By: Gabriel Cwilich, Professor of Physics, Professor of the Graduate Program in Mathematics  | 

A Letter to the Students of YU About the Immigration Crisis

By: Gabriel Cwilich, Professor of Physics, Professor of the Graduate Program in Mathematics  |  February 1, 2017

I am away from campus this semester, but trying to follow as best as I can the news from YU; I must confess that I was surprised, and in some sense disappointed, that your newspaper, which  supposedly reflects the concerns of the student population, does not carry even one single line about the crisis unleashed by the ill-conceived and cruel Executive Order on Immigration from President Trump, which represents a shocking departure from America's core values of compassion and kindness, introduces the dangerous precedent of religious profiling on persons trying to reach our country, and shuts the doors to the most vulnerable people in the world.

A cursory look at the front pages of student newspapers around the country, and in particular in all the universities of our city, can immediately show the concern and indignation of student leaders who have joined the many professional organizations, academic groups, business and technology leaders, and civil organizations that have mobilized around the country to repudiate these discriminatory policies which by now more than 18,000 American academicians (including 50 Nobel Laureates and several hundred members of our National Academies of Sciences, Arts and Engineering) have identified here as detrimental to our national interests; their effect will be felt even among some of our own YU faculty members who have been placed at risk and potentially our students.

I would have guessed that a University in which the immense majority of the student body has relatives who arrived to these shores as immigrants or refugees escaping the war in Europe or the Holocaust would be particularly sensitive to this issue. Yet, when, with thousands of New Yorkers, I went on Saturday evening to JFK to express that hate and discrimination have no place in this city and that we welcome the people who the administration is trying to push out, I could not find YU students in the crowd.

I have a confession to make; I left my home, where I was convalescing these last few days, to go to JFK on Saturday night because this issue is quite personal in my case. Not only because I was once an immigrant arriving to that same airport many decades ago, fleeing persecution and anti-Semitism in the country where I was born, but because my four grandparents also were immigrants who left Eastern Europe in search of a better life and to escape the horrors of war.

As a physicist I travel a lot and have many dear friends among my colleagues in Eastern, Central and Western European countries (I will happily join them in a few weeks); although their friendship is dear to me, there is always a voice in the back of my head when I meet a new friend, thinking of asking that impossible and perhaps unfair question: “Did you ever ask your grandparents what did they do, how did they react when the relatives of MY grandparents were shoved in those trains to the camps? Did they know? Did they protest? Did they even fantasize about placing their bodies in front of those trains?” And I always wondered what I would have done in their place, if I would have had the courage of my convictions or not. And now I have two grandchildren in this country (ages six and eight) and I know that very soon they will ask me the same question: “What did you do when the most deprived among us were turned back at our doors?” And I needed to be able to have an answer for them.

It is my hope that the current students of YU, who in due time will face the same question from their grandchildren, will be able to provide an answer too.

But since I do not want to finish this letter in a tone of bleakness and remonstration, but in one of great hope and, yes, happiness, I want to share something with you.

This Sunday I spent the afternoon in Lamport Auditorium at the swear-in ceremony of our new US Congressman in Washington, Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican American to be elected to Congress, and a dear friend of YU. It was a joyful occasion, although we were all aware of the difficult times for the republic. Thousands of people from all colors, creeds, religions and ethnicities filled the auditorium and spilled into the hallways and street, and many wonderful artistic groups from all over the city performed. Imams, priests and reverends from different denominations addressed the crowd. We heard words from the most important political figures in our state, including several US congressmen, the Manhattan and Bronx Borough Presidents, our Mayor, our lieutenant governor, Senator Schumer, and many dignitaries from Albany and City Hall. Most of these people had been with me the night before in JFK, making sure that the last of the arriving people who had been targeted by the administration could gain access to this country.

No speaker failed to thank our university for hosting them, and to point out how fitting it was that an institution which flourished among the Jewish refugees arriving to Washington Heights many decades ago and welcomed new immigrants to the neighborhood was now seeing those immigrants come of age and sending one of them, also an immigrant, to Congress. I wish more than just a handful of YU students would have been present and heard that wonderful coming together event, in the same auditorium where only a few weeks ago words to keep us apart were spoken.

But my joy was truly complete when, to close the event, we all listened to one of our Roshei HaYeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, give the final benediction; with his permission I am quoting generously from his speech.

“Almighty G-d, Master of the Universe, in these trying times when sacred American ideals are under assault and facts themselves are questioned, we beseech You to grant wisdom, courage, vision and compassion to Congressman Adriano Espaillat.

[…]

Ours has always been a community of deep and abiding faith. Of equal importance we are, and always have been, a community of immigrants, people like yourself who came to these shores in search of a better life, people who arrived so vulnerable -- seeking something better, searching for opportunity. Many of the original Jewish members of this community and so many others came here as refugees, fleeing horrible conditions in their native lands. Congressman, may you be blessed to advocate for the noble ideals that are emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty. May you proudly advocate for the American dream that ours is a land of opportunity, a country that provides safe harbor from tyranny, a land that provides religious freedom, and gives everyone a chance to succeed.

[...]

The prophet Isaiah, in a passage read by Jews throughout the world on our Holiest day—Yom Kippur—admonishes us: “loosen the chains of injustice, untie the cords, set the oppressed free.  Share your food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, clothe them.”

These Biblical values call upon us to protect every person, regardless of their identity: be they male or female, straight or gay, immigrant or American born, indigent or wealthy, Republican or Democrat, healthy or ill, Jew, Christian or Moslem, people of all faiths or people of no faith. Everyone is entitled to warm and affordable housing; everyone is entitled to nourishing meals; everyone is entitled to education, healthcare, and clothing.

May you, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, serve as an agent of Almighty God to unite our community and advance the American dream. May you safeguard these cherished values and make them into a reality. Let us say Amen!”

From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Rabbi Schwartz, for bringing us hope and showing us the noble way at this juncture. Let each one of your words become a beacon of light for ALL the members of our University in the difficult days ahead.