How Jews Reinvented America and Themselves: July 4th Reflections
As this country observes its 241st year of its independence, Jewish Americans can take pride in their contributions to the history, culture and public discourse of this nation. Over the course of their American journey, Jews have helped to reinvent this nation, just as they have redefined themselves in their roles as citizens.
Reflecting on History: There is nothing common or natural about the Jewish experience in America. Outside of the fact that the “founding” Jews, those who came to this nation to help shape its beginnings, like their fellow citizens, were of European origin. They would have little in common with the other immigrant communities arriving here. Indeed, these first Jews were unfamiliar with democracy and had limited understanding of the social mores, economic options, and political values that would define this democratic experiment in living, called the United States of America. Elsewhere, I have had occasion to write extensively about “American Jewish Exceptionalism” and what that has meant for our community and this society.
Promoting Loyalty as Citizens: From the outset Jewish settlers demonstrated their patriotism while shedding their European orientation. Americanism would become an integral part of what they would represent. The enduring mantra for American Jews has been a commitment to “give back.” This would be reflected in the service of Jews to this nation’s military, just as it can be documented in the significant presence of Jews in public service, the nonprofit sector, and a broad spectrum of social and humanitarian causes.
Adapting and Excelling as Core Values: They came to understand that the art of adaptation and the importance of excellence would serve them well in being accepted by their fellow citizens. If this society was built on competition and competence, then it would be essential for Jews to demonstrate their creative energies and the flexibility to adjust to its dynamic culture in order to effectively participate and thrive in an environment that celebrated “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Advancing the Value–Added Characteristics: The Jewish contribution to the American storyline is centered on these principles:
- Respect for Diversity: Recognizing from the outset that this is a nation of immigrants, Jews would join others in promoting and celebrating cultural pluralism and religious tolerance.
- Promote a Civil Society: Jewish leaders would argue that in order for this democratic experiment to flourish, its citizens needed to be knowledgeable about the tenets of democracy, while remaining actively engaged in the work of the public square.
- Advance the Social Order: From the outset Jews would set about the task of ensuring that all who are a part of this society ought to be the beneficiaries of the basic tenets of American democracy including religious liberty, economic opportunity, freedom of speech, and equal protection under the law.
Reinventing America: As individual citizens and as a community, Jews have made a significant contribution to this nation’s culture, as evidenced by their roles in American theater, films, radio and television. Their extensive influence within the world of arts and letters, science, business, technology and medicine afforded them an opportunity to contribute to this country’s prominence through their gifts of innovation, invention, and information and in the process have contributed to remaking this nation economically and re-envisioning this society politically, while sustaining its core values.
Impacting this Society: Just as American Jews have contributed to the collective image of this country, they have been constantly renewing their own narrative, namely what it means to be an “American.” Their urban presence, in particular, would place Jews in relationship with every other major ethnic and religious tradition. These connections would prove vital to the community’s success, permitting Jews the opportunity to be exposed to many of the major cultural and ideological dimensions within this society.
Transparency would be essential in dispelling the historic myths and social misconceptions about Judaism and the Jewish people. Over time our communal practices, language and traditions became synonymous with the larger social culture. As Jews have moved into the national mainstream, they are often seen today as the proto-typical Americans.
End Notes: In this current corrosive political environment, Jews will once again need to demonstrate what citizenship requires. One needs to work at building and sustaining the American democratic experiment. The political enterprise demands knowledgeable, engaged participants, willing to speak out, in order to defend the institutions and ideals of this democracy, pushing back against those who would seek to marginalize and undermine the core institutions and values of this country.