My father’s parents escaped the pogroms and poverty of the Czarist Russian Pale of Settlement a century ago and made their way as legal immigrants to the United States. Although steeped in tradition, they made sure their five children would be integrated into American life and culture. The youngest of the five, the man who was to be my father, served his country with distinction during World War II, fighting in Germany and Bohemia in the last months of the war. While keenly aware of his Jewish roots, my father forged bonds with other servicemen, both Jewish and not, from throughout the United States. This process of integration continued in my generation, being able to pursue my American Dream by graduating from Columbia University with Phi Beta Kappa honors while never forgetting my Jewish roots or my strong attachment to the State of Israel. But the question of whether the pursuit of this American Dream will continue into the next generation is in doubt. We must ask why.
America and Israel share more in common than simply democracy. Almost every Zionist thinker of the last two centuries had envisioned a Jewish renaissance and understood that Israel was to be not ordinary but outstanding. Jacob Klatzkin was the lone Zionist to believe that Israel would be a third-rate state based on language and land alone. The notion of being a nation like other nations was not a call for mediocrity but a call for Israel to be “a light unto the nations.” This idea was shared by Zionists from both sides of the political spectrum, even sworn enemies David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. The Jewish State was to be exceptional.
America’s Founding Fathers shared the notion of an exceptional and global mission with the founders of the modern Jewish State. For Jefferson and Madison America was to lead the world with a new way of governing. No longer would Emperors and Sultans impose their rule on groups of people who were treated differently based on religion and race. Instead, tolerance would no longer be spoken of but new ideas of citizenship and equality. As well, enshrined in the First Amendment were freedoms that no other people on the globe had been guaranteed. Freedom of religion, assembly, the press and expression epitomized the mission of America to be, like Israel later became, “a light unto the nations” and a shining beacon of freedom to the world. America’s exceptional status, despite the stains of slavery and Jim Crow, was never in doubt.
Why can Americans no longer articulate in what should be a fierce and proud polemic why America is a great country that leads the world? Why is America, indeed, no longer leading the world politically, economically and militarily? What has happened to the American Dream for the tens of millions of Americans unemployed or underemployed? The standard of living will decline for the coming generation in an ailing nation saddled with trillions of dollars in debt. Why is our educational system, from nursery through university, on the decline? What is happening to America?
The recent “deal” led by America is allowing Iran to inspect their own nuclear facilities with the ability to eventually acquire missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons that could destroy Israel and, eventually, endanger the American homeland. Did not Isis emerge as a potent and violent force in the Middle East under President Obama’s watch? Has not the President purposely engaged in the unraveling of the special relationship between Israel and the United States and put pressure on Israel not to respond to the Iranian threat and the threat of Hamas? President Obama is not betraying the law of the land. But on both the international and domestic front, the President is betraying something less tangible than law but no less important: The American Spirit and the American Dream. It is a betrayal of all the reasons my grandparents came to America and why my father fought an evil that could be named in the Second World War. The camaraderie my father found as a soldier with other Americans can no longer be found in an atmosphere of extreme divisiveness. No more “leading from behind.” We cannot hide behind these empty and self-defeating phrases. We must rediscover our greatness. We must articulate that greatness. No less will do.