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Emma Lazarus exhibit at AU poses challenge for America today

Posted by on November 28, 2011

Jonathan DeanSince late October, we’ve been in the company of an extraordinary woman at Aurora University. It wouldn’t be too much to say that she’s a figure who has profoundly shaped our national character without us fully realizing how.

“Emma Lazarus: Voice of Liberty, Voice of Conscience,” a national traveling exhibition, traces the life, intellectual development, work and lasting influence of the Jewish poet and social activist. AU is fortunate to have been selected as one of 18 sites to host the display, which includes panels featuring photographic reproductions of historical images and works by Lazarus.

More than 125 years ago, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland. A gift from the French, it was intended to celebrate the virtues of freedom and the overthrow of oppressive monarchies. For all that, it wasn’t altogether easy to raise the funds necessary to build the statue’s pedestal and erect it in the New York harbor. During the 1880s, progress toward the completion of the project was slow, and public enthusiasm seemed rather dim.

A group of artists banded together to try to raise some money for the building work. Among them was Emma Lazarus, a young poet, born to a wealthy New York Jewish family. She wrote a poem for the occasion, “The New Colossus,” in which she argued that for the statue to have real meaning for Americans it had to represent something other than sheer might, even democratic might. It had to hold before the American people – and the people of the world – a different message than the fallen empires of the past.

It had to embody American compassion. It needed to reflect American virtue. It should stand, she said, as the welcoming “Mother of Exiles,” not a proud, forbidding colossus of national arrogance.

Where did Emma Lazarus gain these convictions? From experience, and from religion. As waves of refugees fled the anti-Semitic massacres of Russia and Eastern Europe during the 1880s, she had become involved in caring for them, re-educating them, and helping them settle in the United States. She also became their staunchest advocate. From the comfortable, high-society life she had known, she found herself increasingly associating with these “tired … huddled masses” who came from persecution, loss and the destruction of their way of life to seek hope in America. And she came to see it as a test of America’s character that they found the new life they sought. If not here, where?

Her religious views informed her attitude, too. Not an observant Jew, and sometimes dismissive of traditional religion, she saw the ongoing relevance of her faith in its timeless values. In the Bible’s frequent and urgent commands to love the stranger, welcome the outcast and the refugee, embrace the foreigner and show hospitality to all who are homeless and in need, she found her moral compass. And she strongly believed that these should be American virtues, just as much as Jewish ones.

Lazarus was ahead of her time. Her poem was lost amid the jubilation of the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, and not affixed to the pedestal until 1903, 14 years after her early death. Her prophetic passion still poses us a challenge today: What kind of people will we be? On what convictions will we build our world? What identity will we claim?

Emma Lazarus: Voice of Liberty, Voice of Conscience is on public display in the atrium of the Institute for Collaboration from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. through Dec. 16. A panel discussion about Lazarus and her relevance today will be held Dec. 7 at 3.30 p.m. in Crimi Auditorium. Participating will be AU President Rebecca Sherrick, and professors Barbara Strassberg and Donovan Gwinner.