Editors’ note: This piece was originally published in 2017. Though it was written in response to a specific incident, we think this essay’s exploration of the life and work of Emma Lazarus (especially her most famous poem, “The New Colossus”) remains very relevant today.
That’s because her words have become a kind of calling card for the promise of American immigration — and as we now know, a dog-whistle for those who want to keep immigrants out.
Yesterday, at a White House press briefing, senior policy advisor Stephen Miller got into a heated exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta over whether the poem is even about immigration. Miller insisted that the poem wasn’t on the base of the statue when it was erected, and that its meaning has to do with American liberty as a beacon, not the promise it represents to immigrants.
He’s using a technicality—the poem wasn’t on the base of the statue when it was erected, instead it was written to help raise funds for that pedestal.
But when it comes to the meaning of the poem, he’s all wrong.
The reason he’s wrong is intimately connected to Lazarus’ own identity as a Jewish woman — and her hands-on experiences with Jewish immigrants in the 1880s. As a historian who specializes in heroines from history, I’ve come to know Lazarus intimately, and her story is worth hearing.
As the daughter of a wealthy sugar refiner, Emma Lazarus spent much of her childhood and youth relatively unconnected to her Sephardic-Ashkenazi heritage.
What she did know was that she was Jewish — and that, in the elite Christian New York circles in which her father worked and socialized, marked her as “other.” But she experienced the privilege of wealth. New York’s elite made it clear that while they were kind of okay with rich, cultured Jews, the other Jews pouring into the city were to be avoided.
Those other Jews were fleeing Russian persecution, and there were a lot of them. Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews flooded into New York’s harbor in search of refuge — 200,000 throughout the 1880s, and a total of 3 million by 1924. They were poor. They spoke Russian, German and other unrecognizable languages. And as they crammed into the tenements of the Lower East Side, rich New Yorkers fled uptown to shield themselves.
Though Lazarus was a respected poet and author, she was nonetheless branded as a “Jewess” by both her friends and her readers. And so, fierce advocate that she was, she embraced it — using her platform to speak out about the refugee crisis and advocate for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The more Lazarus learned about the plight of Russian Jews, the more motivated she was to meet them. She began to advocate for refugees in person, heading to Castle Garden—New York’s pre-Ellis Island immigrant processing center—to meet and assist them. At a time when calls for immigration restriction and literacy tests was rising (sound familiar?) Lazarus got to know Jewish immigrants in person, then used her literary skills to advocate for them on paper.
“The Jewish Question into which I plunged so recklessly & impulsively last Spring has gradually absorbed more of my time & my Heart,” she wrote to her friend Rose Hawthorne in 1882. “…It has about driven out of my thought all other subjects.”
Lazarus actually didn’t want to write a poem for the fundraiser for the new Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. It’s no wonder: Not only was it hard to write a poem on command, but New Yorkers were ambivalent about the statue itself. Later, her poem helped change the way we all feel about Lady Liberty. Part of that has to do with her genius: when she did write it, she drew on what she knew about the tired, poor masses she had spent years trying to help.
She knew what immigration meant to people subjected to pogroms at home and virulent anti-Semitism once they reached American shores. She knew the risks and rewards of immigration—and she knew what America stood to lose if they barred their doors to others. Her poem wasn’t rediscovered and placed at the statue’s base until 1903, a full 16 years after her death at age 38.
But it certainly wasn’t written to keep immigrants out.