Joe Biden's calls for unity should be heeded in Israel

US-ISRAELI AFFAIRS: Some of what he was addressing in America exists here to the same damaging degree.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN and Vice President Kamala Harris during Wednesday’s inauguration on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN and Vice President Kamala Harris during Wednesday’s inauguration on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington.
The crowd was thin, the gala balls were canceled, the marching bands on parade were replaced by a few fife and drum ensembles, but when all was said and done, President Joe Biden was inaugurated Wednesday in time-honored tradition, and the United States witnessed its peaceful transfer of power.
For people who grew up, were schooled and went through the socialization process in America, those four words – “peaceful transfer of power” – were pounded into their heads as the true source of American exceptionalism. This, they were taught, was what made America both great and different: the idea that, come what may, regardless of how deep the disagreements, the will of the people will always be respected, and every four or eight years power will be transferred, and it will be transferred peacefully.
And so, too, it was done on Wednesday.
Granted, it all looked rather touch and go just two weeks ago, when a mob stormed the Capitol and the question as to whether this time there would be a peaceful transfer of power seemed to hang in the balance.
Granted, the presence of 26,000 National Guard troops on the streets of Washington, DC, forced everyone to realize that the peaceful transfer of power is neither a given nor something that should be taken for granted. But in the end there was that peaceful transfer of power; in the end the institutions of American democracy won out.
Or, as Biden said in his inaugural address, “At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
And amid all the concern – both inside the United States and beyond its borders – about the state of America and its prospects for the future, that America’s democracy and the country’s democratic institutions and traditions prevailed is a point worth stressing. The inauguration, conducted with the usual pomp and circumstance – though severely trimmed down because of the global pandemic – highlighted that point.
JEWS WELL understand the importance of custom and ritual as purveyors of continuity. People come and go, different personalities dance upon life’s stage, but age-old customs and rituals remain, giving a sense of order and balance.
The presidential inauguration is an American ritual, and its performance on Wednesday restored some semblance of that order and balance – that American normalcy – lost in the turbulent days since the November 3 election.
The contrast between the images on the television screen on Wednesday and the images on the screen just two weeks prior was startling.
On January 6 a mob crashed through the doors of the Capitol and roamed among the rotunda’s sculptures and artifacts. On Wednesday uniformed servicemen held those same doors open for the political dignitaries – including the next president and his wife – walking through the rotunda to the inaugural dais.
On January 6 rioters tried to disassemble the inaugural platform on the US Capitol West Front; on January 20 President Joe Biden, standing on that platform, swore to uphold the US Constitution.
On January 6 the story was the mob; on January 20 the story was the inauguration.
But, as in the biblical account of Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream and the former’s understanding that there were not two different dreams – as Pharaoh first thought – but only one, so, too, are the events in the capital, though separated by 14 days, not two separate stories but, rather, one: the resilience of America’s democracy.
And the resilience of America’s democracy is important for all to see: for those 330 million people who reside within the country’s borders, as well as the many billions who live elsewhere.
Why? Because for much of the last century America, even with all its imperfections and mistakes, has been the world’s shining city on the hill, a source of emulation around the world, including in Israel. And the world desperately needs a shining, positive example to emulate.
ONE OF the highlights of every presidential inauguration is, of course, the inaugural address. While some presidents have used their speeches to present, in soaring rhetoric, grand plans and sweeping programs, Biden – at times in his distinctive folksy style – did little more than ask Americans to return to themselves; to return to norms of tolerance, decency and mutual respect.
His was not Lincoln’s call for the “mystic chord of memory” to touch “the better angels of our nature.” Nor was it Roosevelt’s admonishment not to fear: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Nor, even, was it Kennedy’s request to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Rather, Biden’s call was much more simple and mundane, essentially that everyone should just get together and calm down. But in the present context, this call to “join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature” is no less profound than those of earlier presidents with seemingly weightier messages.
“Stopping the shouting and lowering the temperature” might sound like a relatively low bar, but if that bar were to be cleared in the US, as well as in Israel, then those countries would be doing well and headed in the right direction.
What was most striking listening to Biden’s words as a longtime Israeli born and bred in America, was the degree to which some of what he said – which was geared for American ears and aimed at the American experience at this particular moment in time – was applicable to Israel as well. Very applicable.
“Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Biden said in words that should be stated and heeded here as well, especially as the country gears up for its fourth election in two years.
The following words, too, are especially relevant to Israel at the present moment: “Let us listen to one another, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another.”
And this: “We must end this uncivil war that pits... conservative versus liberal.” This can be done, he continued, “If we show a little tolerance and humility.”
None of that represents a discovery of the secrets of the universe, just the recanting of what should be basic truths. However, basic truths need to be repeated from time to time, as much in Israel as in America, and especially during a campaign season.
The same can be said of Biden’s call for unity. “History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity,” he declared. “For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
Appeals for unity should not be confused with actual unity, and the degree to which Biden is actually committed to unifying his nation will depend on his actions in the coming days, more so than his words. Still, this call – so obvious – needs to be forcefully sounded, and it needs to be sounded in Israel as well.
The US is coming out of a trauma unlike any it has experienced at least since the days of the Vietnam War, if not even going back to the days of the Civil War. In his speech Biden articulated some of the lessons to be learned from that trauma.
Israel, its politicians and citizens would do well to pay attention to his words, because some of what he was addressing in America – corrosive disunity and uncivil discourse – exists here to the same damaging degree.