On Columbus Day… What Can Ellis Island Teach Us About Ebola?

How we treat others matters. Today, banks and schools and government organizations are shut down for Columbus Day—a national holiday that has grown controversial. After all, Christopher Columbus was an important figure in history, but did not treat others well. Today, many are instead encouraging the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day.

Whether you are observing Indigenous Peoples Day, Columbus Day, a day off, or another Monday, today is different. We mark this day in the middle of an Ebola scare here in the United States, and an Ebola epidemic in Africa.

Ellis Island
Ellis Island

Ebola is testing our country. It is testing our medical capabilities and the confidence we have in our healthcare system to contain the spread of a deadly and contagious disease. But, it is also testing our values—our compassion and our concern for the dignity of all. It is testing how we treat others.

Dallas, Texas, is where this country’s first Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan, was hospitalized. Dallas County Judge  Clay Lewis Jenkins was determined to respect the dignity and well-being of Mr. Duncan’s family, when Mr. Duncan was diagnosed, when he was treated, and when he died.

While many of us watched with concern and fear for what Mr. Duncan’s diagnosis meant for the health of all Americans, Judge Jenkins made it a priority to show Mr. Duncan’s family that their dignity mattered. On NBC last week, he said that he intends to see to it that Mr. Duncan’s family is treated just like he would want his family to be treated if he were the one in the hospital. He made it clear that he is not throwing caution to the wind, but acknowledging that even while a family is sequestered, they should be treated well and with humanity.

Judge Jenkins is a mensch. He is striving to do right by the public but is finding every possible way to ensure that it doesn’t come at the expense of others.

When I consider how I would react in a situation where in order to address the needs of many I may have to cut the liberties of few, I can’t say that I would be as determined to consider the dignity of a few. I could only hope that I would, because though it took us some time to get there and though the process is ongoing, ultimately that is what our country was founded upon: the belief that everyone’s rights are important and that the rights of a few need to be protected from being trampled over by the majority.

It is also a Jewish value—recognizing that even when it is difficult, it is important to treat everyone the way we would seek to be treated. Perhaps it is these values that have led me to imagine immigration officials taking the temperatures of any person from Africa and being subjected to an intense screening process before entering our country. As I picture this, I remember the many stories of Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island during the time of a Cholera scare. After traveling hundreds of miles in a crowded steamship, they had to have a “clean bill of health” before being allowed into this country. They could be scrutinized by one doctor after another, subjected to police intimidation, and unfairly treated. As the MyJewishLearning.com article states: “Currency exchange rates and prices of railroad tickets and food were inflated; bribes were demanded; rudeness and cruelty were rampant,” until in 1902, when “a new commissioner of immigration instituted drastic reforms, heralded by signs everywhere demanding ‘kindness and consideration’.”

Now, at JFK we are incorporating Ebola screenings for passengers arriving from West Africa. There is the risk of ostracizing and marginalizing people. While I continue to hope for the safety of everyone in our country, and the world who is faced with the threat of this awful disease, I also hope for dignity. I admire the efforts of people like Judge Jenkins. I hope that screenings and examinations that take place are done in a way that honors the dignity of all people and reflects the highest standards of “kindness and consideration.”

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