For the last year, I have participated in an interfaith discussion group that, for several months, focused on issues and concerns related to Jewish identity and history. I joined the group in early 2017 to lead a study of Dr. Jonathan Sarna’s book, American Judaism: A History. The most chilling paragraph in the book commented on the conditions a century ago that led to the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act. After so many Jewish immigrants had successfully integrated themselves into life in America, there was not acceptance in all corners of society. Here is that passage: “Immigration restrictions that sought to restore the nation's ethnic mix to its nineteenth-century white Protestant character also aimed directly (though by no means exclusively) at Jews. The House Committee on Immigration received a report prepared by Wilbur J. Carr, the director of the Consular Service, and approved by the secretary of state, that described Jews who desired to migrate to the United States as being, among other things, ‘undesirable,’ ‘of low physical and mental standards,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘un-American,’ and ‘often dangerous in their habits.’ Resulting legislation - the 1924 Immigration Act - never mentioned Jews, and it restricted other "undesirable" immigrants like Italians and Slavs no less stringently, while Asians were barred entirely. ‘Chauvinistic nationalism is rampant,’ Louis Marshall, the foremost American can Jewish leader of his day, recognized. ‘The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession.’”
The Pesach Haggadah states that “in every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as if WE were freed from [slavery in] Egypt.” Jewish arrivals in the United States were grateful to live in a land where a wide range of freedoms are realized and practiced. There are also echoes of prejudicial expressions from that previous time that do, in our own day, emerge and re-emerge to remind us that certain negative perspectives, unfortunately, do not totally disappear.
Pesach’s arrival in the spring can inspire us to renew our hopes for triumphs in the struggle for freedom against hatred and bigotry. The symbols of the Seder bring to life the promise of redemption, which can result from our faith in God and from our partnership with one another.
Emma Lazarus once said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” May her words, and the prayers and songs of our Passover celebration, lead us to continue the quest for liberty for all humanity.
Rabbi Larry Karol