This summer, my family and I took an extended trip to Italy. Beyond the beauty of the countryside and the amazing food and art, two particular moments struck me. At the Great Synagogue of Florence, I watched a brief video of the challenging history of the Jewish community in Florence. The next day, as part of a walking tour in Rome, we stopped in front of the Arch of Titus. The arch, a first century CE construction, honors — and depicts in a series of dramatic reliefs — the Siege of Jerusalem. There is even a scene of the Romans carrying the menorah from the destroyed Temple back to Rome.
It struck me in that moment just how deeply engrained the culture of anti-Semitism has been in Europe. Throughout European history, Jews have been seen and hated as the source of all ills. We have been tolerated at best and slaughtered at worst. We have been and, as polls indicate, continue to be “the other.”
Here in the United States, however, we have taken our place in a country of others. Rather than define itself according to any explicit ethno-nationalism, America was built on the underlying philosophy that we are all different, coming from distinct ethnic, national and faith communities, and yet, all equally deserving of freedom and protection under the law. From the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to the New Colossus, America has enshrined the values of freedom and democracy as its founding principles as well as its ongoing mission.
Indeed, for so long, American history has been about expanding rights to more people and working toward greater tolerance and inclusion. America’s commitment to these ideals is one of the reasons the United States has never had levels of anti-Semitism anywhere close to those in Europe. Without question, America’s democratic institutions have allowed Jews in America to thrive, not simply as minorities, but as Americans.
Of course, the gap between American ideals and the American reality has always been painfully and inexcusably wide. For all our progress as a nation, America has yet to effectively grapple with its systemic racism. For all of our invitations to those yearning to breathe free, we still do not know how to handle migrants at our borders. For all our poetic references to equality, we still struggle to honor the rights of women and minorities to live and love as they would like. And, for all our talk of tolerance, we are now measuring a rise in anti-Semitism and hate crimes at alarming rates across the country. Around the world, for the first time since World War II, the pull toward democracy and individual rights appears to have shifted toward authoritarianism and nationalism.
The good news is that our hands are not tied. As Jews, we can and must strengthen and protect the ideals that have sheltered us from discrimination and allowed us and others to flourish. To start, we can share our perspectives and opinions with elected officials and local leaders. We can donate time and money to causes that we believe in. Importantly, we can lend our voices and call attention to critical issues that impact the vulnerable among us. History has proven that when democratic institutions crumble, minorities are the first ones exposed and at risk.
I also think that we can draw on our Jewish values as a way to strengthen
democracy. Our traditions implore us to open our minds to other people’s views and engage in thoughtful debate. To approach difficult topics with questions instead of predetermined answers. To disagree with people and still break bread together. After all, the Talmud is a master class in how to consider multiple views at once. And long ago, though people’s affinities were split between the teachings of Hillel and of Shammai, they continued to respect and be close with one another.
As we head closer to an election year and continue to debate critical issues, I hope we consider just how much this country has given the Jewish community and the world. Now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to stand up for America’s core values and institutions in the pursuit of a more hopeful and free future for all.
Gil Preuss is CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington