“Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” — the iconic quote on the base of the Statue of Liberty — is an inspiring motto that masks the hostility that immigrants face now and in the past. Yet immigrants unmistakably contribute to the communities they enter and our national mythology praises the immigrants that built this country. It is hard to believe that the United States of America is “full”. There are shortages of workers in so many fields that it would seem logical that those who want to throw in their lot with us should be embraced, not reviled.
I too once was an immigrant, and my experience could not have been more different.
In 1992, my wife and I, with our two children — 4 years and 18 months old — in tow, decided to follow a lifelong dream and leave our comfortable lives in New York City to emigrate to Israel. This decision followed two previous visits of increasing lengths, where Israeli friends and relatives encouraged us to make a longer-term commitment. The urgings were informal, frequent, and ultimately very convincing. The country was growing, and people like us — educated, enthusiastic, and with young children — were needed. When we arrived and enrolled in Hebrew-language classes, I found that I was among people from all over the world, representing a wide range of ages, education, and economic backgrounds.
To be sure, immigration to Israel is encouraged, and Jews are heavily favored in the process. Israel’s Law of Return guarantees citizenship to anyone who can prove at least one Jewish grandparent. This policy was established after World War II, to rescue Holocaust-devastated European Jewish populations and encourage Jews from other countries to build a homeland that could resist persistent anti-Semitism. That policy has provided a way to efficiently absorb refuges from Europe, Jews from Arab nations who were expelled after Israel’s independence, and communities seeking a better life that they found in North Africa, the Americas, and the former Soviet Union.
There also is a path for non-Jews, but it is heavily influenced by politics and the tolerance of the party in power. About 4.6 percent of Israel’s population consists of non-Arab Christians or other ethnic groups. The ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and unrest on the Lebanese and Syrian borders make any kind of immigration path for Arabs a sensitive topic.
Israel can provide a template for how immigrants should be treated, in terms of planning and preparation. When we still were in New York, we were interviewed by a quasi-government agency called the Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization that predated the State of Israel and served as a provisional government during the British Mandatory period in Palestine. It assisted us in preparing our application to emigrate and put us in contact with a group of families that were considering or in the process of making aliyah. It was a ready-made support group, and we are still in touch with many of the people we met back then. Our counselor provided us with a detailed packet of instructions telling what to do and when to do it.
Each new immigrant is given a so-called basket of benefits before leaving his or her home country and then an additional set of rights on arrival in Israel. Those rights include housing assistance, language instruction, health insurance, employment counseling, a free lift to bring our household goods to Israel, and a one-way direct flight to Tel Aviv. These internal costs are paid by various government ministries in Israel; the costs outside Israel are paid by the Jewish Agency.
Despite all this help, it is not an easy process to give up everything you know to become a stranger in a new place. It was wrenching for us to leave family and friends behind, even with official assistance. I can’t imagine what it must be like for immigrants to the United States who do not have that support system.
When we got to Israel we were met by representatives from Israel’s Ministry of Absorption. We were taken to a private lounge, away from the hurly-burly of the airport arrivals hall; offered food; given a place for the kids to stretch and play, and met with multilingual bureaucrats who could help us through our paperwork. We were even asked, given we were starting a new life in a new home, whether we wanted to change our names. We were supplied with official documents attesting to our new citizenship and we were escorted to a prepaid taxi to our new home. Despite dealing with overworked staff who probably had handled hundreds of new immigrants before us on that day, we felt welcomed.
It was that easy.
We spent several years in Israel but our responsibility for our aging parents brought us back to New Jersey. Our plan is to return to Israel. Already our older daughter lives in Haifa and we have made several scouting trips to pick a community to live in. The Interior Ministry even has a name for people like us — toshav chozer — with their own set of rights and privileges to ease the transition.
I contrast our experiences to the images from our border today. Frightened families waiting in long lines and forced into detention, children separated from parents, and relentless rhetoric seeking to demean and marginalize them. It is no comfort that this is not a new phenomenon. My grandparents told me stories about the physical examinations to which new immigrants were subjected at Ellis Island and other points of entry, and stories about people turned back because they were deemed sick and therefore unfit, or had a criminal record, or were judged to be unable to work in America, or a myriad of other reasons.
American history, though, teaches us of the immigrants’ contributions to every aspect of our country’s development, from laying the tracks for our transcontinental railroads to building the atomic bomb. It was immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who drove the effort. In spite of this rich legacy of immigrants arriving, striving, retaining their culture, and absorbing and reshaping American culture, still successive waves of immigrants are greeted with fresh levels of xenophobia.
I never felt this way in Israel. We never lost our American-ness, just like the Russians, Ethiopians, and Argentines whom we met along the way never lost their accents, the hankering for the foods they loved, or the music that they continued to listen to. We were all Israeli from Day One, working, studying Hebrew, voting in an election shortly after we arrived. I advanced my career as a network engineer and my wife expanded her teaching skills to English as a foreign language.
I pity the poor immigrant to the United States, whose legacy is worshipped but whose present is full of pain, hostility, and confusion.
Charles Rubin is a computer systems engineer with a major media company. He lives in Hoboken.