For Jews, the issue of immigration is deeply personal. In 1905, my grandfather arrived in this country at the age of 18. His name was David Kamenetz. He emigrated from the town of Zagar (now in Russia) to escape czarist persecution. He came here to work hard and live in freedom.
Grandpa settled in Jewish Baltimore and became a tailor. As a “greenhorn,” he married my grandmother, Dora Singer, and together they raised four children. He later brought over his siblings and his parents and gave them a home too.
Grandpa lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and operated Kay’s Tailors in Hamilton near the county line. He had some struggles but never lost faith in our country. He faced bigotry firsthand when he was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. But he remained always optimistic. He paid his taxes and obeyed the laws. He attended shul without fear of persecution, and we were all raised Jewish.
Grandpa taught us to love this country’s opportunities. He taught us by example that if we worked hard in America we could achieve our goals. We believed him because we knew that when he first arrived, he had less than a dollar in his pocket, a lot of hope and knew not a word of English.
I thought of Grandpa when President Donald Trump issued a poorly planned and sloppily executed executive order. The president imposed a religious test for immigrants, a Muslim ban. It didn’t matter that you were to enter this country legally. The result was chaos.
As Jews, we know in our bones what it is like to be discriminated against because of our religion. That is why my grandfather left czarist Russia. We also remember how when the shadow of the Shoah was falling across Europe, Jewish refugees were desperate to escape Hitler’s clutches but were turned away from America by bigoted immigration laws. We know how our own tradition speaks to us, many times in the Torah, to not mistreat or oppress a foreigner “for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). We were taught, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
Grandpa never became a citizen; for his whole life he filed his papers as a “resident alien” in the land of Maryland. But because of the opportunity he was granted to earn his way, his four children and 14 grandchildren were allowed to become productive citizens.
The precipitous actions of Trump remind us of the pharaohs who act arrogantly without consultation with others and rule by diktat as if they are a law unto themselves. Trump’s Muslim ban affronts the very values of the Constitution that make us proud to be Americans. This country’s Founding Fathers were united in the belief that America’s pluralism would be its north star, the very refuge that Thomas Paine wrote would be for the “persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.”
Beginning in early colonial days, for more than 350 years, generations of immigrants have arrived on our shores and built the strongest nation in the world. It makes our culture rich and our economy strong.
Every American family has a David Kamenetz, an immigrant ancestor. This is what unites us. This is our story. This is who we are and why we must remain true to our values. And this is why I cry out now and denounce Trump’s assault on our liberty. As Jews, we must lift our voices in defense of these immigrants. This is who we are as a people. This is who I am as the grandson of David Kamenetz.
Kevin Kamenetz is an Owings Mills resident and the Baltimore County Executive.