Some classmates at the Jewish elementary and high school I attended were the children of Syrian refugees. On Shabbat, my family ate gefilte fish while they ate kibbeh. I pronounced the Sabbath day ‘Shabbos’ while they said ‘Shabbath’. I was blonde and blue-eyed while their hair was black and their eyes brown. Some of our prayers and religious customs were different as were our cultural reference points.
Most of the students in my class were the children or grandchildren of refugees. Almost all the refugee generation immigrated with little more than the clothing on their backs and horrific memories of lives destroyed. They did not speak English nor have skills that were in high demand. The families came mostly from Europe, but a not insubstantial number were expelled from Arab countries: Morocco, Egypt and most of all Syria. To the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t a Daughter of the American Revolution among us.
I am enormously grateful that there was an America for my grandparents (and for one side of my family, my great-great grandparents) and for the grandparents and parents of my friends to come to. Many who are descended from immigrants from other nationalities feel the same way. For this reason, so many Americans feel a deep sympathy for and a desire to welcome the current wave of Syrian refugees.
There is, however, an enormous difficulty and I don’t mean the fear that this group of refugees will include terrorists. When my Jewish ancestors arrived, an American culture greeted them. They embraced much of that culture with love and appreciation. They had the freedom to ignore other parts, such as the Christian nature of the land, missing out on job opportunities that required work on Saturday (during the Depression that sometimes meant going hungry), not attending school parties or graduations that took place on Friday night and staying strangers to cheeseburgers and oysters. To them, America’s promise of religious freedom meant that, unlike Russia or Germany, they weren’t persecuted or killed for being Jews. They were equal under the law. Yet, they still reaped the benefits of an American culture that was deeply rooted in America’s unique Christian experience. That culture no longer exists. Its demise is largely what makes immigration fraught with problems.
Let me explain with an analogy. One of my infant grandsons is highly allergic. Nursing him means that his mother can’t eat gluten, corn, soy or dairy. Another grandson has a nut allergy. It’s important to our my husband and me to have our family eat at our home. However, with these allergies, menu planning has taken on a whole new dimension. This is something that I do with love, even if it is time consuming and at times exasperating. It means that some of our traditional, favorite recipes have been retired. Our children are appreciative and my husband and I benefit from the added warmth and zest that they bring to our lives.
What would happen, however, if as time went on, our children, grandchildren and in the future great-grandchildren, began to see tailoring meals to suit them as an entitlement rather than an offering? One after another might find this or that odor offensive, remonstrate that eating meat is barbaric, or insist that only locally grown vegetables are moral to eat. They might demand food at times to suit their schedules, forget to be thankful and start insulting my husband and me for still wanting to eat the foods of our earlier years. Rather than offering to help cook, serve and clean up, they will treat our possessions with disdain, breaking plates, messily spilling crumbs and wasting our resources. As they devour our food, they will ridicule our belief that family is important. Perhaps they will find lawyers to prove that precedent insists that we still must feed them. Slowly and surely, the care that I used to lavish on cooking will be replaced with resentment reluctance to expend much effort and certainly a refusal to welcome their friends as we do now. The food will be less tasty, the surroundings less pleasant and the experience less fulfilling. Having broken the family/love/food system that existed, they will now deride me for being unfriendly, selfish and unfaithful to my beliefs.
I realize that my analogy is imperfect. Yet, I don’t think that it is completely far-fetched. It applies not only to immigrants but to multi-generation Americans as well. As the daughter of immigrants, my mother went to a public school that had a Christmas pageant—and gave her an outstanding education. My friends’ Syrian parents learned that the bribery and under the counter activity that was routine in the Arab shuk (marketplace) would land them in jail here—but that they could prosper with hard work and by following the rules. My Catholic neighborhood friend’s Italian grandmother never learned English and her children were mocked by classmates for not knowing the language when they entered school—but their mother punished them for complaining and they quickly became fluent.
Was it pleasant for my mother to feel singled out when she wouldn’t observe Christmas? No. Was it easy for my friends’ fathers to learn how to work in an entirely different economic culture? No. Was if fun for Italian speaking children to go to school everyday where they didn’t understand the teachers or other children? No. Would more sensitivity on the part of established Americans have been kind? Yes.
But the bottom line is that with all this discomfort, there actually was an American culture. It promoted Christmas, English and an honest marketplace above other ideas. When no one was apologizing for American culture, immigrants could arrive and be assimilated into an existing, successful system.
I can’t prove a direct line between Christmas creches in public squares and a flourishing educational system. There is no direct link that I know of between abortion becoming a constitutional right and a failing economy. I can’t point at studies showing that magnifying the rights provided to new immigrants instead of the responsibilities and obligations they must acquire makes them less rather than more successful. But I think that all of the above are, indeed, connected.
When President Obama, after the terrorist activity in Paris, spoke of letting in thousands of Syrian refugees, he said, “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values.” The problem with that is that he and I share very few values. He believes that a suppressed American Christianity is what America needs; I believe it is a disaster for this country. He believes that redefining marriage is a step forward; I believe it is a step towards failure. He believes that individual wealth should be redistributed; I believe it should be respected. He believes in incessant pontification and carrying a stick of jello concerning foreign policy and I believe in Roosevelt’s idea of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. He believes that when Blacks or Moslems are in conflict with white people, especially Christians, that the latter are guilty until—and even when—proven innocent; I believe in blind justice. He believes in using the power of government to suppress speech with which he doesn’t agree while I believe in freedom of speech. He believes that America is not unique among nations and I believe that it is. He believes in picking through the bible to support his personal views and I believe in shaping my personal views by the same ancient Jewish wisdom about the Bible that guided my ancestors. When it come to values, there are almost no ‘our values’ of which the President and I can speak.
Having become diffident, apologetic and afraid of what used to be the American values of patriotism, individual responsibility, education (vs. the indoctrination on today’s campuses), hard work, a Judeo-Christian heritage, a non-fluid Constitution and a myriad of other ideas that have been destroyed and deprecated for the past fifty years, immigration is indeed a problem. Many immigrants would love and appreciate the America that greeted my ancestors, with all its lack of multicultural awareness. Other immigrants want an American of which they can take advantage or one that mimics their home country but where they, not others, are in power. Others want to destroy America. We no longer have cultural agreement on what we envision as America’s future and the president and I disagree on which types of immigrants should be welcomed. The land of freedom and opportunity into which my grandparents and my Syrian friends’ parents came doesn’t exist anymore. You don’t even need to add potential terrorists to the list to see that the ability to welcome ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ is another casualty of secularist liberalism gone amok.