Jewish Journal


November 19, 1998

Remembering Our Moral Roots


These days, many people seem to be threatened by immigration as though it were a mysterious virus. But immigration is a phenomenon interwoven with the history of humankind. No human being anywhere in the world lacks an immigrant inheritance. The "virus" infects every one of us.

The United States' history would be unintelligible without the immigrant waves breaking on our shores from the 17th century on. The first English-speaking immigrants landed here in the early 1600s. The first Jewish immigrants arrived in the 1650s. These earliest American Jews, ancestrally Mediterranean, struggled to absorb a new culture and braved the antagonism of the earlier settlers. Persevering, these Southern European Jews -- as well as the immigrant Jews from Central and Eastern Europe who followed -- contributed notably to the shaping of our America.

A similar story can be told about every generation in America -- about immigrants, mostly non-Jews, from every corner of the globe. Whoever they were, they encountered prejudice and resentment -- even from earlier settlers of the same faith and background. They were regarded as threats to what passed for American cultural standards -- always their folkways and accents were deemed offensive.

The headlines of today are akin to headlines dating back to the beginnings of American society. Always there have been some Americans forgetful of their own immigrant origins and determined to assail recent immigrants as certain to turn the American Dream into the American Nightmare. This is the real virus, this anti-immigrant fever that today sometimes seems to reach epidemic proportions in certain quarters. This virus has a name: It is called xenophobia -- the fear and hatred of the stranger.

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