Jewish Austrian, part of a group of 50 fleeing the Nazis, wave to the Statue of Liberty as they arrive in America

Jewish Austrian children, part of a group of 50 fleeing the Nazis, wave to the Statue of Liberty as they arrive in America to meet their adoptive families.

Photo from U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Anita Willens

From Ellis Island to Gaza: Send These, the Homeless, Tempest-Tost to Me

As the death toll soars to over 10,000 in a Gaza becoming "a graveyard for children," hundreds of protesters with Jewish Voice For Peace staged a sit-in at New York's Statue of Liberty to demand a ceasefire and declare, "We refuse to allow a genocide to be carried out in our names." Activists said they chose the iconic Statue that has welcomed millions of immigrants "yearning to breathe free" as a fierce reminder: "From Ellis Island to Gaza, never again means never again - for anyone."

Monday's action coincided with the grim announcement from Palestinian health officials that Gaza's death toll under savage Israel airstrikes has now passed 10,000, almost half of them children. It's estimated a Palestinian child is killed every 10 minutes, and one Palestinian is killed or wounded almost every minute. The deaths, almost all civilians, also include least 90 people working with the U.N.'s refugee agency. The ongoing slaughter has sparked growing protests worldwide; in the U.S., they include a "Let Gaza Live" rally Saturday in D.C. that drew tens of thousands, and a sit-in that shut down Grand Central Station during last weekend's rush hour. About 400 people were arrested in what organizers called the city's largest act of civil disobedience since the Iraq War.

Protests have been organized across a wide swath of Jewish, Muslim, peace and rights organizations, from the umbrella group Act Now To Stop War and Racism (ANSWER) to the anti-Zionist If Not Now and Jewish Voice For Peace (JVP). On their website, JVP stresses the assault in Gaza "isn't a war on Hamas - it's a war on the Palestinian people" - and, for them, "there is no right way to protest their subjugation: "Shell-shocked children are left to search for their parents under the rubble. Millions of Palestinians have once again been made refugees, bombed as they tried to flee. Surgeons are operating by the light of their cellphones, increasingly without anesthesia. Let us be clear: This is genocide." Writes Aseel Al Bajeh, “All of Palestine is under attack.”

The Monday action at Lady LIberty began with about 500 activists blending into crowds of sightseers to board an 11 a.m. ferry from lower Manhattan to Liberty Island. At the pedestal, they bared black t-shirts emblazoned with "Jews Demand Ceasefire Now" and "Not In Our Name," unfurled banners reading "The Whole World Is Watching," and chanted, "Let Gaza Live." A common charge, amidst familiar Israeli claims to "self-defense" in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas assault: "Our grief is being used to justify genocidal violence against the people of Gaza." Among the crowd was NYC Assembly member Zohran Mamdani, who had come to the iconic symbol of America in honor of "our supposed commitments to universal values of liberty and freedom and respite."

For some protesters, their focus was practical - specifically, what many deem Biden's unconscionable failure to push for a ceasefire. Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations warned that the President's unwavering support for Israel, no matter what the atrocity, could prove politically costly. "The language that Biden and his party understands is the language of votes," he said, going on to list key swing states like Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. "Our message is, 'No ceasefire, no votes.'" What resonated for others was the rich history and potent symbolism of a place that has welcomed generations of immigrants fleeing danger and oppression, all those hopeful tired and poor and "huddled masses" who've come before.

America's record on that score, of course, is uneven. From the 1880s to the 1920s, almost 25 million immigrants came to our hopeful shores, many of them Jews from central and then eastern Europe; about half the country's Jews lived in New York, making it the world's largest Jewish community. Famously, though, when the Nazis came to power, America fatally hedged and hesitated when it came to saving more of Germany's Jews. One account from the 32-nation conference FDR organized in France's Evian-les-Bains in 1938 to discuss their plight offers up a coolly, wearily, commonplace refrain from the rich and free to the poor and un-free: "All nations present expressed sympathy for the refugees, but few offered to allow them within their boundaries."

Now over 1.5 million Palestinians, already the world's largest stateless community, have been newly displaced, betrayed, hunted, terrorized. Historically, thanks to “longstanding legal and logistical barriers," few have made their way to America; in 2023, of over 60,000 refugees resettled here, 56 were Palestinian. But that didn't stop hateful GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, once Trump's "most scandal-plagued Interior Secretary" ever, from responding to Gaza's searing humanitarian catastrophe by proposing a Safeguarding Americans from Extremism Act that would halt the granting of any visas or refuge to Palestinians, and maybe deport those already here. "This legislation keeps America safe," Zinke said. "This is the textbook definition of racism,” said Rep. Barbara Lee.

"As US Jews, many of our families were greeted by the Statue of Liberty while escaping pogroms," reads a Jewish Voice For Peace statement on Monday's event at the "Mother of Exiles." "Some were let in, but others were turned away. Our government has a long history of complicity in genocidal violence. Right now...we call on our political leaders to make a different choice." Meanwhile, writes Ruwaida Amer, "The night in Gaza is long." In the daytime, people frantically seek out water, bread, power to charge phones. Still, children play in the streets: "When the sounds of bombing return, they scream and look for their families. When the sounds of bombing stop, they go out again to play." And Palestinians, goes the anguished cry, "are supposed to shut up and die."

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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