Thursday, February 03, 2000

In and Out: Immigration and Identity

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

A young boy leaves his home on a daring journey. He loses his family along the way, and, dripping and shaken, emerges triumphant on the shore of freedom's sea. It is the quintessential American story: a dangerous passage, and rebirth in a new land. It is the American dream.

Only, the epochal, soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture story of the six-year old Cuban boy Elian Gonzales is complicated by a few uncomfortable facts. Such as: he didn't lose his whole family on the way. A father and two grandmothers remain behind, and want him back. And: he is too young to have a total say, in what will become of him.

The United States Congress routinely condemns kidnappings and international terrorism. But in holding a boy in this country, with a father and two grandmothers in Cuba, with the Immigration and Naturalization Service having ruled that the father speaks for the child, how is what certain Republicans in Congress are doing different from what they condemn in other countries? And when is anyone going to have a passion for Elian himself, a passion stronger to their attraction to the votes of the exiles in Miami?

My gut reaction is that, as bad as it may be, Cuba is not Nazi Germany, and Elian's life there will be uncomfortable (although his family is among the limited number of elite in that country) but not ended. How would I have felt about a six-year old Soviet Jew who escaped to freedom two decades ago, but with one remaining living parent still behind the Iron Curtain? I don't know. Six years old? Perhaps I would feel the same way, that the parental tie is more important than the range of future career opportunities. But I am not fully certain.

And I do not know the full details of what Elian would face on a return to Cuba. So I should be a bit more humble, perhaps. It's just that it seems so clear to me that people's reactions are not about the boy at all. Rather, they are a reflection of something else. Not just a political agenda. At its core, our reactions to this case say something about ourselves.

Immigration issues are, and always have been, more about who "we" see as "us," as it is about "them."  We welcome Cubans with open arms. In most cases, and certainly with adults, this is entirely appropriate. But look at how we welcome Haitians.

Is it just that our enmity for Castro outweighs our sympathy for anyone who would make it to this country to escape poverty, and in search of a better life? Or is something else going on here? Is it, perhaps, that the Cubans look more like what most of us think an American should look like than does a

Haitian? Is this as much a subjective sense of "us" and "them" and who "we" are, than an objective assessment of need?  I am not talking about race alone here. The sense of "us" and "them" underlies so many questions of immigration and assimilation as to serve as a mirror on own identity. Asian American scientists report a sharply increased experience of suspicion and discrimination since one of "them" was accused of spying for a country of origin. This, without a shred of evidence that these dedicated men and women are anything other than fully loyal American citizens.

There have long been those who fan the flames of division and discord.  Father Coughlan, in the 1930's, had a radio program that was anti-semitic and anti-immigrant, which played directly on the fears that "they" will infiltrate "our" country. The Sacho and Vanzetti trial of a decade earlier lay the groundwork for an anti-immigration sentiment that swung shut the doors of welcome on which our country was built.

For whom should we not suspect? Who is the real American? The natives of this land are the original "outsiders" in the warped way we look at our country, but who should escape suspicion? British Americans? But we fought two wars against England; they burned our capital to the ground! Our original definition of ourselves, in fact, was that we were not "them."

Americans whose country of origin is Germany? They make up a substantial portion of the population of this country. But need I say anything more?

Americans from France? At least France was our ally in our first war. But that country just won't seem to toe-the-line we want ever since.

Even within our own Jewish community, the definition of "us" and "them" has defined much of our experience. The first American Jews were refugees from Recife, Brazil; Sephardic Jews still seeking a home after the exile from Spain. They established themselves here, and these "grandees" looked down with disdain on the pushy peddlers who arrived next --those pesky German Jews. But the "Our Crowd" soon rose from pushcarts to prominence. One would think they would have remembered the disdain they suffered in the sight of the Sephardic establishment. But, no, they were, if anything, worse in their contempt for the next wave of Jews to come here, the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came in massive numbers from the 1880's to 1930's, "The Rest of Us." (The three terms used here, "The Grandees," "Our Crowd" and "The Rest of Us" are references to books written about the Sephardic Jews of America, the early German Jewish immigrants, and the Eastern European immigrants, respectively, by Stephen Birmangham.) The German Jews were so determined to rapidly Americanize, but at the same time remain apart from these Ostjuden (Eastern Jews), that they set up entire movements and institutions (the Conservative movement and the Jewish Theological Seminary -- established by German Reform Jews for Eastern European semi-Orthodox Jews, as were the Education Alliance, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and a host of other organizations) just to simultaneously assist the newcomers and keep them at arms' length. It was a remarkable display of unity and disdain, of a sense of commonality and separateness rolled into one.

Too often we depend for our own identity not on a sense of who we are, but who we are not. Immigration is not just a question of values, but of identity. Which of them we let in triggers for all of us the touchstone question of not just what we stand for, but: who are "we?" What do "we" look like? It is not an accident that those who rifle through our bags on our return from abroad are called "Customs" agents. For the shores of our sea, the ports of our skies, the terminal points of transport and association are, indeed, the borders of surface lives. They are the meeting point of self and other.

But it is only when the borders bend, when the barriers between us and other fade enough for us to see ourselves in every other, that we can reach beyond the surface. That we can encounter the identity of the soul.

Jacob, too, left parents behind. His journey was not across an ocean. It was over a mountain. He slept on a rock. Tossed not by waves, he tossed in his sleep. And his dream saw beneath the surface of things. For when he woke up to himself, when he opened up his eyes he said: Achain! Yeish Adonai BaMakom HaZeh, v' Anochi Lo Yadati! Behold! God is in this place -- and I, I did not know it!"

Why the repetition? As others have noted, and as I have written before: some would say the word "I" is repeated so that we may pay special attention to what this verse really means. That what is says, in essence, is this: "Behold, God is in this place, when my 'I', my 'self,' my 'ego' I did not know."

For it is only when we can look at an"other" and see not the differences between us but the common heritage of humanity, that we truly reach beyond the limits of the self. It is only when "they" become "us" that "we" can be.

It is only when we are able to transcend differential and division and distinction... that we can meet God.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad! Hear O Israel! The very prayer that sets us apart as Jews is a key to reaching beyond being apart.

It is a key to the unity of the world. The Eternal God is found in the Oneness of the world. In a place beyond borders and barriers. In a place of wholeness, and oneness and peace.

Who are you? And who is we? And what are we going to do about a young boy in Miami, whose story is not yet told.

His journey is not yet complete.

Neither is ours.