Telling people to “go back” has always been a slur against immigrants and their children telling them that they are “not American enough.” That, to me, is the heart of this controversy. We are living in a moment when our country is, once again, examining what it means to be an American, who gets to claim the mantle of being “real Americans,” and who – because of their race, religion, or family heritage – has to prove that they are worthy of being here.
When most of our Jewish ancestors fled to this country from persecution in the 1880s and 1890s, they were considered undesirable by those who were already here. Along with Italians, Irish, Chinese and others, the new immigrants were told that they did not belong. Even a generation after the great wave of Jewish migration, no less a public figure than Henry Ford spoke openly about a vast Jewish conspiracy that was infecting America. President Calvin Coolidge said that America was becoming “a dumping ground” for foul, anarchist, and criminal immigrants who should leave if they didn’t love America.
We have heard it all before. Jews had to prove that we were “real Americans” even generations after we became Americans. That’s why the current attacks on immigrants and their children are so painful and so familiar in Jewish ears.
To make matters worse, Jews have now been drawn directly into the controversy. The same people who tell others to “go back,” are also making accusations that their opponents “hate Jews” and “hate Israel.” This week, the ADL issued as statement condemning those who are “cynically using the Jewish people and the State of Israel as a shield to double down on” racist remarks.
There is no question that there is a problem in America and around the world with anti-Semitism and unfounded attacks against Israel. We must address those. However, it’s easy to see that Jews and Israel stand to lose if they are dragged into a mud fight over “who is a real American?” Wary of being associated with xenophobic attacks, we want to say, “Leave Jews out of this!”
But, the truth is, we can’t be left out of it because we have always been a part of it. We have always been among the people whose American identity has been questioned, and it is still happening today on the left and on the right. We’ve always been among the people who have been told, “Go back.”
In a sense, that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to go back. We need to go back to our values as Jews and as Americans. We need to go back to the ideals of loving the stranger, because we know what it is like to be a stranger. We need to go back to the principle that this country is one nation “with liberty and justice for all.” We need to go back to the words written by Emma Lazarus and carried by the lady in the harbor that say:
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-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The only “real America” is the one that embraces those values.
Other Posts on This Topic:
A Charge of Deicide
Things that Need to be Said