One-hundred years ago, my grandfather immigrated to the City of Chicago. He was just 13 years old. He had no money. He spoke no English. He knew no one, except for a third-cousin he had never met. He came to Chicago to escape anti-Semitism and the pogroms of Eastern Europe. He found a city where, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed — regardless of your faith or national origin. He found work as a truck driver and meat cutter, and his children would go on to find success as a police officer and a nurse.
A century later, the hatred my grandfather was fleeing is on the rise. Synagogues are being vandalized. Fliers using the same propaganda tactics employed by the Nazis in the 1930’s are being placed around college campuses. Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated.
This is a moment across our country when it feels as if the common humanity and values that tie us together are unraveling. When a Jewish family can’t pray in peace, or Mexican-American parents are afraid to leave their homes to go shopping, or a Muslim woman has her hijab ripped from her head, or an African-American man and Indian-American couple are killed in attacks in just the last few weeks because of the color of their skin, our most fundamental American values and identity are under assault.
When the St. Louis, a ship of mostly Jewish European refugees, came to the shores of America in 1939, America’s moral voice fell silent. Hundreds of men, women and children were sent back to the horrors of a war-ravaged Europe. Today, too, we are living in a moral moment that requires a righteous response. We must stare down those whose mission is to create fear by responding with courage. We must stand up and speak out on behalf of any group that is marginalized and victimized, whether by institutions or by the narrow minds of cowardly individuals.
My grandfather came to a city of opportunity, not a country that breaks up families at the border. He came to a land of liberty, not a place where federal agents stop people on the street to ask for their papers. He came to a country that has prospered with each new generation of entrepreneurs, innovators and dreamers of every faith and nationality who have sought the promise of a better life in America.
When you enter Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, you encounter a memorial honoring “The Righteous Among the Nations” — men and women of all faiths who stood up to the Nazis and saved people of the Jewish faith. We honor these individuals who gave up their comfort for the comfort of others, their safety for the safety of others, and their lives for the lives of others because of their courage.
Today, we must all be the righteous among the nations with the courage to speak out against the hatred and ugliness whirling around us, even if we are not personally the scapegoat de jure of would-be demagogues. We must ask ourselves if the St. Louis arrived on our shores tomorrow, filled with Syrian refugees or children from Guatemala, would we welcome its passengers with open hearts or turn our backs on those seeking safety and security in America?
Whether our families traveled across the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Rio Grande or up the Mississippi to arrive in this city, we are all equally Chicagoans and Americans and we share a common destiny that is bigger and brighter than the petty and misguided views of bigots and racists.
As a Jewish-American in public life, I have personally experienced my share of bigotry. But I know what defines the City of Chicago and the United States today is not the acts of hatred by a few, but the acts of love and generosity by the many. After the Loop Synagogue was vandalized, countless Chicagoans of every faith, color and nationality sent cards, flowers and raised reward money to track down the attacker. After a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in Philadelphia, Christians, Muslims and atheists came together to clean it up.
When Mayor Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, visited Chicago recently, he joined me at my synagogue on the Sabbath. On that morning we were not divided by our faiths, but united in our common prayers and dreams as fathers for our children.
That is the true definition of America. It is a definition that was captured clearly in a photograph at O’Hare Airport after the Trump administration’s first, unsuccessful attempt to enact a ban on Muslims attempting to enter the U.S. Two fathers, one Muslim and one Jewish, stood smiling with their children on their shoulders. They held signs calling for peace and empathy, and against hatred and religious discrimination. That is the picture of the Chicago and the America I know — the shining city and nation my grandfather sought refuge in a century ago.
Rahm Emanuel, the first Jewish mayor of Chicago, was elected in 2011 and re-elected in 2015.
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