Monday, March 25, 2019

Refugee Descendants: A Convenient Amnesia

They were refugees from a land that had become so inhospitable to them they could no longer live there. The first wars had occurred around religion. There are few fights as intense and vicious as those which arise ostensibly out of religious conviction. The belief that G-d is on their side inevitably marks the understanding of both contenders. Such tribal gods inevitably tend to accept - if not ordain - the destruction of the godless heathen on the other side. That essentially guarantees that the strife will be acrimonious and totalizing in the scope of its deadliness and destruction. 

Such conflicts create a long memory in the peoples among whom they occur, threatening to flare up into conflagration without warning at any unpredictable point in the future. Wars which seem to erupt out of nowhere often have their roots in historical conflicts.

As if the religious strife were not enough, the forces of a powerful country bent on imposing its imperial domination would soon thereafter invade this region rich with resources the invaders were eager to exploit. The conquerors would assume their entitlement to these resources and seek to rationalize their invasion and theft with the notion that might somehow always makes right. 

"Manifest Destiny" John Gast. 1872
Taken to its logical extreme, that notion would play out in a version of rationalization that has informed every conquest from the “holy land” believed to be given by YHWH to the Hebrew people to the “Manifest Destiny” by which European descendants would legitimate their sweep across the North American continent. The fact that there were already people living there, trying to go about their humble lives, would be seen as irrelevant or dismissed as a “tragedy” that seemed to have simply occurred out of nowhere. 

After many years of enduring internecine strife and the international dynamics in which they served as pawns in a larger game of politics and greed, the residents of this land began to leave. They sought safe havens in countries who were willing to take them, hoping to live their lives in peace, to worship as they saw fit, to be able to once again live out natural lifespans not cut short by war and occupation by invaders. 

Their Abuse Would Not End at the Port 

And so they would come in waves to a new land whose promises of freedom and opportunity beckoned so strongly they could not resist. But their abuse would not end at the ports of their new land. They would be forced to endure the suspicion and distrust with which they would be greeted by many in the new land.  

These newcomers would quickly become targets of discrimination and demonization. Themselves descendants of earlier waves of immigrants, those already here would pass laws to make the lives of the newcomers more difficult. 

These laws were designed to tilt the playing field in favor of the beneficiaries of the status quo and to stack the decks such that the newcomers could never change that unfair advantage. Such laws are sometimes cited as if they were a fixed aspect of our nation’s history from its beginnings, like tablets of stone dropped from heaven. In fact, immigration laws always arisen in contexts strongly shaped by the politics of self-interest of the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

And yet, the newcomers would persevere. They would be known for their deep faith, their hard work, their creative expression and their love of family. And in time they would spread out across the country helping it to develop into the marvel of the world, a people who found their strength in diversity and all of the synergistic energy it inevitably generates. 

Sounds familiar, no? 

Don’t be too quick to assume you know who this story is about. 

Surely it could describe the refugees coming to our southern borders today from the hell holes that corporations and the US military and covert forces that support them have created south of our border. It could describe the xenophobia of frightened white people in Trumpland, many of them evangelicals assured that, like the combatants of the religious wars of centuries prior out of which their own traditions sprang, G-d is on their side. Such a tribal god shares their prejudices and affirms if not ordains any dehumanization including violence which might be required to act upon them. 

But this story is not about Trumpland.  And it did not occur in our lifetimes.

The Only Place Willing to Take Them

As a result of my Father’s genealogical research, I have been able to locate my Father’s and my Mother’s family roots in Germany. The Kopferstein family (one of many variations of my Father’s family name that was anglicized to Coverston, among others) and the Ansel family, my maternal Grandmother’s family name, all came from an area of southwestern Germany today called the Palatinate. 

It is a region with a long, violent history, not the least of which is its proximity to the Maginot Line which failed in WWII. This allowed invading Germans to return the favor of the French under Louis XIV who stormed into the Palatinate at the end of the 17th CE. 

This Nine Years War would devastate the region which had already endured the 30 Years War just concluded between Protestant Germans and Catholic Spanish and Belgians and the Peasants War of the 16th CE. There newly arising Anabaptists fought Roman Catholic and Lutheran princes attempting to divide up their realm in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.

By the late 17th and early 18th CE, many Palatines had had enough. They departed the Old World in droves, many of them coming to the only colony willing to accept them.

English nobleman William Penn knew only too well the depravity of religiously based dehumanization and discrimination. As a Quaker, Penn had actually spent time in the Tower of London for the offense of raising questions about the recently re-established Anglican religion. In Penn’s England, just beginning to recover from the ravages of Puritan Oliver Cromwell, there was no room for dissent.  

But Penn had access to wealth and power through his family with which he created a haven in the New World for Anabaptists like himself and the refugees from the Palatinate. He called his new colony Penn’s Woods, Pennsylvania. And into the port of his colony’s gleaming new city - whose name literally meant Brotherly Love - streamed “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, the homeless, tempest-tost” (Lazarus poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty) driven from their homes in a war ravaged Old World.

Ancestors on both sides of my family were among those arriving in the decades just prior to the American Revolution.

The Willful Amnesia of the Now Privileged 

All of the ingredients of the current nightmare in Central America that now stretches to the frontiers of Trumpland were present in the events that drove my forebears from their ancestral homes to begin a new life in a new world. Forces of greed and ego that bred wars made their continued lives there impossible. And the combatants there assured themselves that G-d shared their prejudices and ordained their depravity. 

In both cases the immigrants left out of desperation under the belief that there was no other hope for survival. And they arrived in a land of plenty where they were met with suspicion, prejudice and resentment, discriminated against by beneficiaries of the status quo unwilling to share any of their excess with those who came with only a desire to survive. 

It is almost identical to the story that is playing in out on the borders of Trumpland today. 

Within time, the Pennsylvania Deutsch would come to dominate the region to the south and west of Philadelphia, leaving their mark on the landscape with an Amish culture frozen in time and cultural gifts to the new land ranging from quilts and hex signs to cheeses and baked goods. As the years went by, the sharp, painful memories of an Old War marked by invasions, occupations and religious conflict would fade. More and more these people would see themselves as Americans. And, in time, their place in this new land would come to be seen as given, the new norm, a new status quo with new beneficiaries hell-bent on preserving their privilege. 

All traditions have a point in their history when they are innovations, resisted by the beneficiaries and guardians of the status quo who naturally recognize a potential threat to their own current levels of power and privilege. But in most cases, over time, that which is new becomes the new status quo complete with its own beneficiaries and guardians. With the degree of privilege that new status confers comes a corresponding degree of willful amnesia about one’s origins and the suffering once endured as aliens. 

This is a pattern with a long history. The Elohist writers of Exodus 22 and 23 were intent upon the people of Israel not losing sight of their own history as refugees: 

·         Exod 22:20: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 

·         Exod 23:9: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Elohist writers came from the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th BCE. They understood only too well what it meant to be an asylum seeker. In the face of lost an Assyrian invasion, these refugees from Israel streamed south into Judah where they were often seen as second-class citizens.

The Priestly writers, coming at the end of the transcription and editing process of the Hebrew Scripture, will put it even more bluntly: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
 (Lev 19:33–34)

Priestly writers also understood what it meant to be a refugee. The intelligentsia of Judah had been deported to Babylon after its successful invasion in the 6th BCE. Their ability to write and preserve the religious culture of Judah largely turned on the largesse of their Babylonian captors.

Yet, amnesia developed over time by immigrants and the descendants of refugees who have succeeded in their new lands is a common pattern. Success breeds willful forgetfulness. Indeed, there is nothing to be gained by dwelling on one’s history of hardship once success and the privilege it creates has been attained. But with that willful forgetting comes a major liability – the need to legitimate one’s current privilege.

There is an enormous tendency among those of privilege generally to engage in the fundamental attribution error: I made it on my own hard work. Nobody gave me anything. If I can make it, anyone can. They just have to be willing to work hard enough. If they don’t succeed, it’s because they’re lazy.  

That any single human being’s or group’s experience could be normative for any other individual or group is a pretty shaky assertion on a good day. But it also is based in a fundamentally flawed presumption: the rugged individual.
Truth is, if we look at any given human being’s baby picture and place it next to a photo of them as an adult, a world of changes will have occurred in the intervening time frame not the least of which will be physical. But in every case, the adult who stares back at us will be able to do so only because of the many lives who have touched his or her life in the interim.

The self-made man (because it is almost always men who make such claims) and his tribe is largely the product of self-serving myth. But it plays out in an enormously pernicious manner when it comes to dealing with new refugees: IGMFY.
The Persecuted Turn the Tables 

The descendants of the war-torn Palatinate, successors to the Anabaptists hated by Catholics and Protestants peers alike, would demonstrate this in the election of 2016. It was a campaign driven largely by tribal appeals to xenophobia, much of it couched in attacks on immigrants demonized as rapists and drug dealers, a far cry from the actual desperate refugees seeking asylum from the hell holes created by US policy in their homelands. 

The attacks also took the form of religious demonization with the adherents of the world’s second largest religion, Islam, routinely caricaturized as terrorists, their demonizers oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of terrorist activities in Trumpland are committed by people who look like themselves. 

The electorate of the counties surrounding the City of Brotherly Love where the descendants of the Palatinate settled and now dominate would readily take that bait, voting heavily for a demagogue who appealed to their very worst tendencies. And in the end, the fear of the new refugee and the self-serving appeal of IGMFY would prevail. 

Many of them would claim the mantle of G-d for this tyrant. For people who confuse raw power with religion, as human civilizations have often done, it is not terribly difficult to understand how such a claim would be made. It also provides a convenient means to legitimate their role in bringing a tyrant to power much like the ones who once persecuted their ancestors. Perhaps, most importantly, It is a means of avoiding any kind of blame for the damage he would inflict upon those most vulnerable to a tyrant’s power, much as the Catholic and Lutheran tyrants of the Palatine once rationalized the harm done to their ancestors. 

In the end, the descendants of the persecuted of the Palatine would themselves join forces with the persecutors of Trumpland. After all, they had learned such attitudes from some of history’s best. But in the end, they demonstrated that they had learned nothing at all worth remembering from their own experience in that process. 

There is a reason that prophetic voices periodically feel compelled to remind us of who we are, where we have come from and what lessons we should have learned along the way. Sadly, we human beings seem to have no trouble providing them with reasons to do so.  

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston 2019


Unknown said...

Yes, indeed. This is the way it is. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Humanity must undergo an evolutioary leap in consciousness or perish all together.

MK said...

Forgetting doesn’t take centuries. If it did, the children of recent immigrants would be among the strongest voices against the current regime. Fear of losing what you have is powerful.