Of Note: Reflections on a Covenant of Citizenship at Thanksgiving

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Tue, Nov 25, 2008 at 12:47 pm

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, we at HIAS and all Americans stop to reflect on the joys of our individual lives – our families, careers, and material successes. But our gratitude goes far beyond these personal concerns to the gifts America has provided our community, and the American people as a whole.

For Jewish-Americans – and to all who cherish our country’s identity as a pluralistic nation of immigrants – we trace our communal blessings back to a 1790 exchange of letters between President George Washington and the leaders of the Touro Synagogue of Newport Rhode Island. It is in this exchange that we see the most evocative expression of this new nation’s core civic identity.

In his reply to the Jewish citizens of Newport, President Washington declared, “The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship… For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…”

President Washington identified that, unlike nations of the old world, American identity would not be governed by blood, but would be about an attachment to the nation as “good citizens.” Since that time multitudes of new immigrants from all corners of the earth have arrived seeking to connect themselves to the liberty and promise of the American dream. And arguably no community has taken this journey with more enthusiasm than the American Jewish community.

So, on Thanksgiving we are grateful for the refuge and opportunity that America has offered wave after wave of Jewish immigrants escaping poverty and anti-Semitism. Whether we descend from the Sephardic settlers of our country’s earliest years, the German Jews of the mid 19th century, the two million Jews from Eastern Europe who arrived around the turn of the last century, the victims of Nazism, communism or anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world, nowhere other than the United States have we been so fully embraced and allowed to thrive materially, spiritually and politically. We clearly are the beneficiaries of what President Washington termed America’s “liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

With the most recent massive wave of Jewish immigrants to the United States – Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union who began arriving in the late 1960s – our community once again has had much to be thankful for. America’s openness to newcomers and focus on freedom empowered the movement to free Soviet Jews from 70 years of persecution, and has reinvigorated our community with more than 500,000 newcomers who are making their way as new Jewish Americans. For HIAS, we share our community’s gratitude, but also feel our own joy at having the special honor of helping to rescue the Jews of the former Soviet Union and seeing them resettled throughout our American communities, in Israel or in other free and secure new countries.

While we can thank American values, we also must credit the vision and passion of America’s leaders. This Thanksgiving we remember President Ronald Reagan’s steadfast opposition to Soviet communism, President Jimmy Carter’s elevation of the status of human rights in American foreign policy, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik for linking Soviet trade privileges to Jewish emigration rights, and Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Bruce Morrison for their amendment to facilitate the massive outflow of Soviet refugees. We also remember the millions of our fellow Americans, of all religious backgrounds, who supported the American Jewish community in this struggle.

This holiday we also give thanks for the Soviet Jewry movement’s immense contributions to our American economy, our culture and our society. Because of this migration our country benefited from the gifts of Sergey Brin, founder of Google; Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Laureate in Literature; and Lenny Krayzelberg, Olympic Gold Medal swimmer – just three of the new Jewish Americans from the former Soviet Union who have found freedom and opportunity as part of the American civic experiment.

While Thanksgiving should spur thoughts of gratitude, without a firm commitment to change this gratitude remains shallow and ultimately irresponsible. With President Washington’s stirring words in mind, and eternal thanks for all that America has given us and our immigrant ancestors, this Thanksgiving we in the Jewish community, and all Americans, should commit to a renewed American covenant of citizenship and service to refugees and immigrants in need.

The hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees living in dire conditions in Chad demand our care and assistance. The refugees who fled war in Iraq and are looking to America for hope call out for resettlement. Our broken immigration system – a source of death, hate crimes, chaos and exploitation – must be fixed and replaced with a new legal immigration system that honors our finest humanitarian values and our interests in economic vitality, rule of law and social cohesion. And the promise of America – the kind of pluralistic union of new American citizens that President Washington and the leaders of the Touro synagogue envisioned – should animate a new campaign for American civic integration that will bring generation after generation of newcomers into our American covenant – this Thanksgiving and into the future.

And so, I wish you and your families a joyful and meaningful Thanksgiving holiday.

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