Let’s not make “hate” Michigan’s official language

Nearly a century ago, my great-grandparents came to the United States along with my grandparents—who were grown adults—and my father, who was an infant.

They arrived on the heels of the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration of—among other religious and ethnic groups—Eastern European Jews. The act was fueled by xenophobia and anti-Semitism: those who passed the law felt that immigration upset the “ethnic composition” of the U.S. population and that it was important to “keep American stock up to the highest standards” by excluding Eastern Europeans and Jews. They believed that people like my grandparents would spread “feeblemindedness” throughout the nation.

ImmigrationSo when my family arrived from their little village in Poland, which they fled due to hatred and persecution, they arrived in a nation where many people viewed them as incapable of being American because of their background. Despite this hate-fueled anti-immigrant law, my father and his parents were able to thrive here. To build a life for themselves and to make new roots. To start anew. My great-grandparents, though, were never able to settle. They were older and found the language and surroundings difficult to bear. The forced assimilation and anti-Semitism they faced overwhelmed them, so they returned to that little village in Poland.

They were later killed in the Holocaust.

They weren’t alone. More people left the United States than arrived here in the mid-1920s because of harsh restrictions for immigrants.

I share this story with you not because I think you need a history lesson. I share it because we’re up against similar hateful policies today. The people backing them may not be as overt about their intentions, but there’s no denying that the sentiment is the same. We must not allow anti-immigrant laws and racial intolerance to continue eroding our nation’s core values.

It’s 2018. And the moves I’m seeing from our leaders confound me, because they’re not unlike the moves we saw in 1924.

Just two weeks ago, the Michigan House of Representatives passed polarizing and politicized legislation to make English the official language of Michigan. Making English the official language of our state is not only unnecessary, it is divisive, exclusionary and serves no one. Yet the Michigan Legislature seems to think it’s an important use of their time and energy, despite roads crumbling around them.

Young immigrants in Michigan and around the country have been in limbo for months as President Donald Trump and Congress continue to delay action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Ending DACA could send young people back to homelands they barely know to meet a fate that could be disastrous. Yet Congress and our president seem unable to make things right for people who are American in every sense of the word.

Placing farm workers, most of whom were born outside of the US, in unsanitary working conditions is reprehensible. Yet some in the Legislature seem comfortable telling certain employees that they don’t require the same level of safety and care as others.

And these are just a handful of the policies attacking our immigrants instead of welcoming them.

We at the League take these issues facing immigrants seriously. Our policy fellow, Victoria Crouse, has enhanced our work in this area, and in order to bring more attention to the issue, we have created a dedicated section of our website that focuses on immigrants in Michigan. We also have made supporting Michigan immigrants a priority in our 2019 state budget work.

Creating a state that is strong and welcoming is important to me as the President and CEO of the League. But it’s important to me on a personal level, as well. As a descendant of Yitzchak Wispe, I have a commitment to making sure no one leaves this country or this state because they feel unwanted or inhuman.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

When hate comes to town: Where do we go from Charlottesville?

From the First Tuesday newsletter
Sign up for the newsletter and e-news

When I was elected to the Michigan Legislature in 1999, I remember wondering how my ancestors would have reacted. My parents moved here with their families in the early 1920s, fleeing the pogroms in Europe. Thousands were slaughtered in anti-Jewish violence as these publicly sanctioned attacks intensified.

But my family escaped.

I’m humbled to think of what my parents endured as young children—that they were able to evade certain death and be given a chance in this country. My parents had the opportunity to work, to create a living and provide for their family, and to have their children do something that was meaningful. And then I was given a chance to make a mark by helping people living in this state. I know my ancestors would never have thought it possible for their great-granddaughter to hold a seat in government.

voices for racial justiceThat’s why watching events unfold in Charlottesville sparked such a visceral response from me. The vile behavior, the racism, the anti-Semitism and the vitriol on display made me realize what the League as an organization—and what we as human beings—are confronted with. To hear in the days following the violence that the displays were “fine” was deeply concerning. I am a proponent of free speech. But I am also the product of a people who have been decimated by violence and hate. I am sickened when I see these patterns begin to emerge again.

This is not to say that hate has been absent in our nation. Unfortunately, I think we’re getting a glimpse at what’s been out there all along. People feel emboldened by the rhetoric that has become acceptable in our country by elected officials. But I feel emboldened to fight it. Our organization has far more work to do if we’re going to tackle racial justice, social justice and economic justice issues. We have a moral imperative to continue to do the right thing on our end.

We condemn the behavior in Charlottesville, but we must go beyond printed words. We at the League will redouble our efforts to use our platform and work with our allies. As an organization and as individuals, we must be the role models so that our children see the adults around them speak out against prejudice and social injustice.

People now feel they have a license to be public about their hatred. And we have a responsibility to speak out when we see injustice. We can’t continue to say, “This is a fringe element.” We have learned in recent days and weeks that these vocal groups seek to expand and spread their hateful message. There are moments when I can’t believe what I am seeing and hearing, but in those moments I reflect on the statement that Martin Niemöller wrote in response to the rise of Nazi power in Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Fighting the kind of injustice we saw in Charlottesville is what led me to public service. And it’s what led my family to the United States. I refuse to remain silent.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs