“America has lost the one weapon it has, the power to inspire,” a foreign ambassador told me recently. “It breaks my heart.” The stress placed on the word “inspire” added poetry to a remark cloaked in sadness and disbelief.
Our nation’s power to inspire is under assault by a president who insists on trying to implement a ban on immigrants from Muslim countries and refugees from Syria. Our role as a beacon for those yearning to breathe free is under assault by a xenophobic member of Congress who tweets, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
But somebody else’s babies is exactly who we are, especially in the eyes of Native Americans slaughtered and displaced to make way for the rest of us. Whether we were brought here against our wills in the hulls of slave ships or disembarked at Ellis Island or landed at JFK airport, the opening chapters of our family histories begin with each of us coming to this country as somebody else’s baby.
Let me share with you two powerful stories that speak to the power of America to inspire. My dear friend Alexandra Stanton told the story of her parents coming to the United States in her speech accepting a justice and peace award from J Street, a pro-Israel organization working for a two-state solution in the Middle East.
I am so deeply, fiercely proud to be part of this amazing organization. I joined the board in the second month of J Street’s existence, because my parents taught me that America stands for something special, a country with the courage to say “YES” when history says “NO.”
My parents’ stories demonstrate the values of America. My mother, Domna Callimanopulos Stanton, is an immigrant. She came to this country when she was 8 years old. She could not speak English. She became a tenured professor at the University of Michigan, the first woman editor of the premier literary journal of the Modern Languages Association and president of the MLA, and is now a distinguished professor at the City University of New York. That’s what happens when America says “YES” to immigrants.
My father, Frank Scharfstein, was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the son of a Jewish cigar salesman. He became a national fencing champion. When World War II began, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy. But because of his name, he was rejected twice on the false claim that he was five pounds overweight. After the second rejection, my father changed his name from Scharfstein to Stanton, and walked back to the enlistment office. This time, the U.S. Navy said yes, and my dad became lieutenant commander of a destroyer fighting Hitler to keep our country safe. That’s what happens when America says “YES” to Jews.
I’m here tonight because of them. My mother taught me that no wall is too high that it cannot be climbed. My father taught me that when it’s important, “NO” is not an option. And they both taught me that turning a “NO” into a “YES” is the most powerful thing you can do.
Tony Blinken, the former deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama, brought our podcast interview to an end by recounting journeys to America by his grandfather, stepmother and stepfather. Click here to listen to the clip transcribed below.
I think we’re all the product to some extent, and sometimes to a great extent, of our families and of our families’ stories. And in a way, in my case, this moment especially resonates because of those stories. Unless we’re Native American, we’re all immigrants to this country. And in my case, I have my closest family members, all of whom were either immigrants or refugees in one way or another. My father’s father came here fleeing a pogrom in what is now Russia, or actually now Ukraine, technically, at the turn of the last century.
And he was embraced and built a life in the United States, argued before the Supreme Court, sent three sons to Ivy League schools, but from nothing. But he came through Ellis Island and he was embraced. My stepmother was Hungarian-born. She literally, in the dead of night as a young girl, with her mother, fled the communists, got out by train, her mother had a sham marriage to someone. She too was embraced by the United States. Came here, built a great life and wound up giving back to refugees over the course of 20 or 30 years. And then finally my stepfather you alluded to. He was one of 900 children in his school in Bialystok, Poland, before the Second World War.
He’s the only one to have survived, and his entire immediate family, mother, father, sister, were wiped out. He spent four years in the concentration camps, Auschwitz, Dachau, Majdanek, you name it. At the very end of the war, he was on a death march out of one of the camps, and he and a few others made a run for it in the Bavarian forest, and somehow they managed to survive the gunfire from the German troops. They hid out in the woods. And a day or two later, he heard a rumbling sound and he looked out, and instead of seeing the dreaded swastika, he saw a five-pointed white star on a tank. And he ran for the tank into this clearing, which was insane, but he did. And he got to the tank and the hatch of the tank opened and a very large African American GI looked down at him.
And he got down on his knees and said the only three words in English that he knew, and that his mother had taught him, “God bless America.” And the GI pulled him into the tank, pulled him into freedom, pulled him into the United States. That, to me, is who we are. That, to me, is what we stand for. That is the beauty and power of the United States across the world.
Above all else, America is an idea. An idea where all men and women are created equal. By no means is our nation perfect, but our ongoing aspiration to perfect our union is what makes us a magnet for those seeking to pursue dreams stunted elsewhere. And the amalgam of their successes became our precious American Dream.
Without question, African Americans figure prominently in the American story. Yes, African Americans were brought here in chains and enslaved for more than 260 years. But a war was fought to secure their freedom. Then their ancestors stared down the water cannons, snarling dogs and extrajudicial lynch mobs of Jim Crow to push the nation to “live out the true meaning of its creed.”
The civil rights pilgrimage I took this month with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Ala., put me in the shadow of some of those giants. Lewis’s heroism and Obama’s election are testaments to our nation’s ability and enduring desire to do better, be better, move forward.
That our standing as an unimpeachable beacon of inspiration is diminished should break all of our hearts.
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