways to finance it. President Grover Cleveland was asked to give $50,000 of public money to help pay for the pedestal, but he refused. Congress also refused to authorize any payment. The money would have to come from ordinary citizens. Fundraisers then got the idea of holding an auction of art and manuscripts to support the effort. It was at this point that Emma Lazarus was asked to write a poem to be donated to the auction. The sonnet she wrote was “The New Colossus“, a copy of which is now enshrined in the pedestal of the statue.
Although Emma Lazarus is now the poet most closely identified with the Statue of Liberty and with immigration, she did not live long enough to know about the honor given her work. She was not mentioned when the statue was installed in 1886, and her poem was not engraved and placed inside the pedestal until 1903. By then Emma Lazarus had died, probably of leukemia, in 1887 at the age of 38. Her poem about immigration and the role it has played in the development of America, however, remains very much alive and people still quarrel about its meaning.
Who would have thought that airports with their tedious lines and endless corridors could become so exciting? This week a new presidential order denying entry to people from several Middle Eastern countries caused consternation as immigration officers denied entry to some people with valid visas or green cards as well as all refugees. Fortunately for the country, several states protested and the courts have resisted the move and put a temporary halt on the order.
Prejudice against newcomers isn’t a new sentiment in the United States. Neither is prejudice against a particular religion that is seen as a threat to the country. From Colonial times on, many Americans have suspected that Roman Catholics with their “foreign” religion were a threat to the country.
The Irish immigrants who poured into the country from the 1840s on, were often the targets of discrimination by the press and clergy. Lyman Beecher, for instance, wrote that “The Catholic system is adverse to liberty, and the clergy to a great extent are dependent on foreigners opposed to the principles of our government, for patronage and support.”
One of the few writers who believed that the despised immigrants brought value to the country was Margaret Fuller. She praised the Irish immigrants for their generosity and family feeling and told her readers that they would be of great value to America. Fuller valued the contributions of other immigrants of the time too, including the Germans and Italians who could offer much to the country. My admiration for Margaret Fuller was what led me to write a biography of this brave woman.
Over the years, Americans learned that Catholics did not pose a threat to American values. They became a part of mainstream American life. But fearful people continue to fear. Today we are hearing echoes of Lyman Beecher as politicians talk about the threat of Muslims and of Islamic thought. As of 2014, seven states had passed laws or ballot measures that banned Sharia law from influencing the courts. These states include Alabama, North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota and Tennessee. Currently the Montana legislature is arguing about the need for such a law.
President Trump appears to view the world as a threatening place and to fear that people professing a religion different from what he is used to must be dangerous. As any historian could tell him, people who are not descended from the handful of English settlers, have made this country great. Fear of anyone different from ourselves leads to stagnation, not greatness. Perhaps the president should listen to a brave woman like Marie Curie who said it well: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
And if President Trump wants to gain wisdom from the presidents who preceded him, he might pay attention to the words of one of our greatest leaders, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously announced that The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
As a change from all the news stories we’ve been watching about the immigrant crisis on the border between Mexico and the U.S.,perhaps it’s time to celebrate some of our immigrants. Not all of them entered the country willingly or even legally, but many of them have enriched our society.
This week some newspapers carried the story of the death of Zoia Horn who died at the age of 96 in Oakland, California. In the 1970s her actions started a movement that has revitalized the library profession. During the hectic anti-Vietnam War period, she refused to testify or give out information about the library borrowing records concerning an alleged plot by antiwar activists, including Daniel Berrigan. She was surprised and shocked to discover that the FBI had been tapping her phone to try to find out whether she knew about the plot. For her refusal to testify, Zoia Horn was imprisoned for a short time, but more importantly she made people aware of the danger of government intrusion into the privacy of communications between individuals.
Although the American Library Association did not support Zoia Horn’s refusal at first, the organization later honored her for her work in supporting intellectual freedom. Libraries have been in the forefront of institutions that defend the privacy of their clients and refuse to make borrowing records available to government agencies. Today we worry about large tech companies that are under pressure to share information with various governments. Libraries have shown the way in which institutions can protect citizens against unwarranted intrusion. They have led the way by erasing records of past library use as soon as they are no longer needed and by refusing to be bullied into removing useful materials that may be offensive to some members of the community. The stereotype of the mousey little librarian has been disproved over and over again by the steadfastness of library support of intellectual freedom over the years.
For the last thirty years Zoia Horn worked in the cause of intellectual freedom. She has been honored by the California Library Association which named its intellectual freedom medal after her. You can find the autobiography of Zoia Horn in the Open Library of the Internet Archive. It makes lively reading for anyone interested in the history of the twentieth century. Horn tells the story of how she and her family left Russia and emigrated to Canada when she was eight years old. Their final destination was the United States and they found a friend willing to smuggle them across the border. Their entrance into the country was not quite according to immigration laws, but their lives enriched America. We should keep that in mind when we consider how immigrants at our borders should be treated as they try to find their path into this country. Many of them would surely become valuable citizens and make our lives better just as Zoia Horn did.