Rebecca Kobrin (Russell and Bettina Knapp Associate Professor of American Jewish History) writes in the Washington Post that the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus is isolating the U.S. even further and that reduced immigration and travel restrictions on Americans abroad shrink our world. Kobrin cites the case of Rabbi Israel Fiedlander, who died a century ago, as an instance in which a foreign-born professor enriched life in the United States and abroad.
This isolationist agenda is starkly different from a century ago. As Europe endeavored to rebuild itself from the devastation of World War I, America and Americans provided much needed funds, expertise, ideas and inspiration — and Europeans welcomed them. Moreover, even in a time of rising xenophobia and immigration restriction, the United States made space for foreign-born professors and students, recognizing their role in fostering a rich academic life at home, as well as furthering the mission and image of the United States in the world.
The life of Rabbi Israel Friedlander (1876-1920) shows just how essential foreign-born professors were to enriching life in the United States and abroad. Polish-born and German-educated Friedlander was drawn to New York at the turn of the century by the offer of a professorship. He was attracted to the vitality of Jewish intellectual life and the exchange of ideas he saw there. He also admired Americans’ civic activism, and after volunteering for the American Red Cross in the Middle East, he traveled throughout Eastern Europe, distributing American dollars, flour and medical aid to those in need on behalf of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.