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The generous mother of nations welcomes them

G J Boris Allan

The poem says the USA is the generous mother of nations, and [They] renew their youth amid the pastoral plains of Texas and the golden valleys of the Sierras. So, who renews their youth, and who is the poet?

Vast oceanic movements, the flux and reflux of immeasurable tides, oversweep our continent.
From the far Caucasian steppes, from the squalid Ghettos of Europe,
From Odessa and Bucharest, from Kief, and Ekaterinoslav,
Hark to the cry of the exiles of Babylon, the voice of Rachel mourning for her children, of Israel lamenting for Zion.
And lo, like a turbid stream, the long-pent flood bursts the dykes of oppression and rushes hitherward.
Unto her ample breast, the generous mother of nations welcomes them.
The herdsman of Canaan and the seed of Jerusalem's royal shepherd renew their youth amid the pastoral plains of Texas and the golden valleys of the Sierras.
— Emma Lazarus, Currents [in By the waters of Babylon, 1887].

Emma Lazarus was a Jewish activist (her family was originally from Spain) and By the waters of Babylon was her last publication (she died shortly after it appeared). Lazarus saw European and Asian persecution of Jews, and was grateful for what she thought was the acceptance of Jews in the USA – the destination of choice for many dispossessed Jews. She felt that the USA was a wonderful place for accepting her people.

By the waters of Babylon carries on from earlier works: for example, with her Spanish heritage, Lazarus knew how Spanish Jews suffered when Columbus left Spain on his first voyage across the Atlantic to the West Indies. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain not only sent Columbus off on his journey, but also expelled all Jews from the country. It is thought that the real motive for expulsion was the religious zeal of the Catholic Church, of the Queen, and of the common people. With its separation between church and state, Lazarus saw the USA as a natural haven (as she wrote in her poem 1492) A virgin world where doors of sunset part – though I am not sure what she means by doors of sunset.

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest and people, spurned with zelot hate.

Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.

Then smiling thou unveil'dst, O two-faced year
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, "Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!"
— Emma Lazarus, 1492 (1883).

Lazarus's most famous work The New Colossus was also written in 1883, for an auction to assist in funding the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty – France had donated the statue, but the US Congress would not pay for the pedestal. Read at the Statue of Liberty’s dedication on October 28, 1886, The New Colossus was engraved on a plaque on the pedestal in 1903.

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor 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!"
— Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus (1883).

Even though she did not mention exiled Jews as such, the sentiments expressed in The New Colossus are very much in keeping with her other, more overtly Jewish, poems. By making the poem more universalistic, Lazarus tapped into a patriotism and self-esteem that the statue had come to embody, and she won the competition. Now, the sentiments expressed in the inscription (especially “huddled masses yearning to be free”) have come to represent what many US Americans want to believe is true of their country.

The reality of social relationships is not easily represented on statues, and such reality is more easily discerned from the written word. Most Jews were white and European-looking – they did not appear Asian – thus they were not affected by a piece of legislation of the time the statue was unveiled:

[PREAMBLE] Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof:


[SECTION 1] Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States...

[SECTION 14] That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed.

Chinese Exclusion Act [US Statutes at Large, 6 May 1882]

The official edict against Chinese immigration and residence, and removing US citizenship from the Chinese was never matched by equivalent laws against Jews. Religious intolerance was present though, because the early constitutions of seven states forbade any but Protestants holding public office (usually repealed by the end of the US civil war) – Catholics were at one with Jews.

There were many incidents of discrimination against Jews around this time, the best-recorded being at the higher ends of society (recording the experiences of the poor takes a Dickens or an Engels). For example: in 1877, Joseph Seligman, a Jewish financier of the Union cause during the civil war, was refused accommodation at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, New York, because he was a Jew; or, in 1893, the Union League Club, which Jews helped found, banned Jews. Established Jews (often of German origin, often affluent) blamed people’s adverse reactions to the new influx of poor East-European Jewish immigrants – lauded by Lazarus – for the change in public attitudes, which had led to increasing problems for all Jews. Blaming new immigrants from your own group for your own worsening position seems a common and repeated exculpation – the fault is with the newcomers, not with an intolerant society.

Lazarus was a propagandist, and she seems to have glossed over the myriad problems produced by her huddled masses.

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