Liberty enlightening the world

The Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus's famous sonnet, 'The Jerusalem Post' looks at the story behind them both.

Liberty America (photo credit: Courtesy: National Museum of American Jewish Histo)
Liberty America
(photo credit: Courtesy: National Museum of American Jewish Histo)
When was the last time you read the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus? Most people recognize its lines from the Statue of Liberty:
“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-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In 1883, her newly created verses helped raise funds to assist in building the pedestal for the statue. With the help of noted editor Joseph Pulitzer, over $100,000 was collected so the Statue of Liberty could be officially dedicated by president Grover Cleveland in 1886.
This month – which marked the 125th anniversary of the seminal monument – leading Lazarus authority Prof. Esther Schor addressed a US event honoring the poet at the National Museum of American Jewish History’s new building on Independence Mall in Philadelphia – near the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was first read and ratified in 1776. Schor, a professor of English at Princeton and a noted poet herself, wrote the biography Emma Lazarus, published by Nextbook Press in 2006. (To mark the statue’s 125th anniversary, Nextbook has just issued an online, interactive version of “The New Colossus,” featuring Schor’s annotations, as well as images and video.)
“Emma Lazarus spoke for the statue,” the biographer noted, “but ironically, the statue’s voice has drowned out many of her most important words.”
Pointing out that the sonnet’s background lay in the Russian-Jewish refugee crisis of 1881-1882, Schor explained that Lazarus had been “persuaded by Rabbi Gustave Gottheil to visit the immigrants, and when she came face to face with their reality on Wards’ Island – overcrowding, poor food and hygiene, lack of training and education – she took on their plight ‘with a single thought and a single work.’ She worked in the HIAS employment bureau, taught English, and advocated for them both to Jewish and general audiences. She traveled to Europe to raise money and gave generously of her own.”
This was no easy task, Schor continued. “Emma’s efforts led to disappointment, but within two years, instead of retreating, she broadened her cause to all immigrants, and took her request for aid to the nation instead of the Jewish people.”
According to the Princeton scholar, the statue – the full name of which was “Liberty Enlightening the World,” a gift from France to the people of the United States – “was built to celebrate French republican values – the notion that liberty and enlightenment were one and the same. But Emma Lazarus – who wrote the sonnet without ever having seen the statue assembled – saw something entirely different: a female figure in a steadfast attitude of welcome, acceptance, and expansiveness... an adoptive mother, one who takes in the abandoned and the orphaned.”
Tying the famous poem in to recent US moves to change immigration policy, she noted that ironically, “because of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, Liberty has gone on speaking her message of welcome, even when the American voters and their representatives have tried to limit immigration or make the lives of those who have already emigrated fraught and uncertain – and lately, in Alabama and Arizona, fearful. Liberty’s voice can be occluded for periods of time, but somehow it always makes its way into the political conversation.”
When asked if one could truly say that the “door of hope” was still open, as Lazarus believed, Schor commented, “It’s a door on hinges that swings open and closed. The last 125 years have seen the door swing wide to admit millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and then, in the mid-’20s, swing shut again. It opened again in the 1960s, when the national origins formula was dropped, and now, in part because of our economy, the door is creaking shut again.”
The link between Lazarus and the statue was not immediate, she said: “When the statue was dedicated [on October 28, 1886], her poem was unread – in fact, unmentioned. It dropped out of sight, was quietly placed on a tablet at the base in 1903. Only in the 1930s did pro-immigrationists revive it as a rallying cry, reading it at their lectures and demonstrations, and printing it on their letterhead.”
PROF. JONATHAN Sarna, the museum’s chief historian and the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history, expressed his particular pleasure at Schor’s addressing the event.
“The Statue of Liberty has had a special meaning for the Jews,” he stated. “First of all, Jews understood the statue to represent America’s welcome to folks like themselves, Jews ‘yearning to be free.’ Even after immigration was restricted by Congress, Jews looked to the statue as a representation of what America was all about – liberty for all. Second, once Emma Lazarus’s poem was placed at the base of the statue, in the 20th century, Jews came to see the Statue of Liberty as a distinctively Jewish contribution.”
The National Museum of American Jewish History, which aims to present educational exhibits, programs and experiences that preserve, explore and celebrate the history of Jews in America, officially came into being on the auspicious date of July 4, 1976. Since that time, the museum has housed over 100 exhibits and now boasts a collection of some 25,000 objects.
The evening honoring Lazarus was part of the museum’s ongoing programs on the 350 years of American Jewish history.
In front of the new building, adding significance to the event’s locale, stood the Statue of Religious Liberty – the first such statue in the US, commissioned for the American centennial in 1876 by B’nai B’rith and executed by Moses Ezekiel.
It depicts a woman whose head is covered by a Phrygian cap with a border containing 13 stars for the 13 original states. Her hand is extended over a boy, holding a glowing lamp, and an eagle, symbolizing the US, holds a serpent representing intolerance.
“The controversies around immigration will always be with us: Whom do we need? Whom can we tolerate? How do they become Americans? And who are we – as individuals, as municipalities, as states and as a nation – when we ask these questions?” Schor noted.
“The issues are familiar, but for a rather vocal group of Americans, the skies and the seas and the deserts around us have changed; they are no longer full of promise, but rather full of interlopers, terrorists, pirates.... Technology and scarcity have thrust us into a new era regarding immigrants. The technologies that make our world smaller, also make our eyes sharper and more watchful; the lives of immigrants, once they are on our shores and in our airports, are in focus as never before. And when resources are limited, even generous spirits become mean and unwelcoming.”
“Against this fraught backdrop, Emma Lazarus’s poem has given the Statue of Liberty a voice that will endure,” she said. “Yes, it’s lofty and high-minded, but it’s also noble and tender and brave. To quote Abraham Lincoln, Emma Lazarus made the statue herself one of ‘the better angels of our nature.’