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We are all immigrants

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Jewish immigrants make aliyah to Israel WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
Jewish immigrants make aliyah to Israel WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

“Immigrants get the job done!” These were the strong words of Lin Manuel-Miranda at the recent University of Pennsylvania commencement ceremony. (I was there to proudly watch my son receive his doctorate!)

What message was Lin sending to the thousands in the stadium? How was this idea being received by the many watching the live stream of the address? After all, this incredible man who just received an honorary doctorate, and whose Broadway play, Hamilton, was nominated for more Tony awards (16) than any other play in history, was telling the world something important, and his words carry weight. In fact, he told us that he chose Alexander Hamilton as his topic because this man was the only immigrant amongst the founding fathers. So in the context of an American election year that’s so full of anti-foreigner sentiments colliding with a global refugee crisis, how shall we approach this topic of immigration?

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Jews have been migrating throughout history it seems. Certainly our presence in North America is a wonderful story of successive waves of individual and family arrivals on these shores. At times, we were welcomed, and at critical times, we were denied.

My parents were immigrants. My father came from Vishnitz, my mother from Hungary. Their stories are similar, yet different from so many others. Without them, we would not have this thriving American Jewish community. Significantly, North America would also not have the rich and pioneering culture it has today. Immigrant Jews have been at the forefront of so much that eventually became America and Canada. We have contributed to all aspects of culture, to the economic, political, social, artistic, entertainment, social and health fields. I cannot think of any arena in which immigrant Jews have not played a critical creative role.

Even in sports, while many might laugh, Jews have been active. Do you know the name Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld? She was a Canadian athlete who won a gold medal for the 400-metre relay and a silver medal for the 100 metre at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.

Immigrants get the job done!

So many jobs the world over depend on immigrant populations. Why should we be wary of them?

What is an immigrant? A person who moves from one place to another. Usually, we reserve that word to signify the movement of a population from one country to another. Statistics Canada specifies that immigrants are “persons residing in Canada who were born outside of Canada, excluding temporary foreign workers.”

However, the word itself signifies newcomer, someone who comes from somewhere else and settles in a new neighbourhood. In that sense, we are all immigrants. We all move from one place to another. We change houses and neighbours, and in our relocation, we must re-absorb new cultural and social patterns. Sometimes the adjustments are minor, sometimes major. But change is constant. So why treat immigrants from foreign countries as so radically different?

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Is it because we deign to deny them citizenship? What rights and privileges do we want to hold only for ourselves? What divides do we insist mark us as different from “them”?

Again, I remind everyone that there was a time, not so long ago, when Jews were not allowed to be “citizens,” even a time when women were not “citizens.” Shocking, eh?

We are not so different from these others. We move and change, just as they do. Immigrants contribute to our cultures and communities. There will be changes – some we will be comfortable with, some not. But remember: immigrants get the job done.

On the base of the Statue of Liberty is the poem by Emma Lazarus: “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!”

This is our proud legacy!