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.