In 1938, without a port of entry available, one man became dependent on the goodwill and political access of another. That individual was in a unique position to make the case directly with the President of the United States requesting that this German Jewish refugee ought not to be denied access to this nation, due to his physical limitations caused by polio. His argument, “You, Mr. President, also experienced polio and it did not prevent you from seeking and winning this office, permit this individual his opportunity to experience the American dream!”
With that legal waiver, my American story would be insured, as my father and our family would be permitted to make their imprint on this nation. My deep and abiding connection to the United States was framed in that moment.
America remains a work in progress, now just three years shy of its 250th Anniversary as a nation. A portion of the incomplete character of the United States involves resolving the organizing imperative of this nation, to insure for all of its citizens, those born here and those who have yet to arrive on these shores, the opportunity to enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
This season of our founding reminds us of the essential conversations we as a nation need to construct. Politics at times distorts the deep and unspoken fissures of a divided society. The test of a truly extraordinary society is its ability to address its cracks, its ideological divisions, the societal disconnects, and its cultural wars as well as its racial complexities. Confronting its past as it seeks to frame its future offers a pathway for clarity and engagement for our country.
Nor should political divisions silence the body politic. Public discourse represents the essence of this experiment in governing, requiring of each of us to engage with one another around the difficult and unresolved questions concerning what ought to be the defining aspirations of this enterprise. We face a distinctive challenge in bringing those citizens who have lost confidence in and trust for both the institutions of government and its leaders back into dialogue. We remain an unfinished nation. Where we are today does not define the final product of this democracy. As divided and uncertain as we may feel in this moment, this unsettling reality should serve to inspire us in tackling the essential unresolved issues concerning the American experiment.
In the process of self-governing, we acknowledge the miracle as well as the limits of a democracy. In considering its weakness, even as we crave for its success and survival, we confront how this form of political practice is tedious, even frustrating. In our social construct, where there exists a majority viewpoint, we are called upon to respect and honor the voices of the “minority” in whatever forms it may be exercised. “Winning” in a representative democracy is not a zero-sum game!
In recent years, I raised the issue as to whether the Jewish experiment with America may be in trouble. Jews, we are reminded, have a profound stake in this national drama; we have been here from the outset, and we remain deeply and firmly embedded in this narrative. No other society has been as welcoming to the Jewish people as the American experience. And appropriately, Jews have given back to this enterprise, serving this nation both in war and peace, while also thriving and benefitting from its blessings.
The antisemitism we are encountering must not be seen as the reason to pull away but should serve as the impetus for strengthening the seeds of understanding and for building connections. It becomes the imperative for working toward the American dream. Hate can be seen as an opportunity to build from a place of despair in order to construct a framework of wholeness.
At this moment in time, we, as Jewish Americans, in consort with our fellow citizens, must reassert the fundamental principles that frame this democracy:
The Value of Dissent: We affirm the importance of both debate and dissent as core ingredients in the building a robust democracy.
Celebrate Liberalism: In its broadest meaning, “liberalism” is focused on protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual. Government in this context has been established to defend the individual, just as we recognize that government itself can pose a threat at times to liberty. Liberalism must be seen as a treasured principle of a democracy.
The Centrality of Freedom: The basis of the American experiment is the affirmation of freedom, the rights of the individual to petition, to assemble, to pray and to speak. These are the sacred guideposts of this republic.
The Importance of Truth and the Voice of Reason: We acknowledge the central place of truth in any discourse and affirm its central importance to government in insuring the welfare of its people. The capacity to work with one set of truths gives context and coherence to political discourse, framing a shared language of action.
The Ideal of Unity: While unity represents an ideal, consensus and shared commitment become core ingredients in building and sustaining a democracy! Finding the common ground must be understood as a distinctive value.
The Role of Religion: In his writings, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, acknowledging the limitations of the state, suggested that religious ideas and values provided insights to “the impoverished thinking of modern secular society”. We need to celebrate the contributions and messages of religious thought as enriching political actions.
The Meaning of History: The past must not be rejected but rather celebrated, as societies can only build off of their own storylines. There is a rhythm and depth to the American journey that our citizens will need to both understand and appreciate, even as we acknowledge some of the past failings and injustices of our national saga.
Power of Heroes: Societies need to raise up those who inspired, led and sacrificed for the welfare of this nation. Efforts to minimize, question and distort the contributions of these past actors, leaves in its wake a vacuum of heroic voices. In telling our story, we must acknowledge their weaknesses, just as we recount their contributions.