Can America Be America When Jews Are Beaten in the Streets?
George Washington’s promise to American Jews helped define this nation. Breaking that promise would define us again.
It happened again. As war raged between Hamas and Israel over there in the Middle East, we watched in horror as American Jews were beaten right here in American streets. Thursday evening a gang of men beat a Jewish man in Midtown. On Tuesday, a gang attacked Jewish diners at a sushi restaurant in L.A. Synagogues were vandalized in Skokie, Tucson, and Salt Lake.
I say “again,” because we must not forget the wave of anti-Semitic violence before the pandemic. In late 2019 and early 2020, attackers beat Jewish Americans repeatedly. The violence culminated in a mass shooting at a Kosher Deli in Jersey City and a machete attack on a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York. For the first time in their lives, friends of mine were afraid to be “publicly Jewish,” to walk outside wearing distinctive clothing that identified their faith.
I want to address why these attacks hurt our nation so much—reasons which echo beyond the simple evil of the assaults themselves. The reasons reach back to the beginning, to the battle over the fundamental character of the country the founders created.
Our public debate has been marked by sharp disagreement over two related questions. First, is the United States of America fundamentally a nation or an idea? And second, is the true character of our nation expressed more by the events of 1619—when the first slaves arrived on American shores—or 1776, when the Founding Fathers signed their name to a declaration that said “all men are created equal”?
The answer to those questions is nuanced. The United States of America is a nation whose greatness (and perhaps continued existence) depends on an idea. And the story of the nation is the story of the battle between the grim realities and systems of 1619 and the virtuous aspirations and emerging movements of 1776.
When the first European settlers arrived on the eastern seaboard, they arrived both as persecuted (think of the Pilgrims fleeing English religious intolerance) and persecutors (the slavers who trafficked in human lives). The advent of slavery on our shores—and the early brutal conflicts with Native Americans—signaled that the new world was very much like the old world. The same systems of oppression were imported to new lands.
Who should be surprised? As I’ve written before, tyranny was long the default form of human government. It was a violent and authoritarian expression of mankind’s fallen nature. G.K. Chesterton said it well. Original sin “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
In many ways, however, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution represented an effort to fight back against man’s fallen nature—by creating a Constitution designed to protect human dignity and to block despots from dominating the land.
But we all know the history. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. The first president elected under the new Constitution owned slaves. The cynic would look at this reality and declare the founding a farce. The ideals were a lie as soon as the words hit the page.
Yet those words were not a farce. They were not a lie. They were a hope, and—critically—they were a start.
And that brings us to American Jews. In many ways, the concrete expansion of American liberty beyond the ruling class of white (mainly) Protestant landowning men began with a touching exchange between our first president and the Congregation Yeshuat Israel in Newport, Rhode Island.
On August 17, 1790 the congregation wrote Washington a letter that was presented to Washington the next day, when he visited the town and when Christian clergy also delivered a message. It’s a marvelous artifact of 18th century communication. After a brief salutation, it begins with a statement of affection for the president:
With pleasure we reflect on those days—those days of difficulty, & danger when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, shielded your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.
The rest of the letter is presented not as a plea for liberty, but rather a recognition of the founding values. “We now,” the congregation wrote, “behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship.”
That’s the text. The subtext, however, is plain. Members of this religious minority, hounded and persecuted across the globe, were seeking assurance. When they gave thanks “for all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration,” they were both acknowledging their present liberty and expressing a hope for an enduring home.
Washington answered with one of the new nation’s first concrete expressions that American religious freedom extended explicitly beyond the bounds of the Christian faith. “All possess alike,” he wrote, “liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” His closing was powerful and important.
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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
The key words—“every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree”—are taken from the book of Micah, chapter four. They’re a beautiful expression of peaceful flourishing in a pluralistic society. Washington referred to that verse almost 50 times in his correspondence. Lin Manuel-Miranda made them famous again by repeating them in the musical Hamilton.
It is no coincidence that the United States is home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world. The presence of a thriving Jewish community is evidence that American aspirations could become reality. Jewish safety and security is thus deeply rooted in the American founding. It’s part of our nation’s origin story.
But it’s hard to think of a greater contradiction of the principles of Micah 4:4 and of Washington’s hope that Jews would enjoy the “good will” of America’s inhabitants than brutal attacks in the street, inflicted solely on the basis of faith.
Indeed, street attacks represent a larger marker of exclusion and persecution. How many times have we seen that nightmare become a recent reality, and not just for Jews? It’s still hard to wrap one’s mind around the brutal murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who was chased through Georgia streets, cornered, and killed.
We’ve seen Asian American men and women assaulted, unprovoked, in broad daylight, including a notorious incident when a man beat an elderly Asian American woman as bystanders merely watched.
Compounding the pain and injustice is a partisan fact: All too many people care more about crimes and hurt more for victims when those crimes and those victims promote partisan interests and advance partisan narratives. One of the great tragedies of anti-Semitism is that it’s found in extremist movements from left to right. Hatred of Jews is so embedded in a variety of even opposing factions that you often can’t begin to presume the faction of the assailant when a Jewish man or woman is beaten in the street, shot in a deli, or knifed in a house.
This much we know, however: If the founding pledge of safety and freedom for Jewish citizens was a leading indicator that the American promise would be kept, then rising danger to Jewish citizens should be cause for profound alarm.
Our nation’s first president told believers in one of the world’s most persecuted religions that they would have a home in this land. That founding promise helped define this nation. Breaking that promise would define us again, but in an entirely different way. America cannot be America when Jews are beaten in the streets.
One last thing …
I sat across from Jonathan McReynolds at a dinner on Friday night, and after dinner he sang this song. It’s a great song for a time of rage, anger, and conspiracy. It’s honest and ultimately humbling. Give it a listen: