The universal right to vote and hold public office despite your skin color or religion is a relatively new moral idea. But it is especially new to the state of Maryland. The “Maryland Jew Bill of 1825” ended generations of disenfranchisement of Jews. Thomas Jefferson himself chastised Maryland and compared anti-Jewish bigotry to the infamous auto da fé of the Spanish Inquisition, a painful reference for Jews at that time who were descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Restrictions on Jews holding public office remained in many states, however.
Many Jews emphasize the path-breaking letter of President George Washington in 1790 to the Newport synagogue, and it was indeed a critical moment for federal views of equality. Ultimately there was a successful struggle for full Jewish equality, but this was not the fate of certain other minorities, especially Native Americans and African Americans.
Hundreds of years of betrayal of Native Americans and enslavement of African Americans have left America with deep wounds. Some citizens still cling to a racist worldview and the same pseudoscience and big lies that killed 90 percent of our own families in Europe. We need to make it plain that the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust and enslavement for profit of black Americans — none of these crimes against humanity began as industrial-sized machines of evil. They began as bad ideas inside the minds of a few men who saw the opportunity to steal land and labor based on torture and murder. The only way to guarantee defeat of these toxic ideas is through full universal suffrage and equality.
A related Jewish American heritage issue concerns a little-known debate between George Washington and James Madison, who became the fourth president of the United States. Madison was certain that the majority religion of the time would eventually tyrannize the minority religions if a military chaplaincy was established. Washington, however, felt that military chaplaincy was essential, but also took great pains to respect the rights and the needs of religious minorities in the military, including even Sabbath observance.
The chaplaincy debate is particularly meaningful to me since I spent the last 20 years working with folks in the military and the police. In addition to being a professor, I have been a professional global peacebuilder for more than 30 years, and it became clear to me that military and police were critical to peacekeeping and peacemaking globally and domestically. I have had a relationship with Col. Charles Reynolds, who was one of the most senior chaplains in the U.S. military. Charlie, or Charlie Chaplain, as he loved to be called in the field, is a traditional Baptist minister, and he reached out to me many years ago to study and exchange views.
At great risk to himself, Charlie embraced people of all faiths to prevent violence in very tense and complicated war zones. Charlie has been one of the great unsung heroes of lifesaving in conflict zones, and of religious tolerance and peacebuilding within the military.
Charlie and I worked together more recently to push for religious participation in conflict prevention, management and reconciliation. One must hope that moderate religion remains dominant in the military chaplaincy so that we do not end up divided violently by race or by religion. Last month we brought together virtually a group of Christian leaders from across the spectrum, from very conservative to deeply liberal. It was all in order to pray together for the peace and healing of the nation after the terribly traumatic winter of 2021.
Judaism and the Jewish people should continue to play a vital peacebuilding role in the recovery and flourishing of the United States. The successful American Jewish historical struggle for equality and voting rights suggests that our American role is unique. We are both a religious minority and, at the same time, we have become a very privileged minority. We are a bridge between peoples of all colors and religions, and we need to continue to play a critical role in defending and building this enormous and fragile democracy. We need to add a Jewish flavor to the idea of democracy that may help the country to grow. We need to promote the idea that voting is a sacred right as well as a sacred duty, a mitzvah. Voting is sacred because debating issues with respect, honor (kevod ha-briot) and compassion (ahavat ha-beriot, gemilut chasadim) is inherently Jewish, echoing thousands of years of noble talmudic tradition of debate.
Voting is also sacred because it actually saves lives. It weakens tyranny, demagoguery and the occasional human mob that can be tricked and fooled. Saving lives is a core Jewish heritage, and we must safeguard it for the sake of America and humanity. We have tough work ahead as a human civilization, we must struggle together rationally over the economics of saving the planet’s biosphere, so that we and all the animals can flourish again without threat to our future. These are weighty matters and require vigorous democratic debate that we Jews can strengthen if and only if we remember who we are, where we have been, and give the best we have to offer as guardians of God’s earth.
Marc Gopin is director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.