Meir Soloveichik, the new Rabbi of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, better known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal in honor ofThanksgiving. He noted with approval what his predecessor Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas said on November 26, 1789, when he expressed gratitude for a government “founded upon the strictest principles of equal liberty and justice.”
Many countries claim to promote liberty, justice, and tolerance. Where Jews are concerned, is America different? Rabbi Seixas thought so, as does Rabbi Soloveichik. Born in America, I do too. The story we tell ourselves is the one we were taught: that Jews had good periods in other countries, but in the end, no matter how long we had lived there, the locals turned against us with hatred or murderous ferocity. America is different.
Not everyone agrees. Historical facts are ambiguous. How you weave them into a story depends on where you come from.
The other week my wife and I saw the recent and very powerful Polish film, directed by a Pole and presented in English as The Aftermath. Banned in parts of Poland because of the controversy it has generated there, this movie paints a brutal and unsparing portrait of the way modern Poles have not come to terms with their nation’s role in doing away with their Jewish neighbors and actively forgetting the millions of Jews who lived among them for centuries. If The Aftermath comes to a theater near you, see it. You won’t forget it soon.
At the screening I caught sight of Svetlana. By coincidence I ran into her again the next day. “All the Russians were there,” she said. “Our listserv sent out the word.”
“What did you think?” I asked her.
“I’m from Lvov,” she said. “The Poles will never change.”
Now called Lviv and part of Ukraine, her town used to be Lvov when it was Polish (and Lemberg before that, when it was Austrian.) So Svetlana is entitled to her opinion about Poles.
“I read in the paper this morning that there is anti-Semitism in a small town in upstate New York,” I told her. “Graffiti, swastika, shaming and beating up Jewish students in school. They interviewed a truck driver who said, ‘The Jews can’t even drive. They already have Sullivan County next door. We don’t want them here.’ He sounds like the Polish farmers in the film.”
“Well,” said Svetlana, “it could happen in America too.”
“I don’t agree with you,” I said. “Those of us who were born here have a strong sense that America is different. You can see it in many ways, like the attitude ordinary people here have for the State of Israel, compared to what they think nowadays in Europe.”
“Maybe,” said Svetlana. “But when I see what Americans did to blacks in Is Mississippi Burning, I don’t see so much difference from other places. It could happen here too, to us too.”
My parents and my grandparents – who came over before the First World War – were very patriotic. They celebrated Thanksgiving and never failed to exercise their civic duty to vote. My own patriotic instincts come from the way they saw America, as a place of tolerance and refuge. I was taught that George Washington told the Jews of Newport, Rhode, Island that America would give “to bigotry no sanction,” that the Statue of Liberty holds up its flame before the golden door, that America took us in when Europe spatus out.
All true, but of course highly selective. America shut that golden door in 1920, and didn’t open it during the Shoah. My parents used to hear Father Coughlin’s viciously anti-Semitic—and hugely popular—radio broadcasts in the 1930’s. If small-town bigots still hate our guts in Orange County, New York, imagine what they think of us elsewhere.
Which facts describe the “real America?” If I were Svetlana, I would wonder.
But I am not Svetlana. Like her, I cannot escape my origins. I understand her perspective, but I don’t share it. The current controversy between the U.S. and Israel over the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, will not convince me that, “Oh there they go again, America turns out to be like Russia and Poland and all the rest of them after all.”
My own experience and that of my family put me squarely with Rabbi Soloveichik and Rabbi Seixas before him. As far as I’m concerned, America may be far from perfect, but America is different.
So today, although I really prefer chicken, it’s turkey for me.