(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)
I don’t know which makes me more heartsick: the terrible events in Charlottesville and their shockwaves throughout the country, or the fact that I have stopped being surprised by the ugly things white Americans are still capable of doing. Before the election, many white liberals believed that with a two-term black president, the fiftieth anniversary of major civil rights victories, a woman as the Democratic presidential candidate, legalized gay marriage, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we were entering a new era of social justice, with a majority of young people in favor of equal rights for all. In the past year, we have had a rude awakening about how far we have really come and how much further we still have to go.
As Jews, we have a long and painful history of thinking our wandering is done, that we have found a tolerant and enlightened home—in such places as England, Spain, Syria, France, and Germany––only to be rudely awakened, over and over, by bigotry and xenophobia.
Because of that long and painful history, in 1790, the Jews of the Touro Synagogue (then called Yeshuat Israel) in Newport, Rhode Island asked President George Washington whether they were really safe in America, or whether their situation might rapidly deteriorate under a future administration. In response, Washington responded:
… happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…. May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Reflecting on the violence in Charlottesville for the New York Daily News, Shaun King argued that to fight racism effectively, we have to understand how it is baked into our national identity, “Don’t tell me this nation was founded on faith and freedom. It was founded on oppression and violence. What we’re seeing in Charlottesville isn’t un-American. NO! That violence and bigotry are as American as it gets.”
He’s right. The same man who wrote to Touro Synagogue, espousing the belief that equality and freedom should be guaranteed for everyone, also owned hundreds of enslaved people, used slave labor to build the White House, and worked with Thomas Jefferson to embed a ban on discussing slavery until 1808 into the Constitution.
And yet Washington wrote that letter to the Touro Synagogue.
Our founders wrote of creating “A more perfect union.” They recognized that perfection is something we strive for, not something we have yet achieved. It’s why we have a procedure for amending our Constitution.
We have always been this bad. And we have always been better than this. Grappling with this contradiction has always been hard for us as American Jews, sometimes able to “pass” or be folded into the comforts of white privilege, sometimes abruptly and painfully othered, always aware of our own history of persecution, less comfortable with the thought that we might be aligned with the persecutors. When I was little, I once asked my father why we had to feel guilty about slavery when our family had never owned slaves. He responded that our family came to this country in part because it was a place of opportunity—but that opportunity and economic bounty was built through generations of slave labor. We benefitted from that inequality even though we had never participated in it. He made me conscious that while America was a safe and comfortable home for us, other people didn’t have the same experience, and we had a responsibility to make the country a safe and welcoming place for them as well.
We need to own our past and present sins while holding on to our aspirations to be better, and never forgetting our civic responsibility of working towards a more perfect union, a place where people of all races and religions can settle in safety—where none shall make them afraid. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get back to work.