Passports – Please!

These snapshots were taken when we arrived in St. Petersburg yesterday. The welcoming commitee:


The chauffeur:


Jeffrey and some of the gang:


Jeffrey, his dad, and me:


Morty belongs to our fan club. He presented Jeffrey with a water bottle.


Morty was born in 1920. One of Morty’s daughters became deathly ill in cold weather. So Morty, his spouse, and his young children moved from NYC to St. Petersburg in 1953. You might call them health refugees.

They were greeted by a huge KKK sign at the Gandy Bridge, warning members of a particular religious group, and people of a particular racial background, to stay out of town.

Morty had worked for a NYC paper company, and applied for a similar job in St. Petersburg. The manager said Morty was qualified but would not be hired because the company did not employ “Hebrews”. Morty replied that he did not lose both eardrums in the U.S. Army for the manager’s sake, to be told that he would not be hired because of his (particular) religion. The manager said, “Maybe we can work something out. I need someone to sweep the floor.”

That was St. Petersburg, Florida, USA, in 1953.

How things have changed! Today, even the minority who still think as the KKK and the manager did, would hide it. St. Petersburg has bicycle lanes, universally available social services, anti-discrimination laws, the Dali Museum, the Florida Orchestra, the Florida Holocaust Museum. It has been transformed. By immigrants. Some (currently 10% of the local population) from abroad. And some, like Morty, from different “sovereign states” of our Union.

Morty and his family could flee the deathly cold, and victims of Old South bigotry could flee to places like New York (where everyone’s a minority so bigots’ influence is diluted), because they didn’t need passports.

Freedom of movement saved Morty’s daughter, and transformed St. Petersburg.

Millions of refugees don’t have that freedom. Their talents are lost in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey and Pakistan, in lawless Congo and Somalia, in Bangladesh and Malaysia and Thailand, and more. Their lives are on hold, sometimes forever, because they can’t go back, and the world won’t let them go forward. The right to emigrate is meaningless without a right to immigrate.

One can’t have too many passports. On this Israel Independence Day, think of how things would have been in 1933-45 if Europe’s Jews had had second passports from neutral or distant countries. Or if there had been an Israel to accept them. Or if the world had not sealed its borders to them – as it has sealed its borders to others since, among them the Palestinian Arabs denied resettlement even by countries that desperately need their talents.


We think George Washington would have extended generous protection to refugees. In 1790, he wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, referring – note well! – to “inherent natural rights” (echoing the Declaration of Independence):

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

When people of good will who can support themselves are able to move as freely as the birds and armadillos – as most people (Caucasians, anyway) were free to move to the U.S. through most of its history – there will be many fewer refugees and much less suffering in the world. Human Rights First might then dissolve, its work done. And that would be a happy day.

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