In his column last week, our Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, the Rabbinic Consultant for this newspaper, raised the subject of the Promised Land as it relates to the concept of American exceptionalism. Since the arrival of the earliest English colonists, this New World home has been described as a “city on a hill,” an “empire of liberty,” and the “land of the free,” among other oft-repeated accolades. Rabbi Schonfeld describes the United States as a “beacon of freedom and hope to the entire world.”
In recent political campaigns, however, the public has been hearing a different message that compels us to ask whether the accolades reflect the historical and present reality of this country. Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase “Empire of Liberty” in a 1780 letter that supported the new country’s westward expansion, which certainly did not bring liberty to the Natives who stood in the way. The authors of the Constitution understood that the words on the country’s defining document did not live up to the reality of the time, most visibly the institution of slavery. The Civil War brought an end to race-based ownership of people, but it took another century for equality to be enforced.
Our nation is the leading destination for immigrants and refugees, but it also has a history of nativism that kept millions of Jews trapped in Europe during the Holocaust. Our military was described by Rabbi Schonfeld as a liberating force, but not when it conquered unwilling subjects for Manifest Destiny, imperialism in the early 20th century, and propping up anti-communist despots during the Cold War.
But for all the injustices that took place under this country’s flag, what should make us proud is that our country strives to live up to the words of its founding documents, and recognizes its past injustices. On the global scene, few countries are as engaged in cheshbon ha’nefesh as the United States. Certainly, the people of Germany and Japan are aware of their nations’ wartime crimes, but their self-reflections are the result of losing World War II. Had they won, would their school children know about the atrocities committed by their respective governments?
As history is written by winners, not too many of them look back at the shameful episodes of their past. When Russia celebrates its victory in the war, its official voices downplay the military purges that left the country unprepared for the Nazi invasion, millions of soldiers and civilians who were captured and murdered, abuses of power and revenge exacted upon German civilians, and the postwar occupation of Eastern Europe that is still regarded as liberation.
The Europeans do not spend much time discussing their nations’ roles in the slave trade, colonialism, and centuries of mutual bloodshed on the continent. China censors materials relating to the abuses of the Cultural Revolution, the conquest of Tibet, and the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
In contrast, the United States has monuments to honor the lives of slaves, Native Americans, the struggle for women’s equality, and civil rights. There are national monuments commemorating the Trail of Tears, slave cemeteries, and Japanese American internment. Every park in New York City flies the POW/MIA flag in memory of American servicemembers who did not return alive to march in victory parades. This was the original purpose of Memorial Day, before it became the unofficial start of the summer season.
Rather than serving as shrines, presidential libraries balance the achievements of their namesakes with negative aspects of their lives and policies. The Richard Nixon Presidential Library does not shy away from Watergate, Lyndon B. Johnson’s library does not glorify his unpopular decision to continue the Vietnam War, and the plantations of the earliest presidents have restored slave cabins to offer lessons on those who spoke of freedom, while acknowledging the shame of slavery, and at the same time continuing to hold fellow Americans in bondage.
There are a few Americans who only see perfection in our leaders, laws, and military. Love it or leave it, as President Donald Trump recently declared. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, there are movements that wish to rename and erase mention of individuals and events that are regarded as morally indefensible by today’s standards. Most Americans do not see their history in such extreme terms. They recognize that there is room for nuance when individuals and events are complicated.
Modern Israel is also history’s winner, having fought for its independence and maintaining it against invasions, uprisings, and terrorism. It can easily overlook moments in which it lost its innocence, such as the Deir Yassin massacre, Altalena incident, Lavon Affair, discrimination against Sefardi and Mizrachi olim, arguments on who is a Jew, failure to prepare for the Yom Kippur War, the legality of outpost yishuvim, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Oslo Peace Accords, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the Gaza disengagement, among other highly-charged episodes. All of these episodes appear in textbooks, national monuments, and legislation, demonstrating a healthy civil society.
The Jewish nation has been self-reflective from the beginning. Each of our prophets offers examples of their limited judgment that contributed towards plagues, military defeats, idol worship, and the long exile that followed. Each of our kings fell short of the charge assigned to them so that even David HaMelech did not merit to build the Beis HaMikdash and his son Shlomo’s long reign was followed by an irreparable division of the kingdom. We’ve had moments of hubris in our history, as well, such as the Chasmonean descendants of the Maccabees, who aimed at Hellenizing the Jewish people and forcefully converting the Idumeans. The two rebellions against Roman rule are regarded as the work of zealots who disobeyed rabbinic authorities of their time.
We fast in memory of our national defeats such at the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls on Shiv’ah Asar B’Tamuz, the destruction of both Temples on Tish’ah B’Av, the price paid for political zealotry on Tzom Gedaliah, the siege of Jerusalem by N’vuchadnetzar on Asarah B’Teves. We step on a glass cup during the happiest moment of our lives; we recite the Kaddish that reminds us of mortality at all prayers.
Our country self-reflects; so do our homeland and our people. This is what American and Jewish exceptionalism represent. As we observe the Three Weeks and the weeks of summer are approaching their end, we should recognize that exceptionalism is not the result of power but the ability to look at oneself, live up to one’s ideals, and strive for improvement.
By Sergey Kadinsky