Thanksgiving is the ideal time to recall that wonderful folk story of how the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony feasted for a full week of Autumn harvest in 1621 with the Wampanoag Indians, the real first Americans, and their chief, Massasoit.
Grateful to their new-found friends, whom they probably considered to be savages, these first European refugees embraced the Wampanoag who had helped them adapt to their new lives in what would later become Massachusetts. Assuming the accuracy of this version of the first Thanksgiving for now, let’s imagine the significance and irony of this scene in our history: a native population, partly out of kindness and partly out of political self-interest, welcomes a group of immigrants who look, dress, speak, fight, and pray in ways that are entirely foreign. Yet this is not the anticipated scenario of Americans sharing generously with Syrian or Afghani refugees. In our story, the immigrants seeking a new life in America were white colonists, while the Americans upon whose soil they stepped were tribal people of color.
Now, let’s imagine what the world would be like if the Wampanoag had decided that these strange new escapees from religious and political persecutions were an existential threat to their way of life. Let’s imagine Massasoit and his associate Squanto raising an election year ruckus in the tribal confederacy over allowing these people into Wampanoag territory. Would they have gone after the good pilgrims of Plymouth Colony with severe, reactionary measures such as enforced registrations of Christians, deportations and sub rosa threats of harassment?
The idea of American Indians having a formal anti-immigration policy is obviously anachronistic. However, let’s consider seriously that had they restricted or outright opposed the pilgrims’ presence in the 1600’s they might have created serious impediments to the later waves of immigration that made America what She is. Those early immigrants from England to the new world, along with African slaves who were brought here against their will, were the foundation of one of America’s greatest yet most ambiguous legacies: the fact that our entire nation is here because of immigration. It is a tragic irony of history that the Wampanoag’s refusal to eject the early colonists helped to create our multicultural identity, while also opening the doors of misery for American Indian populations over the next four centuries. America grew in economic and spiritual strength by welcoming everybody; American Indians were decimated and demonized in their own home and on their own land by the very people they had originally welcomed.
Each year at Thanksgiving, I give genuine thanks for having been born in America, the descendant of Jews who, like millions of others, fled poverty and persecution to make their homes here. Yet my gratitude is compromised by the ugly scars remaining from the dark legacies of slavery and the near eradication of native Americans. I have long since abandoned the rationale that my Jewish ancestors were being victimized overseas while Americans enslaved and destroyed entire populations. It is absolutely true that my ancestors were not to blame for what others did. But being part of the American heritage means accepting it in toto as my own, its ugliness as well as its beauty. As America wades into the dangerous waters of nativism and draconian immigration restrictions, I am trying to grasp firmly an important guiding principle of my Jewish heritage: the religious obligation to treat strangers in my land with justice. This idea is repeated dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible, for as God reminds us there, we too were once oppressed strangers in the land of Egypt when Pharaoh enslaved us.
This biblical demand for justice and kindness towards the strangers in our midst must become a much louder voice in our troubled national conversations about immigration and diversity. It is this voice that might force us to remember where we as a nation came from, where we must go, and to where we dare not return.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.
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