America’s voice of liberty

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ESTHER SCHOR is professor of English at Princeton University and author of a new biography, "Emma Lazarus."

THIS WEEKEND, Emma Lazarus, whose eloquent words are engraved in the Statue of Liberty, will be honored with a stone in the Poet’s Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. The timing is auspicious because 10 days later, when Americans go to the polls, we will decide anew the fate of her vision for our country as a refuge for immigrants.

These days, famous phrases from Lazarus’ resonant 1883 sonnet -- “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” -- are hurled like salvoes from all sides of the immigration controversy. Those who view immigrants as a threat to our security, our economy and our democracy contrast the accomplishments of the heralded immigrants of the past with the woes they feel are imported by the current wave of arrivals. They would prefer the statue to proclaim, “Keep your huddled masses.” Bloggers on the left ask the statue to admonish and accuse: “Huddled masses; muddled laws.” And on and on; a Google search for “your tired, your poor” yields about 200,000 results, while “huddled masses” nets almost twice that number.

Voters and politicians alike understand that the lawmakers chosen Nov. 7 will again face the question of whether to slam the door on new immigrants and, if so, how hard. Nevertheless, most candidates have learned something from the debacle of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill that split even the president’s party: Immigration is simply too divisive an issue to depend on for votes.


Lazarus wrote her famous words in a climate just as divisive. In December 1883, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s statue, “Liberty Enlightening the World,” languished in pieces in Paris because fundraising in the United States to build a pedestal had been abysmally slow. As Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, wrote: “We have more than a hundred millionaires in this city, any one of whom might have written a check for the whole sum.... But do they care for a Statue of Liberty, which only reminds them of the equality of all citizens of the Republic?”

Born in 1849 to a wealthy Jewish family of Sephardic descent, Lazarus had been an enfant terrible. Her doting father, a sugar merchant, used his fortune to turn her into a publishing superstar at 17. Her precocious fame, along with her magnetism and wit, won her the friendship of such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James. She called herself an “outlaw” Jew, was secular and fiercely identified with the Jewish people rather than with Jewish observance. Writing in the mainstream, middlebrow Century magazine, she introduced a national American audience to Jewish culture, history and nationhood and wrote vignettes about the history of anti-Semitism.

With the bloody Russian pogroms of 1881-82, boatloads of Jewish refugees arrived in New York, sometimes at the rate of 2,000 a month. Aid groups raised the specter of “an army of Jewish paupers,” and even Jews who could trace their American ancestry back two centuries began to fear anti-Semitic reprisals. If those who raised the alarm had had the genius to invent the term “homeland security,” they would surely have done so.

Lazarus, in a weekly column in the American Hebrew newspaper, hectored and browbeat complacent American Jews into opening their hearts and pockets to the refugees. She refused to soothe ruffled feathers and calm fears. “It will be a lasting blot upon American Judaism ... if we do not come forward now with encouragement for the disheartened and help for the helpless,” she wrote.

Traditional Jews reviled her disparaging of Jewish law; Reform Jews disparaged her for speaking candidly about anti-Semitism. A lesser figure might have retreated, but she was made of stern stuff. Instead, she advanced. In “The New Colossus,” what she had once said to Jews -- “Until we are all free, none of us is free” -- she said to the nation. Just as Jews were morally obliged to repair the world, she argued, America was morally obliged to succor the nations, to open its doors to the poor and oppressed. That obligation was incurred along with a legacy of rebellion against tyranny.

As unambiguous as she was on the immigration question, Lazarus herself was a woman of contradictions. She was a champion of the oppressed; she was also a snob with an exquisite sense of entitlement. She flaunted her dual identity as an American and as a Jew, believing, unlike her contemporaries, that to be more openly Jewish was to be more deeply American. She pleaded the cause not of a chosen people but of a people who deserved the freedom to choose: what to think, whom to love and befriend, how to earn their bread.


A spinster who lived out her life under her father’s roof, she inscribed in her poetic legacy an explicit sonnet of erotic desire for a woman that, after her death at 38 from Hodgkin’s disease, her grieving sisters squelched. Despite how prolific Lazarus was in her time, her oeuvre of poems, plays, essays, translations and a novel has been whittled down to a single sonnet, “The New Colossus,” mounted only after her death in 1887 inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Enriched by her contradictions, Emma Lazarus spoke with a clear, prophetic fervor, telling the nation that its complexion would change, along with its soul. Within the hard, cold, haughty visage of Gilded Age America, she discerned a mother’s face and gave that face a voice.