A JULY 4TH ESSAY
Today, I was honored to give the keynote address at a 4th of July breakfast sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Muslim Council. What follows is what I said (give or take a few words). I bet you can identify the statement about which someone from the audience later said that she, as a Muslim American, could never have gotten away with saying what I said as a Jewish American. Sadly, I have to agree that she's right.
Here's the talk:
As the Coordinator of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I am often called upon to sing the praises of certain homelands. Inevitably, these places are associated with a particular ethnic group. I might be asked to explain, for example, why, as a Jew, I can be such a committed Palestinian nationalist. Or why, as a lover of justice, I can be such a devoted Zionist. Most people embrace one of these states -- they become lovers of Palestinian sovereignty or of the Jewish State -- but I am proud to embrace both. And I enjoy explaining what it means to have a vision of “two states for two peoples,” both of whom constitute first cousins in the same family, the family of Abraham.
Today, though, I have been asked to proclaim my love for a very different country -- not a homeland for a single ethnic group, but rather a melting pot state. In such a state, peoples from all over the world come together and celebrate their common humanity. To be sure, this melting pot has ethnic neighborhoods, ethnic religious congregations, and even recognizes some ethnic holidays. But what it doesn’t have is the sense that one ethnic group holds a more central place in its cultural fabric than any other. Rather, the nation to which I allude wishes to create a common tapestry in which all of the world’s cultures participate. The nation’s motto is e pluribus unum – “out of many, one.” And that requires honoring each and every ethnic culture that contributes to the fabric. But perhaps even more importantly, it challenges people to figure out how to create the most beautiful fabric possible out of such a diverse set of threads.
That is the quintessential challenge posed by the United States of America. And it has many formulations. What principles can we adopt to help us all live in peace and with justice? What happens when our notions of freedom and equity conflict? And have we learned lessons from our own melting pot nation that can be used to inform debates between warring groups outside of these borders? To these types of questions, which have been around from the time of this nation’s founding, others have been added resulting from the nation’s unique wealth and power: are we responsible for serving as the world’s mediator? Or as its policeman? I go back and forth when I think about those latter issues, but it is a measure of America’s greatness that they can be asked with a straight face.
My grandparents came to these shores at the same time that most American Jewish families came – at or around the end of the 19th century. My parents and I have enjoyed traveling around the world, but all of our lives, we have called America home. The family first settled in New York City. And then, in the 1940s, my parents moved to Washington, D.C. The family has been based in the D.C. area ever since. And as residents of the nation’s capital, we have been privileged to encounter so many majestic American landmarks. Allow me to discuss just a few.
Let’s start with the Smithsonian Institution. Unquestionably, these museums house some of the greatest collections of artwork in the world. But do we charge people to enter into those hallowed halls? Not a penny. Whether you are from Albany or Amsterdam, we don’t want your money, we just want you to walk in and admire some of the greatest paintings and sculptures your species has to offer. And you will quickly forget what you’re country you’re in. Because this being a melting pot, the Smithsonian Institution has been designed to celebrate masterpieces from all over the planet without even the slightest touch of parochialism. Yes, the Smithsonian makes me proud to be an American, but it does so by teaching that to be an American is, first and foremost, to be a citizen of the world.
The next set of landmarks I’d like to reference is a series of related memorials. They focus on an incredible time in our history – a time in which the United States of America was finally transformed into the United States of America. We know this time period as the “Civil War,” but it wasn’t simply a time of bloodshed. It was a time when Americans decided that they must risk their lives to fight for the ultimate principles on which this nation was based. We would decide once and for all whether slavery would be permitted here. And we would decide whether we owe our allegiance primarily to the individual state from which we hail, or to the nation that attempted to unify these diverse states. The memorials of this era include battlefields, of which the DC area has so many – places called Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Fredericksburg. Every such battlefield memorial is hallowed ground, for it was there that countless numbers of men gave their lives for truly elevated purposes.
For me, what ties these battlefields together are two very special memorials. They are located only a couple of miles from each other, and are among the most prominent landmarks in Washington, D.C. One, which is housed at the Arlington National Cemetery, is the home of Robert E. Lee. It is difficult to imagine a more noble American soul than Lee, regardless of where you stand on the issue of blue versus grey. Lee graduated second in his class at the United States Military Academy, but then, true to his allegiance to the State of Virginia, he was forced to command the Confederate Army against the United States Military. Remember – prior to the Civil War, a person’s country to which he or she held allegiance was the state from which he came. In Lee’s case, he was a Virginian first and foremost, and only secondarily, an American. So in choosing to fight for the South, Lee made the only choice a patriot could have made. That mentality changed after the Civil War.
The other memorial to which I referred is, of course, the Lincoln Memorial. It is there where you can read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in all the southern states. But no less moving, are the words he used in consecrating the battlefield at Gettysburg.
In just a small number of words, Lincoln summarized so beautifully what it means to be a martyr and what it means to be an American. I give you the last paragraph of that immortal speech:
“[I]n a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
That is how the Gettysburg Address ended. It began on a very similar note – by reminding the audience exactly what it was that unified us as Americans. This nation, Lincoln said, was “conceived in liberty,” and was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In that last phrase, he was harkening back to another set of immortal words – those in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is but another short, and yet so sweet, statement that defines who we are as Americans. It was unveiled precisely 235 years ago on this very day by Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson is my favorite figure in U.S. history. I always carry with me two dollar bills to remember him and what he has to teach us. I frequently wear ties that celebrate him and his legacy. And when someone asks me to identify my favorite place in the United States, I have but one answer: Monticello, the place that Jefferson called home.
Monticello is a good 2 ½ hour drive from Washington, but it is always worth the trip. I’ve been there countless times. And whenever I go, it reminds me of the greatness of both the man and the nation that he was so instrumental in forging.
Now, make no mistake – Jefferson is no a saint. He is no Moses, he is no Jesus, he is no Muhammad. His flaws go beyond Moses’ shortcoming revealed in Chapter 20 of Numbers or Muhammad’s shortcoming revealed in Surah 80. But because Jefferson never proclaimed himself to be a saint, he is in fact a figure to whom we all can relate. A human, all-too-human figure, who nevertheless devoted himself to so many wholesome pursuits. You see all this in Monticello. You see how this one man was such a devotee of art, music, philosophy, science, anthropology, agriculture, religion, nature, language, architecture, literature … and of course, statecraft. And the more you study Jefferson, the more you see his footprints all over this nation as it has evolved over time.
We owe so much of our commitment to religious liberty to Jefferson. We owe so much of our commitment to public schooling to him. And we owe to Jefferson so much of our respect for equity and liberty. How, someone might ask, can one be passionate about both, if at some level, they conflict with one another? And the simple answer, is that to be a student of Jefferson is to realize that we have no choice. “We hold these truths as self evident,” he wrote. “That all men are created equal. And that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these, are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Equity and liberty are American values. They are Jeffersonian values. And so is commitment to the faculty of reason. For Jefferson was an Enlightenment philosopher. And the nation that he and his colleagues forged is very much a product of the Enlightenment. We must not forget that either. And when we, as Americans, go out among the world at large and fight for such principles as justice and peace, it is worth remembering a couple of key points.
The melting pot concept works for us, but that doesn’t mean it will meet the needs of everyone else. The fact that there is an America, for example, doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a China, an Italy, or an Israel. But when we do encounter ethnic or religious groups that wish to remain outside the scope of a melting pot state, and that are fighting over the same land, there is much that we can draw from as Americans to help them solve their problems. Specifically, we can draw from the same Enlightenment principles, the same commitment to reason, that so moved Jefferson and that has inspired Americans ever since. You’ll find those principles imbuing the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg, and of the actions taken by the founders of the Smithsonian. We must never forget those Enlightenment principles. They are our birthright as Americans. And as someone whose Judaism is more important to me than even my patriotism as an American, I can safely say that the principles of the Enlightenment are in harmony with the principles of Moses. If you think you’ve found a conflict, my advice is to think again.
So, if Jefferson, Lincoln and Lee were alive today, what would they ask of us as children of Abraham? They, who fought so hard to enable us to live in peace and prosperity, would they wish for us today to take this largess and just enjoy ourselves? Or would they beseech us to strive to live like they did – and better yet, to live as our Prophets did – and dedicate ourselves to the noblest of causes?
As one who believes that you don’t give up your ethnicity simply because you’re an American citizen, as one who believes that you cannot enjoy peace until your family is at peace, I come here today to tell you that there is no cause more noble for a Jew or a Muslim than to see that our peoples can live in peace in Israel and Palestine. Some think that can happen in one melting pot state, but we who have studied American history know the unique and often tragic circumstances that gave rise to a melting pot state on these shores. And the situation in Israel and Palestine is very different.
To me, the place that is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians will not know peace until Muslims come to love Israel as a Jewish state and Jews come to love Palestinian Nationalism. Right now, though, that is a vision few of us are willing to work for. But I ask you to think about think about it in the name of a God who commands us to create peace, in the name of our father Abraham who would have wished Isaac and Ishmael to live in peace, in the names of those great Americans who have taught us about war and peace, and in the name of family.
Jews and Muslims are not enemies. We are the closest of cousins. If there is anything I’ve learned as the coordinator of a Jewish-Islamic dialogue society, it is that.