Last month, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, offered a novel interpretation of the words of the iconic sonnet on the base of the Statue of Liberty: he suggested that the “tired and the poor” referred to people “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not be a charge.” Later, he said that the poem “referred to people coming from Europe.”
Had she been at his press conference, Emma Lazarus, the author of those famous words, would have reacted with outrage. Described by her biographer, Esther Schor, as having a “stringent, prophetic temper,” Lazarus was too concerned for the needy and too steeped in the values of her heritage to have accepted Cuccinelli’s betrayal of the meaning of her words.
Her full poem, The New Colossus, is worth knowing. It reads:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame/With conquering limbs astride from land to land/Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand/A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame/Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name/Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command/The air-bridged harbour that twin cities frame./’Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she/With silent lips. ‘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!’ ”
Of course, it is beyond debate that every country is entitled to establish its own immigration rules, including deciding which immigrants take precedence. Immigrants usually leave their country of origin to seek a better life for themselves and their families. Refugees, on the other hand, usually leave their country of origin to escape with their lives and with those of their families.
It was for the rescue of refugees – “homeless and tempest-tost” – that Lazarus wrote those words. Inasmuch as she also imagined them to be “poor,” it was not very likely that this “wretched refuse” would have been able, upon their arrival through the “golden door,” to immediately “stand on their own two feet,” or not be “a charge” upon America.
Lazarus was a fourth-generation American Jew, born in New York in 1849 into a well-to-do Sephardic family that had immigrated to Manhattan a century earlier. She wrote The New Colossus while the horrific pogroms in eastern Europe were terrorizing her co-religionists. Her poem was intended to tie the Statue of Liberty, or as Lazarus called her, the Mother of Exiles, to the eternal rescue and relief of humans from tyranny. She very boldly believed that America could be a unique and exceptional refuge from oppression and despotism.
In this belief, Lazarus very clearly channelled her Jewish background. The Torah teaches us to be kind to the stranger. “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9) is one of 36 iterations of this principle.
Rabbi Marc D. Angel explains how it is that we can know the soul of the stranger: “Because of our early experience as strangers in Egypt, we know first-hand what it means to be considered an alien. We not only suffered physical abuse as slaves in Egypt; we suffered psychological abuse. We were considered as lesser human beings; we were thought to be unworthy of basic human rights. We know deep in our own soul what it’s like to be a stranger; we are uniquely qualified to understand ‘the soul of the stranger.’
“This lesson from antiquity has had ongoing meaning for Jews throughout our history.”
Emma Lazarus gave expression to the moral and humanitarian certainty that rises up from within our souls. Respect, dignity, caring and concern for the stranger, for the refugee, are part of that certainty.