The Statue of Liberty is a secular French immigrant, a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. When the statue was dedicated in 1886, it symbolized the two countries’ commitment to Enlightenment ideals.
But while the statue is a potent symbol for all Americans, Jews have repeatedly used its image to represent their identities as American Jews. Building upon the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed inside the base of the statue, Jews have conflated the identities of Lazarus and the statue, identifying the Statue of Liberty as a Jewish symbol and, more so, as a Jewish woman.
As literature scholar Esther Schor recounts in her excellent biography, Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew whose family had been in the Americas for generations, was already a well-known poet with a demonstrated interest in assisting Ashkenazi refugees when she wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883.
Lazarus had been asked to create a poem to help solicit donations to fund a pedestal for sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s monumental statue formally called “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Her poem, which received instant attention, renamed the statue “Mother of Exiles” and indelibly connected the statue to refugees and immigrants, welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Jews began utilizing the symbol of the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of welcome for Jewish immigrants and refugees almost immediately, even before a plaque containing Lazarus’ poem was added to the statue in 1903, five years after her death. Yiddish poets utilized imagery of the statue, including immigrant poet Abraham Liessin, who wrote his poem “Statue of Liberty” in 1897.
Jewish references to the statue continued through the 20th century, particularly in support of policies that allowed European Jews to emigrate to the U.S. in times of crisis. Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play “The Melting Pot,” which popularized that phrase, utilized imagery of the statue in its overly dramatic dialogue.
A year later, the journal of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (now known simply as HIAS), the world’s oldest refugee resettlement organization, imagined Lady Liberty opening the gate of the U.S. for Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The accompanying biblical verses referencing opening gates for the righteous made lenient U.S. immigration policies a biblical mandate.
Likewise, an extraordinary Rosh Hashanah card printed around 1900 features the Statue of Liberty nestled within the Jewish traveler’s prayer. Amidst an assortment of American and traditional Jewish themes, a banner labels the card “L’shanah tova shifskarte” (“A good year ship ticket”). The statue is appropriate on a Rosh Hashanah greeting card precisely because Lady Liberty is not only an American symbol, but a Jewish one.
While many Americans utilized the Statue of Liberty in midcentury patriotic pageants, to Jews producing and viewing such pageants she was seen as specifically welcoming Jewish immigrants. Following World War II, as historian Rachel Deblinger documents, American Jewish organizations used images of the Statue of Liberty to encourage Jewish and non-Jewish audiences to give money, volunteer and advocate on behalf of Displaced Persons in Europe. In 1968, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry organized a protest on behalf of Soviet and Polish Jews at the statue.
The Statue of Liberty reached the apex of its Jewish identity in its repeated use in menorahs — a particularly appropriate combination, as American Jews have long used Hanukkah to celebrate the particularities of American Judaism. In Mae Rockland Tupa’s “Hanukkah Lamp” (1974), she assembled a menorah from plastic Statue of Liberty figurines and dime-store American flags. Tupa turned half of the figurines backwards, representing both America’s admission of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century and its refusal to allow many Jews refugees to enter the country during World War II.
Likewise, as Grace Cohen Grossman explains, Manfred Anson’s “Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp,” created for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, uses casts of statue figurines accompanied by significant dates in Jewish history. As a menorah, the Statue of Liberty lifts her lamp in a salute to uniquely American Jewish practices.
Some Jews explicitly conflated Emma Lazarus with the statue.
During World War II, the women’s division of the Jewish section of the International Workers Order took Emma’s name. Becoming the independent Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs in the 1950s, its members called themselves “the Emmas” and advocated for Jewish socialist ideals they saw represented in the statue.
Linda Glaser’s 2010 illustrated children’s book, “Emma’s Poem,” carried the subtitle, “The Voice of the Statue of Liberty,” illustrating some Jews’ position that Lazarus was the authentic “voice” of the statue. The book is distributed for free to Jewish and interfaith families by PJ Library as part of program to strengthen families’ Jewish identities and practices.
In recent years, the Statue of Liberty has been used as a symbol of Jewish resistance to the general political climate, and to the Trump administration’s immigration and refugee policies specifically.
Last year, the Forward’s Maia Efrem responded to news that neo-Nazis identified Jewish-sounding names with an “echo,” a symbol consisting of three parentheses, by placing her own echoes around images of notable Jews, including the Statue of Liberty.
During Hanukkah 2015, when Trump campaigned on a promise to ban Muslim immigrants, HIAS promoted an image of the Statue of Liberty as a menorah, with the words “My people were refugees, too.” HIAS, which has joined legal challenges to Trump’s executive order halting refugee resettlement, has repeatedly returned to using the symbol to advocate for resistance to the administration’s policies.
In using the Statue of Liberty as a Jewish symbol and a political symbol, these organizations draw on a long history of Jewish identification with the statue. By now, Jews can use the statue to advocate as Jews on behalf of others precisely because they have already recognized her as a Jewish woman.