A very hoary joke tells the story of an East European Jew, just arrived in New York and not speaking a word of English, who leaves Ellis Island with a brand new name: Sean Ferguson. Asked to explain his newly-minted Irish provenance, he tells how his fellow-travellers on the ship warned him that his Yiddish name would not be well-received by the immigration officers and that he was better off thinking of a new name for himself — one with an American ring. Unable to do so, he hears various suggestions from his mates and uncertainly settles on one — let’s say, Andrew Jones.
When he turn comes and he is summoned before the clerk, he is in a highly-nervous state and unable to recall what he decided to relabel himself as. “Name””, asks the clerk and then, trying to be helpful: “nomen?” “Ah, ah — och, shoin fargessen” manages our hero, moaning that he has “already forgotten”. But the clerk, himself a second- or third-generation Paddy, is more than satisfied with hearing something vaguely familiar, and promptly inscribes the newcomer as ‘Sean Ferguson’.
Immigration, new beginnings and their accompanying dislocation, are the warp and woof of American culture and history — as they of Israel. Of all the fulsome rhetoric about ‘shared values’ that bind these two countries together, the one that has by far the most validity is the basic fact that in both cases, the population is overwhelmingly comprised of immigrants and the descendants of earlier immigrants.
One of the most striking features of immigrants everywhere is how quickly they forget — repress, most likely — the memories of their own immigration, its motives and the struggles that accompanied and followed it. That allows them to, seemingly instinctively, become a pressure group opposed to immigration when, in due course, a new wave of would-be citizens comes banging on the door. The group that urges most loudly to firmly close that door is the one that most recently came through it.
Such, apparently, is the selective memory of both individuals and groups. If the immigration was not voluntary but forced — as in being imported and used as slaves, i.e. the African-American experience, then the repression of the memories serves only to push them deep into the national psyche, where even the passage of time leaves them untouched.
How easy it is to expose the festering sore has been on ghastly display this past week in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominantly black suburb of St Louis. The shooting of an unarmed black youth by a white policeman was sufficient to trigger riots, looting and an extraordinary show of force — largely unavailing and possibly counter-productive — by a police force which has been extensively militarized in recent years and thus even further removed from its supposed function of protector, and even friend, of the average citizen.
The events in Ferguson eventually forced President Obama — who, as the first African-American president of the country, might have been expected to be especially sensitive to racial conflict — to forgo playing golf and having dinner parties followed by dancing during his planned two-week vacation on the Massachusetts coast, and actually pay attention to what was happening in the mid-West.
Obama has been as detached, and as severely criticized, for his attitude towards the immediate immigration crisis facing the US, as tens of thousands of children from Central America seek to cross the border. Indeed, immigration is a major issue in the upcoming mid-term elections — in the south-west it is THE issue — and may well remain so into 2016. But the striking thing about the ‘debate’, if so it may be termed, is that the majority of Americans want less, or even no, immigration and the main argument relates to the rights, or lack thereof, of existing illegal immigrants.
The Israeli government, media and much of the public respond to this by ritually clucking in dismay — much as Americans and others do in response to Israel doing things that displease them, whether or not they understand anything about the issues themselves. But immigration is an issue which Israel and its leadership should understand better than anyone else.
Yet even as the Israeli leadership clucks loudly about European anti-Semitism and sternly lectures European nations as to their moral obligations, Israel itself is doing little or nothing to prepare for a large-scale influx of Jews from Europe. If anything, it seems the former is a substitute for the latter. But if Natan Sharansky is correct in his prediction that European Jewry is facing extinction –and he surely is — then he and the vaunted Diaspora Jewish leadership, in America as well as in Europe, should be exerting massive pressure on the Israeli government to prepare detailed plans for the looming emergency.
At least Netanyahu, Lapid, Bennet (all the children of immigrants…) et al do not spend their days on the golf course and their nights on the dance floor. But, if and when the pogroms escalate and a mass exodus starts, they had better not claim they were taken (yet again) by surprise. No Israeli over the age of thirty has ‘already forgotten’ the ‘Russian’ aliyah that emerged, seemingly out of the blue, in 1989, nor has any Israeli with a high-school education ‘already forgotten’ the events of the 1930s.