Educating Immigrants

Address delivered before the Educational Alliance in the vestry rooms of Temple Emanu-El, New York City, December 18, 1904. A clipping found in the papers of Carl Schurz in the Library of Congress taken from the 12th annual report of the Alliance, pp. 73-77. The address was originally untitled.

by Carl Schurz

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen:

In order to come here I had to break a solemn vow I had made to myself to stop public speaking and to devote my time entirely to my quiet literary occupations. But my highly valued friend, Mr. Isidor Straus, described to me so impressively the important work done by the Educational Alliance in a cause which has always been very near to my heart, that I could not resist his request that I should say at this your annual meeting at least a few words of appreciation and sympathy. I can do this only in the way of an entirely offhand familiar talk for which I have asked Mr. Straus in the carriage, as we came here, to give me the points desirable to be touched. The importance of the task undertaken by your association cannot be over-estimated. There is in this City of Greater New York the greatest aggregation in the whole world of people of the Jewish race and faith — some 600,000 to 700,000 of them. They are mostly new-comers, fugitives from injustice, tyranny and oppression, poor, and in every sense strangers in this land which is to be their future home. You have undertaken, as far as your influence reaches, to do your best to lead them on the path of civic virtue and of private and public usefulness. Truly a noble, a necessary and a vast enterprise beset with incalculable difficulties and responsibilities.

During one of our municipal election campaigns I once heard a public speaker — if I remember rightly it was Mr. Jerome — make the remark that if we wished to come into contact with true and ardent American patriotism, we must go not to Fifth Avenue, but to the Jewish quarter on the East side, because the people living there, who were fugitives from the most cruel persecution, felt and appreciated the blessings of American liberty more keenly than native Americans, who had enjoyed those blessings from the cradle up, possibly could appreciate them. I believe this is in a great measure true. Nothing could be more natural than that those who in their native lands have been kicked and cuffed by a despotic power should most keenly enjoy the freedom of action and movement, the security of their rights, and the large opportunities for bettering their condition which they enjoy here — more keenly indeed than those blessing are appreciated by many persons that have never experienced anything else. I have frequently observed the same kind of fervid American patriotism among other classes of foreign-born American citizens.

It should be — and, no doubt, largely it is — the natural desire, the highest hope, and the most earnest endeavor of such people to do the best they can towards preserving the free institutions and the beneficient opportunities to which they owe such invaluable benefactions. But as to the question how this is to be done, such people cannot be presumed to have brought much wisdom with them from their native lands. This is, after all, the main question. The freedom they find here presents with great opportunities also great temptations, and some of those temptations are of a very dangerous kind — especially dangerous at the earliest period of their presence here to just such people as the great mass of the Jewish immigrants are — quick-witted, sober, industrious, I might almost say indefatigable, and restlessly ambitious to better their condition and to rise in the world.

It is an old experience that when wild populations first come into bodily contact with civilized life they are usually inclined to adopt the vices rather than the virtues of civilization. I am, of course, very far from meaning to put the Jewish immigrants in any sense upon the same level with savage tribes. But it must be admitted that when they arrive here from Russia or Poland they enter a world which is entirely new to them; that the teaching by example to which they are exposed in such great business centres as New York is by no means in all respect what it should be; that the new-comer may easily look upon the sharp or crooked, and frequently successful, practices he observes, as the custom of the country, and that he may just as easily be seduced to adopt and follow what he has thus learned to regard as the custom of the country for his own profit. There are, unfortunately, occurrences visible in American life from which the lesson may be deduced that, as to the acquisition of wealth, the shortest way is always the best, and that it will not do to be too squeamish in the choice of means. Such teachings accompanied by seductive example are most dangerous to new-comers in distorting their moral vision and to lead them into paths discreditable not only to themselves individually, but to the class to which they belong — for it is well known as one of the most wanton and cruel forms of the injustice you have to suffer is that any wrong done by any of your people is charged not merely against the guilty individual but against your race.

In this respect it is of the highest importance that the new-comers should be brought under the guidance of the strongest and loftiest ethical influences — of an instruction which teaches not only the ordinary branches of useful knowledge, but which teaches what true honesty is, as distinguished from mere legal or technical honesty — and what true success is, that kind of success which you will remember with satisfaction on your deathbed, and the memory of which you will be really proud to leave to your children — as distinguished from the success which consists in merely accumulating heaps of money or in crushing any number of competitors in business by unscrupulous devices. The inculcation in people's minds of sound notions as to what true honesty in all the various relations of life, and genuine success, success to be morally proud of, really consist in, will do more to steady the character of a population, and prepare it to gain the confidence and esteem of others, than any other kind of instruction. And it is this kind of moral enlightenment which the Educational Alliance is preeminently fitted and destined to impart.

No less important will the influence of this Alliance be in a political sense. I do not mean that it should exert that influence in behalf of any particular political doctrine, or for the benefit of any political party. Quite the contrary. Let me explain myself. If there are 700,000 Hebrews living in this city of Greater New York, they constitute will nigh one-fifth of its population. They can exercise a great political power, a power that in the decision of great public questions may be decisive in this city, and through this city in this State, and through this State in the whole republic. It is not unnatural that the recently immigrated part of this population, that is, the great mass of it, living and moving in surroundings rather new and strange to them, should be easily accessible to the voice of the demagogue, and that the demagogue should endeavor to make them believe that, as Jews, they have separate interests different from those of the rest of their American fellow citizens, and that in order to defend and maintain those separate and different interests they must politically stand together and make their power tall as one solid mass. I say this is not unnatural, for there is such a tendency among other nationalities in this country, and the demagogue plays the same trick on every one of them. I may add that this is a tendency which in any long political activity I have always consistently opposed as vigorously as I could, whenever I found it among my own compatriots.

Such teachings as to separate interests different from those of the rest of the community are mischievous in the extreme, and in their ulterior consequences especially dangerous to the Jews in their peculiar historic situation. The Jews are accused of being clannish. That charge is not without a show of foundation. And just the charge of Jewish clannishness is one of the principal points brought forward by the advocates and defenders of that most shameful and hideous blemishes of modern civilization — the Anti-Semitic movement. Indeed, those who accuse the Jews of obnoxious clannishness omit to say at the same time that such clannishness has for centuries been forced upon them by the most cruel persecution. But all the more necessary it is for the Jews to abandon that clannishness to the best of their ability, and to identify themselves as completely as possible with the rest of the community as to their notions of interests and rights, where the persecution forcing them into clannishness does not exist, and where in fact the interests and rights of all are the same. I am well aware that Anti-Semitism has never been as virulent in this country as elsewhere; but even here there are currents of its malignant and contemptible spirit which on occasion might acquire mischievous potency.

I say, therefore, to my Jewish citizens as their sincere friend, that they cannot give the people under their care any more wholesome and necessary counsel and admonition than this: that in their political action they should most carefully abstain from doing anything that might look like an attempt to form a Jewish party, or like the consolidation of the Jewish vote on the ground of separate Jewish interests; but that each one of them, instead of blindly following any leader, should conscientiously seek to form for himself an intelligent and independent conviction as to what is best for the common interest of the whole people and the whole country, and then act upon that conviction with courage and fidelity. This will be the surest way for them to make themselves trusty and useful citizens of this republic, to secure the esteem and confidence of all the people surrounding them, and to disarm the mischievous prejudices and contemptible malignities which stand in their way. It should not be forgotten that the moral success achieved and the position won by the Jewish population of New York, where it appears far stronger in numbers and more conspicuous than anywhere else, may have a most important effect upon the fortunes of the Jewish race throughout the world; and therefore the work of this association, inspired by such noble motives and devoted to such high ends, cannot be too earnestly commended to the active sympathy of the community.