"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" - Inscription on the Statue of Liberty
My grandfather, escaping the horrors of genocide in Armenia, saw that statue and believed those words as he made a new life on these shores. This is the story of millions of people from across the world whose ancestors accepted Lady Liberty's invitation and believed in the truths that were held to be self-evident in the Constitution of the United States that "all men (human beings) are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and Happiness."
This week, the world awoke to a very different message from the President of the United States. It was a message directed to those same huddled masses yearning to breathe free; to those who today seek a better life; to those fleeing from persecution; to those who are without home or country as the result of violence and war. His message: you are NOT welcome here. The door is closed. Liberty's lamp has been extinguished.
And not only this, but as he repeated throughout his campaign, Donald Trump declared that Mexicans and Muslims, in particular, are not welcome in this "Land of the Free" on account of their race, nationality and religion. Religious prejudice, myopic nationalism and racism seem now to be the explicit guiding policies of the President of the United States and his administration. This prejudice-laden behavior which uses stereotypical generalizations about race, nationality and religion to demean and dehumanize others is the same rhetoric that has fueled racism and violence against groups perceived to be "different" throughout American and world history. It is a belief system that justified slavery and the subjugation of women in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, and colonialism in India. It is the basis for anti-Semitism, providing the theoretical and theological basis for the Nazi-led Holocaust, led to the internment of Japanese-Americans, and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda among so many other places. The list of human atrocities caused by the dehumanizing of "the other" is long. Besides being in direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and debasing the core moral and ethical values of all of the religious traditions of the world, these actions also stand in direct conflict with the most basic principles of American society.
Over 200 years ago, Americans of different religions were seeking acceptance and assurance that this country would live out its founding beliefs of equal treatment under the law. Another American President, George Washington, expressed his founding vision for America in a letter he wrote to the Hebrew congregation at Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. In this letter, Washington assured the Jewish community that "the Government of the United States...gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," and that those of all religions "who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants -- while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid." This was the first and founding vision of a multicultural, multi-religious America.
The actions of the current President and his staff are an assault on Washington's promise, and should ignite outrage among people of all political perspectives who believe in this vision of America and of a world connected by compassion - not divided by hate. For centuries, the people of this country and their leaders have toiled to realize this promise. It has been a struggle. It continues to be a struggle. But slowly, very slowly and (sometimes with significant setbacks), the words of the Constitution, and the invitation emblazoned upon the Statue of Liberty, have become an increasing reality that has created in the United States the mosaic of peoples of all races and religions, of all genders, cultures and nationalities. This is the contemporary reflection of Washington's founding vision.
Throughout history and continuing today, in the United States and in countries around the world, the struggle against prejudice and hate and for peaceful and just diverse societies continues. Our Muslim sisters and brothers, and those refugees of all nationalities and beliefs fleeing persecution, are being targeted by the dehumanizing prejudice that has found its way into presidential pronouncement in the United States. They are being victimized by violence incited by these actions of the US government; the burning of mosques and murder of Muslims are a direct result of these policies. We, people of all beliefs and backgrounds across this country and around the world, are called to stand together arm in arm, connected heart to heart with people of all traditions, against violence of all kinds and stand united in support of freedom of religion and spiritual expression and the rights of all people to lives of dignity and peace in America and throughout the world.
The George Washington quote is an excerpt from his Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, August 1790. (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135)