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By Steve Slavin
On the off chance that you’re not acquainted with this term, a red diaper baby is someone born to highly idealist parents who strongly advocated social and economic justice, and were highly committed political lefties.
In fact, they might have even been communists or “fellow-travelers” back in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s. But almost no one born after the early 1960s even has a clue as to what a red diaper baby is, let alone knows one.
Emma Lazarus Goldman would have been the perfect name for a red diaper baby. But having been born decades later, only ELG, her parents, several older family members, and her closest friends are aware of her red diaper pedigree.
Emma Lazarus wrote the extremely moving poem which may be viewed at the base of the statue of liberty. These are its closing lines:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Emma Goldman, like Emma Lazarus, was an immigrant who arrived here from Russia as a teenager, and made her mark as a very strong supporter of social justice. Goldman, an anarchist, radical feminist, and supporter of the Russian Revolution, was ultimately deported to Russia for opposing the military draft during World War I.
By the age of eight, our Emma Lazarus Goldman had placed fourth in a citywide public elementary school essay contest with what she herself considered her magisterial “Martin for Peace” entry. Regretfully, her fifteen minutes of fame did indeed last for just about a quarter hour.
Her name appeared on proclamations by the Mayor, Brooklyn Borough President, and Chancelor of the New York City Board of Education, and in a one-minute congratulatory remark by her school principal during the weekly third grade assembly.
Only her parents and a few other family members can remember the title of her essay, “Martin for Peace.” Even as an eight-year-old, ELG knew more about the life of Martin Luther King than just about any other elementary school student in all of Brooklyn. But regretfully, the only known copy of her essay was misplaced, and even she can only remember just small bits and pieces.
And yet, in many ways, she was destined to follow in “Martin’s” spiritual footsteps. In the days after nine eleven, when bigots roamed the streets, looking for Arabs – or even people they thought looked like Arabs – to beat up or even kill, Emma attended her first mass protest.
Then a high school freshman, she began learning about other worthy causes such as police brutality, housing discrimination, civil rights, and, of course, opposing the war de jure. She knew that had Martin still been alive, he would have been marching along with her.
Perhaps because she was a young white woman, though sometimes attracting the ire of the police, not only was Emma never beaten, but she was never arrested either. Even when a protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge overflowed into a traffic lane, the police chose to overlook this major infraction.
So, she didn’t get to write any letters from the Brooklyn House of Detention – or any other jail. In fact, she hadn’t left any known police paper trail. Of course, the FBI might be an entirely different story.
Years before however, at her bat mitzvah, all the guests were treated to a foreshadowing of what would probably be a career as a fighter for social justice. She, and her mom and dad, all wowed the crowd with speeches that surely would have made Martin smile.
If it was already very clear to all of us where Emma got all those radical ideas, the three of them urged everyone, in lieu of bat mitzvah presents, to donate money to causes helping the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and anyone else in need. ELG’s uncle, a CPA, got a big laugh when he reminded everyone that these gifts were tax-deductible.
Emma, although not at all religious, would make four trips to Israel. The first, ironically, was paid for by Birthright, an organization supported largely by very rich right-wing Jews like the late gambling magnate, Sheldon Adelson. Although she had initially been unaware of its provenance, ELG not only quickly caught on, but she became increasingly incensed at the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians.
On subsequent trips, she not only visited Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank, but she began taking part in peaceful demonstrations against the occupation and the suppression of Palestinian basic civil rights. One of the things she found extremely upsetting was how the Jewish settlements, which were usually surrounded with impenetrable walls, were filled with people who had absolutely no physical contact with their Palestinian neighbors.
Just as she had been doing in New York, Washington, and other American cities, ELG took part in peaceful demonstrations for social justice for Palestinians. Again, she imagined that Martin would likely have been there too. It appeared to her that the Israeli Defense Forces often targeted the Jewish American demonstrators for particularly brutal treatment.
A veteran of dozens of tear-gassings by New York’s finest, she was certainly not initially prepared for standing in a group of nonviolent protestors and not just being tear gassed, but also sprayed with rubber bullets. Most upsetting was seeing an American friend who was videoing the demonstration not only having her phone knocked out of her hand by an Israeli’s soldier’s billy club, but having her arm broken for good measure.
Emma and her friends joked among themselves that the behavior of the Jewish West Bank settlers, not to mention the IDF, was enough to turn them into anti-Semites. And yet, they were all aware of how many Jews, heeding the call of Dr. King, and other civil rights leaders, had flocked to the South in the early and mid-1960s to put their lives on the line for the civil rights of Black Americans.
Along with Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and James Chaney, there were two Jewish civil rights martyrs, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who, perhaps not coincidently, were red diaper babies.
The young women among the millennial generation were perhaps the first to enjoy almost equal opportunity with their male counterparts to become doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, or even serious presidential candidates. As a stellar high school and college student, ELG could have easily found a cushy high-paying job. Oh, did I forget to mention that she is very bright and personable, and has a smile that opens doors?
Instead, with the full support of her parents and close friends, she decided on a career in social work. Having gotten her Masters of Social Work and begun working largely with young poor minority children and their parents, she is still demonstrating for social justice.
A very active member of the Black Lives Matter movement that has been largely inspired by the police murder of George Floyd, ELG very strongly believes that not only must we have nationwide police reform and the breaking of the stranglehold over police discipline by the police unions, but that there must be a very substantial defunding of the police and a beefing up of the hiring of well-trained moderators, who could successfully de-escalate confrontations between the police and civilians.
Were Emma Lazarus, Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King alive today, each would very strongly agree with Emma Lazarus Goldman that a great deal of social progress has been made over the last six decades. But in the words of the late Karen Carpenter, “We have only just begun.” It is my hope that in the not too- distant future, a young child will write an essay entitled, “Emma for Peace.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.