Looking back on the pandemic over the last year, one significant thing has changed for me: my state of mind. Instead of feeling present in the moment and mindful, as I initially did months after the onset, and being grateful for what I had previously taken for granted, my mood markedly altered. I began to increasingly feel, especially as the presidential elections approached, and for several months afterwards frustrated and angry. I was – and still am – deeply concerned about the direction our country seemed to be going.
To help keep from giving way to despair, I committed myself to studying why this is happening. I thought that this approach was not only a positive and productive way to deal with the situation. It is also that intensive study, which is highly valued in the Jewish tradition, would give me the kind of insight I was looking for and a measure of solace. In the process, I read extensively – both fiction and non-fiction – to try to gain a more in-depth understanding of what has been going on and to get an idea of what the future might bring. In the end, it turned out to be a very satisfying experience, reminding me of some things I had been aware of before but had not thought about in a while, as well as learning some things completely anew.
Here are three major takeaways from this intellectually stimulating endeavor:
• Populism, nativism, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism, all of which have recently reared their ugly heads, are not new phenomena; they are deeply embedded in the history and culture of the United States.
• Magical, fantastical, and conspiratorial thinking are also deeply ingrained in our nation’s history and culture. But in the late 1960’s and 1970’s they became much more prevalent and with the advent of social media, they have toxically spread as wildfire in recent years, resulting in the undermining of truth by blurring fact and fiction.
• Since the 1980’s, the income and wealth gap in the country has sharply increased with the top 1 percent getting a much larger piece of the economic pie comparable to what existed in the 1920’s prior to the New Deal.
Taken together, these disturbing trends help explain the divisiveness and extreme polarization that has been taking place for the past several years, if not more, and provides a basis for understanding the deeper roots of our current political predicament. Further, these trends help explain – and have brought in their wake — the heightened level of resentment and grievance politics we have been experiencing, which clearly led to the armed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. They have also contributed to other less harrowing but troubling anti-democratic measures, including recent efforts in a significant number of states to restrict voting and limit the ability to peacefully protest.
To make matters even worse, extremist voices – voices that would have been marginalized in the past – have received mainstream credibility and legitimacy in a large segment of the Republican party. Indeed, even though Trump is no longer in office, these voices have not abated; in fact, they seem to have gotten bolder and shriller, as they continue to expound the Big Lie about the election’s outcome and continue to spew other utterly patent falsehoods. This has had – and continues to have – unmistakable negative consequences not only domestically, but also have resulted in the diminished standing and clout that the United States now regrettably has in the world.
Through his rhetoric and actions, President Biden has been arduously trying to change course, but he is getting fierce resistance, even though his policy proposals themselves seem to enjoy wide popularity. What, then, lies ahead? It is always hazardous to predict the future, but based on my reading, in the wake of the pandemic, there are two possible trajectories our country could go. On the one hand, the pandemic could help inspire, as it did during the worst of the outbreak, to greater solidarity and cooperation among the population or, as the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has referred to it, going from a mentality of “me to we.” This, of course, is a lovely sentiment, but as much as I hope for this transformation it is unlikely in today’s highly charged political environment.
On the other hand, it is possible we could move in a more anti-democratic direction. As Anne Applebaum starkly put it in her haunting new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism: “It is possible that we are already living in the twilight of democracy…that a new generation of clercs, the advocates of illiberal or authoritarian ideas, will come to power in the twenty-first century, just as they did in the twentieth; that their vision of the world born of anger, resentment or deep messianic dreams could triumph.”
Which way the United States ultimately goes has profound implications for all Americans, but especially for Jews. Indeed, compared to our long history of persecution, Jews in this country have heretofore experienced unprecedented acceptance, freedom, and prosperity. But if the anti-democratic, if not authoritarian, forces that have been unleashed prevail and gain increased influence, then all of that will be placed in serious jeopardy. Nevertheless, given the chilling echoes of the past and the high stakes involved, it seems that the Jewish community could be mounting an even more energetic and vigorous response to this potentially untoward development.
Every Shabbat after the Torah service we stand and say a prayer for our country. But study, like the kind that I have undertaken, and prayer alone are insufficient to fight back those seeking to undermine our democratic way of life. Study and prayer are wonderful intellectual and spiritual exercises, but to meet this challenge they must, as the Jewish tradition instructs, lead to action. As the Talmud states in Pirkei Avot 1:17: “[Shimon Ben Gamliel] used to say study is not the most important thing, but action.”
Indeed, it is going to take concerted and forceful action to strengthen our democratic institutions, values, and norms. What does this mean? It means voting; contributing money to political campaigns; writing and calling one’s respective Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen; becoming involved in civic and educational organizations – and much more. This is essential because historically Jews have only flourished in societies in which the values of tolerance, pluralism and diversity are prized. It is also essential because a strong America is key to the safety, security, and survival of Israel, something of concern to the Jewish community, particularly in view of Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony. Let us hope and pray that my apprehensions are just that – and they do not actually come to fruition.