We have gone tem­po­rar­ily mad, again

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Dr James J Zogby

It’s not the first time that such a wave of in­tol­er­ant hys­te­ria has swept over our na­tion. We’ve done it be­fore, and each time we’ve sub­mit­ted to fear and big­otry, we’ve done dam­age to count­less num­bers of im­mi­grants and stained the pages of our history. Dur­ing last cen­tury’s two World Wars, we did it to the Ital­ians, the Ger­mans and the Ja­panese. In peace­time, we per­se­cuted Blacks, Jews, Asians, and Lati­nos. And be­cause this is not the first time that Syr­i­ans have been vic­tims of big­otry and in­tol­er­ance, for me this is per­sonal.

Dur­ing World War I, my grand­fa­ther was forced to take his fam­ily from their an­ces­tral home in the hills of Le­banon seek­ing refuge from prey­ing Ot­toman armed forces. My grand­fa­ther died in ex­ile leav­ing my grand­mother alone with seven chil­dren. At the end of the war, they re­turned to their vil­lage and be­gan prepa­ra­tions to join the mas­sive wave of im­mi­grants making their way from Syria and Le­banon to Amer­ica. They were eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal refugees seek­ing free­dom and op­por­tu­nity.

En route, my fa­ther was way­laid in France where he found work, hop­ing to earn enough to con­tinue his on­ward jour­ney. By the time he was ready to depart, Congress had voted to can­cel visas to the US for all “Syr­i­ans” (since that is what Syr­i­ans and Le­banese were called back then). They were termed a “pub­lic men­ace”, who brought “for­eign ways” and “noth­ing of value” to the US. Se­na­tor David Reed of Penn­syl­va­nia, in making his case for Syr­ian ex­clu­sion, said “we don’t need any more Syr­ian trash com­ing to Amer­ica”.

Des­per­ate to re­join his fam­ily, my fa­ther got a job on a ship sail­ing from Mar­seille to New York. On ar­rival, he dis­em­barked and en­tered the US il­le­gally. Even­tu­ally he con­nected with his mother and sib­lings and he never looked back. Af­ter years in hid­ing, fear­ing de­por­ta­tion and sep­a­ra­tion from his fam­ily, my fa­ther took ad­van­tage of a 1930’s amnesty pro­gram and in 1942, he was sworn in a cit­i­zen of the United States of Amer­ica.

Dur­ing the past nine decades, my ex­tended fam­ily has done well in their new home. They have pro­duced doc­tors, lawyers, teach­ers, veter­ans of ev­ery war, and pub­lic ser­vants in ev­ery branch of gov­ern­ment. In 2013, Pres­i­dent Obama ap­pointed me to the US Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom. With the ap­point­ment comes what is called “a parch­ment” - a hand­writ­ten dec­la­ra­tion, signed by the pres­i­dent, making a for­mal an­nounce­ment of the ap­point­ment. On the wall in my of­fice, my parch­ment hangs next to my fa­ther’s nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­tifi­cate. To me, it tells a won­der­ful story about what makes Amer­ica great - how it can change from ex­clu­sion and in­tol­er­ance to ac­cep­tance and op­por­tu­nity.

Val­ues

The ex­tra­or­di­nary thing about my fam­ily’s story is that it is so or­di­nary, be­cause it is a story shared by mil­lions of oth­ers Amer­i­cans. It de­fines the es­sen­tial qual­ity that makes us a good na­tion. There have al­ways been two voices com­pet­ing for the soul of Amer­ica: One has been wel­com­ing and re­spect­ful of di­ver­sity, while the other has been in­tol­er­ant and fear­ful of those who were dif­fer­ent. The tension be­tween them has de­fined our na­tion’s history from its be­gin­ning. While we were born in sin, marked by the twin evils of slav­ery and geno­cide against in­dige­nous peo­ples, our founders also el­e­vated the virtue of re­li­gious free­dom and the no­tion that all were cre­ated equal. Over the last two and one-half cen­turies, th­ese two Amer­i­cas have been in locked in bat­tle. In times of na­tional hys­te­ria, like the one we are go­ing through, I be­lieve it is im­per­a­tive that we understand what is at stake in the out­come of this con­test.

One speaks to the val­ues to which we as­pire, the other to our darker im­pulses and fears. The for­mer is ra­tio­nal, the lat­ter is ir­ra­tional. If left unchecked, the dark side can, for a time, win out. And be­cause run­away fears can so eas­ily trump right rea­son, they must be con­fronted. We could make all of the ar­gu­ments about the rig­or­ous vet­ting process and the se­cu­rity checks in place to in­sure that the refugees we re­ceive do not present a threat to our coun­try. Or we could cite the fact that since 9/11 we have wel­comed 784,000 refugees into our coun­try and not a sin­gle one of them has com­mit­ted a vi­o­lent act that would en­dan­ger us. But I know that when hys­te­ria is in the air, ra­tio­nal ar­gu­ments are not heard against the voices of in­tol­er­ance and fear.

And so when Repub­li­can can­di­dates call for shut­ting mosques, clos­ing our doors to all Mus­lim im­mi­grants, or cre­at­ing spe­cial ID’s for those who are here, then it is time to push back. What we must do in re­sponse is stand up to the bul­lies, as our pres­i­dent has done. If our history teaches us any­thing, it is that the voices of our bet­ter an­gels will ul­ti­mately be heard and they will win in the end. We have con­fronted and de­feated our demons be­fore and we can do so again. How long it will take and how much dam­age is done be­fore we come to our senses will be de­ter­mined by the de­gree to which we demon­strate strong and as­sertive lead­er­ship to chal­lenge and over­come the fear and tem­po­rary mad­ness that is in the air.

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