God Bless America – In thinking about our beautiful country of immigrants and wondering, how does it feel to be a new immigrant in the America of today? History is again repeating itself in the horrendous mistreatment of the Central American refugees.
“God Bless America” was written by Irving Berlin one hundred years ago (1918) while Berlin was serving in the Army, but he set the song aside at that time. Berlin, born Israel Baline, was the son of a Jewish cantor fleeing persecution in Russia. With the rise of Hitler, in 1938 Berlin felt the time was right to release “God Bless America,” as a peace song. The backlash was immediate. Critics said a Jewish immigrant shouldn’t get to celebrate America as his (Berlin also wrote “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and the popular Thanksgiving song “Plenty to be Thankful For.”)
In 1940, an American Nazi sympathizer wrote in his organization’s pro-Nazi newsletter “(I do) not consider G-B-A a ‘patriotic’ song, in the sense of expressing the real American attitude toward his country, but consider that it smacks of the ‘How glad I am’ attitude of the refugee horde of which Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘We wish no further additions to the persons whose affection for this country is merely a species of pawnbroker patriotism – whose coming here represents nothing but the purpose to change one feeding trough for another feeding trough.”
Does this response to Irving Berlin’s beautiful, patriotic, and now much beloved song sound familiar? Whether emigrating from Europe to America to escape religious persecution (the Pilgrims), starvation from the great potato famine (Irish), abject poverty, exploitation, and violence (Southern Italians and Sicilians), oppressive legislation and poverty (Eastern European Jews), or gang violence and rape (today’s Central American refugees) America is a country of immigrants and refugees. This is our past, our present, and our future. Irving Berlin arrived in America when he was five years old, the same age as many of the children being torn away from their mothers and fathers, some without any hope of ever being reunited with their parents. Imagine if Israel Baline had been torn from his mother’s arms, would we have the beautiful musical legacy given this country by one of her most famous sons?