When We Were the Strangers

Posted on February 18th, 2013 by

MarvinA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, 100 years ago this week, the lame duck president of the United States, William H. Taft sent a message to Congress conveying his refusal to sign the Dillingham Bill.  This veto delayed, but did not end, the efforts to close America’s borders to non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, including millions of Jews desperate to avoid persecution and war in Europe.

Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont is now a forgotten figure, but early in the last century he was the leader of a movement to stem the tide of “undesirable” immigration.  From 1907 to 1911, concurrent with his Senate duties, he served as chair of the United States Immigration Commission (often called the Dillingham Commission).  The Commission spent thousands of dollars studying every alleged connection between Southern and Eastern European immigrants and social degradation, from prostitution to mental illness – and after publishing 41 volumes of detail, to no one’s surprise, concluded that something must be done to protect the nation.

To be fair, it wasn’t the first time that politicians claimed that immigration would be the ruination of our society.  Ben Franklin singles out the problem of German immigration in 1753:   I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us;   Still it was generally true for much of our early history that merely making it to American territory was deemed sufficient grounds for pursuing a pathway to naturalization.  Our first post-Revolution naturalization law offered US citizenship within two years!

Post-Reconstruction attitudes about race began to close the open door, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  The whole new pseudo-science of eugenics sought to put a veneer of scholarship on age-old prejudices.  The Dillingham Commission opens its report with a “Dictionary of Race” that purports to be able to distinguish between the “races” of Northern Italians and Southern Italians, and repeats well-worn stereotypes about the “race” of Jews.

The Dillingham Bill (S 3175 of the 62nd Congress) that followed the Commission’s report brought a couple of new twists to previous attempts to control immigration.  First, it would impose a literacy test on all new immigrants.  Second, it would make steamship companies responsible for ensuring that their America-bound passengers could meet this test (imposing steep fines for failing to screen their guests).  Nearly every immigrant community, including America’s Jews, understood that these provisions could and would be used to stop immigration and they vigorously opposed the measure.

After all this wasn’t the first time that a “literacy test” had been suggested as a way to curb the rights of individuals.  Since 1890, such tests had become a legal fixture in the Jim Crow South, regularly used to bar African-Americans from voting.

A key question about literacy tests is who decides what “literacy” means and who evaluates the qualifications of the applicant.  Senator Simmons of North Carolina (who had built his reputation on a “white supremacy campaign”) proposed an amendment to the bill that answered this question in amazing detail:

That for the purpose of testing the ability of the immigrant to read, the inspection officer shall be furnished copies of the Constitution of the United States, printed on uniform pasteboard slips, each containing no less than twenty nor more than twenty-five words of said Constitution printed in the various languages of the immigrant in double small pica type…no two immigrants listed on the same ship manifest shall be tested with the same slip.

The advocates of the Dillingham Bill were not able to secure a super-majority to overcome Taft’s veto.   Immediately following their defeat, they switched tactics, dropping their demands for literacy tests in favor of national quotas that directly regulated the flow of people from around the globe. By the 1920s the quotas had blocked the vast majority of those seeking a new life in America from a path to legal immigration.

Reading the arguments on both sides in 1913, I was struck by how little the debate has changed in a hundred years.

The President’s veto message included the argument that the new immigrants added to the economic wealth of the country and were especially critical in supplying farm labor.  It also made a practical point that the cost of deporting large waves of immigrants would be too high.

On the other hand, the case made by Dillingham and his allies was that these new immigrants of 1913 were different in character than the old “aryan” immigrants; harder to assimilate, prone to live “with their own” in crowded urban areas, easily exploited by unscrupulous employers, and more likely to become wards of the state or engage in criminal activities.

One might of thought that a century of contributions to our society by the children and grandchildren of Dillingham’s “undesirable” immigrants might have put these arguments to rest but it appears to be one of the great continuities of American life.

This year, the Museum’s annual Risch Program on Immigration will take place on April 14 at 4pm in the Langhorne Auditorium of the University of Baltimore.  The program, entitled “Songs of Arrival, Stories of Refuge” will feature HIAS President Mark Hetfield and a musical program that links the Yiddish traditions of the early 20th century with performances by today’s immigrants from Africa, Latin America and Asia.   Our history makes it easy to understand this linkage.

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Three Roses for Women’s History Month

Posted on March 26th, 2012 by

A blog post by Research Historian Deb Weiner. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are profiles of three Baltimore Jewish women whose landmark accomplishments are worth recalling, culled from the JMM archives.

Rose Shanis Glick came from Russia with her family in 1911, at age 12. As a young woman she became manager of a loan company. The owner promised she would have her job waiting for her when she returned from getting married, but when she got back, his son was sitting at her desk. So she started her own lending firm in 1932, in the midst of the Depression. Rose used the fact that she was a woman to her advantage. First, she built her business around lending to other women. This was a wise financial move: since women couldn’t get loans from conventional sources, she had the field to herself. She lent to housewives and waitresses, teachers and cleaning women, and entrepreneurs like herself. Second, she developed a great slogan: “Let me handle your financial problems as only a woman can.” It worked: soon she was serving all kinds of people.

Even as her company grew, Rose kept a personal touch. She lent money for purposes that more established companies wouldn’t touch: for a winter’s supply of coal, for Catholic families to buy school uniforms, for a taxi driver to get a license, for a gambler to pay off a Pimlico race track debt, for a woman to get an abortion. (Her husband disagreed with her over this last loan, but she told him it was better to help the woman go to a competent doctor, rather than get a cheap and dangerous procedure.) She loaned striking Bethlehem Steel workers money to tide them over until they went back to work, at no interest. During World War II she waived the interest on loans to customers serving overseas (and also sent each of them a pack of cigarettes).

Shanis’s reputation grew to the point that a Baltimore Sun columnist began calling her “The Lady Santa.” Combining her instinct for helping people with a shrewd business sense, she started using the nickname in her advertising. She became extremely successful—eventually, there were nine Rose Shanis Loan operations. She loved her work so much that at the end of her life she had her children bring her monthly business reports to her death bed. Her son took over the business after she died.

Rose Shanis in 1924.

Rose Zetzer became one of only five woman lawyers in Maryland in 1925. Unable to get a job at an established firm—though some offered to hire her as a secretary—she worked on her own before forming Maryland’s first all-female law firm with partner Anna Carton in 1941. (Two other women later joined the partnership.) Zetzer also waged a campaign to join the male-only Maryland State Bar Association, which finally admitted her as its first woman member in 1946. She and other female lawyers had formed the Women’s Bar Association in 1927; she served as president for several years.

Zetzer was a champion of legal aid for the poor, becoming the first woman to serve on the board of the Legal Aid Bureau. She devoted herself to Jewish causes as well, including Hadassah and the Jewish Big Brother League. Rosalie Silber Abrams graduated from the Sinai Hospital School of Nursing and served as a nurse in the U.S. Navy before marrying and raising a family. At age fifty, she decided to embark on a political career. She won election to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1966 and became a state senator four years later. During her eighteen-year career, she helped pass bills focused on patient rights, child welfare, mental health care reform, environmental protection, and women’s rights. Her accomplishments included the creation of the state’s Health Service Cost Review Commission, a groundbreaking initiative to control hospital rates and enhance patient care.

Chosen Senate Majority Leader in 1979, Abrams was the first woman to hold a major leadership post in the Maryland General Assembly and also became the first female chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. She retired from the Senate to head the state Office on Aging in 1983, where she served until retiring in 1996. Though she began her political career relatively late in life, her background in health care, confidence, and practical political skills gained her the respect of her colleagues and made her an exemplary advocate for health and welfare issues.

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Highlights from Docent Training

Posted on February 14th, 2011 by

By Robyn Hughes, MA

Yesterday I attended docent training for the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s Spring exhibition titled Loring Cornish: In Each Other’s Shoes. This exhibition explores the shared experiences of African Americans and American Jews which include: violent persecution, discrimination, poverty, transcendence, hope and prosperity through the prism of the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The creator of the exhibition, Loring Cornish, is a Visionary Artist who utilizes found objects as the medium for his three dimensional vividly colored mosaics. Mr. Cornish explained to us at the docent training session that he felt deeply inspired to create an exhibition that has a social action theme.

As I entered the exhibition, I felt as though I was embarking upon a journey back in time to the Civil Rights era southern United States. The large brilliantly colored pieces of art which filled the gallery were replete with Civil Rights era iconography, which included images of a large gold painted peace symbol and Civil Rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy. The first piece that I viewed was titled Target Shalom (peace), which featured the aforementioned Civil Rights leaders with drops of blood on one side of the piece and a large gold colored peace symbol on the other side. I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of the black colored background with the contrast of the bright gold colored peace symbol. This juxtaposition of light and dark colors is a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition. This use of color opposition reminded me of the contrast between the feelings of fear and despair, and the feelings of idealism and hope, which were all recurrent themes that existed as a constituent part of the collective consciousness of the Civil Rights Movement.

The second piece that I viewed was titled March on Washington. This piece was filled on one side by square shaped white colored glass pieces which were joined together to create the soles of human feet, which were set against a black background. The instant that I saw this piece, it evoked images in my mind of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC.

The third piece that I encountered was titled Montgomery Bus Boycott. This piece was composed of pieces from a variety of brand name tennis shoes such as Nike and Reebok. The pieces of white and camel colored shoes together formed the words Montgomery Bus Boycott. As I gazed at this piece, I reflected upon the juxtapositions of the lack of civil liberties and of the poverty that many African Americans and American Jews faced in the past in contrast with the civil liberties and the economic prosperity that many from both communities enjoy today, due in large part to the Civil Rights Movement.

The fourth piece that I explored, titled Souls Awaiting Justice, was for me the most powerful piece in the exhibition. The front side of the piece was covered in brightly colored glass stones, which Mr. Cornish explained symbolized the hope, the prosperity and the achievement of African Americans and Jews; while the opposite side of the piece featured leather, which was meticulously sculpted into a representation of dead bodies. The base which was created by Rashaud Williams in collaboration with Mr. Cornish featured a six candle menorah meant to represent the six million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust) and chains which symbolized the enslavement of African Americans. I was moved by the sense of hope that was offered by the one side of the piece and I felt a deep sense of loss when I viewed the opposite side of the piece. I imagined both the graphic sight and smell of dead charred human flesh that is found in mass graves.

My journey through this powerful and evocative exhibition culminated with the vividly colored piece titled Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going. This piece dramatically depicted the transformative sojourn of the African American and the American Jewish communities and the optimism that such a sojourn engenders. This one of a kind exhibition has made the Civil Rights Movement, which was created and experienced by African Americans and American Jews real for me in a personal way that can not be replicated by a two dimensional documentary, lecture or history text book.

*photographs by Jennifer Vess

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