September 14, 2105
Aaron David Miller is a famous former American diplomat who served six secretaries of state as a key advisor on Middle East peace negotiations. He grew up in Cleveland the son of prominent members of the Jewish community.
I am not Aaron David Miller. In case you didn’t get the e-mail, Aaron David Miller had to cancel. I won’t say I am the next best thing
to Aaron David Miller. But there are a couple of weak threads of connection. I did grow up the son of prominent members of the Greek-
American community in Portland. I am a bit of a student of the Middle East, past and present, and I am a great admirer of the Jews in America.
I am greatly moved to be here today and to share Rosh Hashanah with you. Happy New Year.
The museum exhibit currently featured in this building tells a wonderful and compelling story about Jewish immigration to Maine. It is particularly relevant because the subject of immigration is right now at the forefront of American political debate.
I think one of the things generally missing from political debate these days is a sense of historical context. That’s probably because few people these days value history. Even the education establishment in our country tends to diminish the importance of teaching history. A liberal arts education is deemed superfluous; the thinking is we should teach skills which will prepare a student for a job —like selling insurance.
History, which is, after all, simply experience, gives us an important perspective on immigration. When I say “us,” I mean you and me particularly, especially. I am the son of eastern European immigrants, and you are the children and grandchildren of eastern European and Russian immigrants.
My people, the Greeks, came to the United States in large numbers in a 34-year period, 1890-1924. It was during that same 34-year period most of the eastern European and Russian Jews, your parents and grandparents, came to this country. Two and a half million Jews came here from Eastern Europe and Russia in those 34 years.
There was essentially no Greek immigration to this country prior to 1890. To be sure, there was some Jewish immigration in the mid-19th century. But they were Germans, not eastern Europeans. They were bankers and merchants. They became the Jewish-American aristocrats —the Episcopalians of American Jewry.
Your immigrant forbearers and my immigrant forbearers from the east were different. They were peasants. Poor, uneducated peasants. In your case, they were also persecuted and oppressed in their
homelands. The Greeks were not escaping persecution. They came as migrant laborers. Cheap labor, recruited to work in the textile mills, shoe factories, Rocky Mountain mineral mines, and the transcontinental railroad. They were expected to go home after they accumulated some wages.
In both cases they were not welcomed. They looked different. Generally shoddier and darker than the Germans, English and Irish; and they brought with them strange customs, and spoke strange languages.
The feelings against Jews, and other eastern and southern European ethnic groups, began to build quickly. American voters, not unlike Americans today, were possessed by xenophobia.
- They are taking our jobs.
- They are radicals (many of the Jews were progressives, reformers and in many cases socialists).
- They are sick and starving and will dilute good American stock. They will not contribute to the American economy.
- They are engaged in illegal activities.
During this time the Ku Klux Clan were after the Greeks. Beating them up, smashing their pushcaits, and vandalizing Greek restaurants. One Klan member said that Mexicans and Greeks must return to where they came from in order to maintain the superiority and purity of the American people. One Greek down in St. Augustine, Florida, was severely beaten because he dated “a white woman.”
As early as 1909 Senator Henry Cabot Lodge proposed restricting eastern European immigration. And with the end of World War I, the xenophobia grew dramatically.
Finally, in 1924 Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 that established rigid, tiny, immigration quotas for eastern and southern Europe. It was designed to keep your people and mine out of America.
My father came to this country in 1914 at age 9 with his parents. If they had waited 10 years, I wouldn’t be standing here. Very few eastern European immigrants gained admission to the United States after that.
Only 100 Greeks per year.
The sponsor of the new law said it was necessary “to maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain of our people and thereby stabilize the ethnic composition of the population.”
And so the 34-year river of immigration went dry. And it was not until Lyndon Johnson proposed and signed the Immigration Act of 1965 that the 1924 quotas ended.
And now the roads of eastern Europe are filled with desperate people. Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians fleeing, walking, rafting their way to what they can only hope is a safe place for their families.
Is this a political problem? Well, all we have to do is turn on the television for the answer. These are whole families —mothers, fathers, children, grandparents —enduring punishing conditions. And like most refugee migrations in modern world history, they are doing it for their children. Every television report reveals this is about the attempt of parents to save their children, and to give them a sliver of hope for a future.
The New York Times reported a week ago that the leader of Hungary’s third largest political party told a crowd abusing the refugees as they crossed into Hungary: “In a few years Hungary will not be a transit country because the Pakistanis, the Afghans, the Syrians will say ‘Hungary is not so bad after all, and that’s what we want to avoid.
That’s why we have to say very clearly Hungary belongs to the Hungarians. We like everybody, but we don’t want anybody coming here.” [Then we had the tripping episode.] 700,000 Hungarians immigrated to the U.S. in the 34-year period. None were turned away.
Look, this is not just another political problem. This is a crisis for our species, fellow human beings. But since when have we not politicized human crises?
There will be a strong movement in this country to deny a modest number of these Arab refugees admission to the U.S., despite their refugee plight. When public pressure staits about keeping Muslims out, the politicians will exploit the situation.
A little more history. I have discussed the first two waves of Jewish immigration to the United States; the German Jews in the mid-19th century, and the eastern European migration in the 34-year period, which ended with Congressional enactment of the Immigration Act of 1924. There was a third, but smaller, Jewish migration to the United States right after World War II.
President Harry Truman proposed a bill which would allow large numbers of so-called Displaced Persons in war-tom Europe to be admitted to the United States, notwithstanding the 1924 quotas. Most Displaced Persons in Europe were Jews. After much Congressional delay, the bill finally passed in the Republican Congress (both House and Senate dominated by Republicans).
But it wasn’t the bill Harry Truman proposed. A furious Harry Truman was reluctant to sign the bill, stating it was designed to discriminate against Jews. And it was.
Congress limited eligibility to people living in Germany, Austria and Italy who had entered those countries prior to December 22, 1945.
However, nearly all the Jews who had entered those countries either had been murdered by the Nazis, or had fled the country when the concentration and death camps had been liberated in April 1945. There were hardly any Jews left in Germany who had entered prior to December 22, 1945. In response to the worst human crisis imaginable, the U.S. Congress found a way to keep the victims away from our shores.
The Acts of 1924 and 1948 were, let’s be frank, political efforts to keep Jews out of this country. So what about the Jews who were lucky enough to get here? What have they been doing in the meantime?
- They emphasized family life and insisted on a culture of respect and pride for the family.
- They pursued education in a way no other ethnic group could match until large numbers of Asians arrived in recent decades.
- They became the philanthropic leaders of every community across the United States.
- They became indispensable, frankly huge (as the Republicans like to say) job creators.
- In large numbers they became leading American artists, actors, singers, composers (and I can’t resist saying it, comedians).
- Build concert halls, libraries, museums, and countless university buildings and education programs.
- Emerged as leaders in American science and academia, and are at the very core of intellectual thought in America.
And these are the people the 68th and 80th Congresses wanted to keep out of the country. Again, history is important.
So now let us look at the oppressed and war-weary who are risking everything, including their lives, to find safety and opportunity. What will become of them? They are Muslims. Will that hurt them as much as Jewish refugees were hurt and impeded because they were Jews?
I think the answer is yes. And I think no ethnic group on this plant can understand the plight and motivation of these parents and children traveling across the Balkans better than the Jews.
There is a difference between Henry Cabot Lodge and the Jews. I think I know what Henry Cabot Lodge would say about Donald J. Trump’s pledge to deport all of the children of undocumented Hispanic immigrants. And I think I know what Henry Cabot Lodge would say about admitting 40,000 Middle Eastern, Muslim war refugees, as recently proposed by President Obama.
We can’t be sure of the answer. But history is informative.
What will the majority of American Jews say about the Trump proposal or the Obama proposal? We can’t know the answer… yet.
But history is informative.
Here is what history tells us. From the time the Russian and eastern European Jews arrived in this country, they were in the forefront of every progressive battle to reform the inequities and unfairness in
American society: workers’ights, civil rights, women’s rights, the 1960s peace movement.
They were socialists and radicals, always showing compassion for, and sincerely identifying with, the underdog.
One reason is that they had always been the underdog —always— wherever they had lived over the centuries. Championing the cause of the oppressed came naturally to those who have always had to fight oppression.
Social justice is at the root of Jewish tradition and religion. God has two, sometimes conflicting, attributes: Mercy and Justice, according to Jewish teaching, and for all time Jews have been called to emulate these divine attributes.
I have read that the foundation of social justice in Judaism is predicated on the sanctity of all human life and its inalienable dignity.
And because God is merciful and is, according to teaching, “biased” for the vulnerable, and thus all are required to have concern for the marginalized —the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the homeless refugee family.
But there is something more than social justice in Jewish history and tradition. It is what Alexander Goldberg, in an article in the Guardian, called the survivalist ideology; an instinctive reaction to centuries of persecution and oppression.
The question is whether the two traditions, social justice and survivalist, can be synthesized. At a time when there is an existential threat to the Jews (the Grand Ayatollah said recently that Israel will not exist in 25 years —he also said America is doomed), is it possible for Jews to adhere to their notion of social justice?
Is it possible for Jews to look at the Ayatollah one way, and Syrian war refugees another way? I think the answer is yes. In Israel the peace movement, even the movement for a two-state solution, is favored by 50% of Israelis, and at the same time survivalism is embraced by 100%.
This is a question for all of us who feel the imperative of a homeland for the Jewish people.
This is a day for self-examination.