Friday, August 25, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: New York’s Ellis Island

Post-Holocaust Jews in America
“Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn”

This is a continuation of post-Holocaust Jewish immigration; last week’s post was on Canada, and this week’s is on the United States of America.

“Svey kluge kenen nit shtimen”
Nahum Stutchkoff, 
Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh (1950)

America’s Ellis Island received 12 million persons between 1892 and 1954, the great majority landing there before the Immigration Act of 1924 severely restricted immigration, which favoured immigrants from northern and western Europe. Before 1924, millions of Jews from Europe disembarked on Ellis Island, America viewed and called Di Goldene Medina, the land offering a better life. The immigration act, however, ended the era of open borders and open immigration and brought in a system of quotas.

This was the way it was for two decades. Thankfully, exceptions were made, the most notable example being Congress allowing the entry of a significant number of displaced persons, or DPs, during the period after the Second World (1945 to 1952); the number given entry to the U.S. was 441,000. Of that number, approximately 96,000 were European Jews, representing almost 20% of the total number of persons allowed entry into the United States during the post-war period. Although it took intense lobbying, this was far better and greater than any other nation.

Again, it must be emphasized that the U.S. favoured certain ethnic and religious groups, primarily it seems white Christian Europeans. The U.S. made major changes to its immigration policy only in 1965 and in the years since then; immigration, however, remains a contested issue in America. It seems more so today than in the last 50 to 60 years—emboldened by a president who is responsive to the small minority of Americans who are both regressive and reactionary and who hold noxious and extremist views. Hate speech in this case masquerades as freedom of speech.

It’s not the first time that America has a nar for a president, but it might be the first time that a trombenik is sitting in the Oval Office. (Clearly, Trump is not good for America; he is “not good for the Jews”: Er kukt mit di oygn, hert mit di oyern, un farshteyt vi di vant.) The present’s restless times are uncomfortable and unnerving, and there is no shortage of tsores, but they are (still) much better than what East European Jews faced more than 70 years ago in the lands of their birth—hostility and hatred. In comparison, they left Europe with hopeful anticipation of what would be found in Die Goldene Medina. Truly, it was in plain sight before they even landed.

Before the ship’s passengers were getting ready to disembark on Ellis Island, in full view was The Statue of Liberty (1886), situated on nearby Liberty Island (the name changed, in 1956, from Bedloe’s Island). The full name of the statue is telling of its raison d’être: Liberty Enlightening the World; and in French, La Liberté éclairant le monde. Many forget this, and rather conveniently it must be added.

Equally important, the statue contains the famous sonnet, “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus [1849–1887], an American-born Jew from New York City, in 1883, and inscribed on a bronze plaque, which was attached to the pedestal of the statue in 1903, a little more than 15 years after the poet’s death and 17 years after the statue’s unveiling on October 28, 1886. Few would disagree that America has generally been good to the Jews, yet intelligent and thoughtful Jews discuss and debate on whether America remains the centre of the Jewish world, di Yidisher velt.

In the latter part of her short life, notably after learning about the 1881 pogroms in eastern Europe, Lazarus dedicated herself to Jewish causes. Like many, she had read and had much sympathy for Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876). If the Jews were to continue to survive as a people, they needed self-determination and a national homeland. The Second World War loudly proclaimed this necessity, even as many nations were deaf to it. More on this in next week’s post.

—Peretz ben Ephraim, August 25, 2017

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