Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our Most Peculiar Institution: Democracy

Some notes on the day after a most memorable night….

At our morning service today we recited the Prayer for our Government, something that’s been done at synagogues throughout the world since the Babylonian Exile (see But today those words carried extra meaning, and the hush at our minyan was palpable:

“Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.”

Barack Obama will not be a perfect president. Nor was he a perfect candidate. But last night he captured a historical watershed perfectly with his speech in Grant Park. It was important to place the event in both a historical and personal perspective, which he did wonderfully in speaking of that 106 year old woman. Ann Nixon Cooper was the ultimate response to Joe the Plumber.

Earlier this year Michelle Obama made the oft-attacked slip about being proud of her country “for the first time.” Well, I’ve been proud of America quite often in my life, but last night I understood what she may have meant, because, for this first time, I felt that an enormous pall has lifted, one that had to lift before any of us could truly feel unmitigated pride in all that America is and all that she stands for.

At last we have closed the book on what has been euphemistically called America’s Peculiar Institution, our greatest national stain, the enslavement of an entire segment of the population, simply because of the color of their skin. I’m not so naïve as to believe that this is the end of all racial and ethnic strife. But it is also the beginning of a new, worldwide appreciation of America’s other peculiar institution, the kind of color-blind democracy that would be inconceivable in almost any other country, including most that consider themselves democratic. We have much to be proud of today, and to be grateful for. Perhaps that is why, in the end, Jews gave Obama about 78% percent of their vote, even more than John Kerry received four years ago (see also here). We Jews understand full the historical meaning of this moment.

Obama’s win comes on the anniversary of Prime Minister Rabin's murder and just four days before the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, a night of terror for Jews throughout Germany. It was a moment when Hitler tested the world and the world failed, leading inexorably to the slaughters that followed. One might claim that America failed then as well, to address Germany's Peculiar Institution of anti-Semitism.

Today, the world can sit back and admire America for sending a message of utter inclusiveness. The cry against injustice that was so lacking in 1938 turned to tears of joy last night. Jews understood that implicitly, even without need for schleppers. A campaign of obscene innuendo against the Democratic candidate did not make a difference. The lies were rebuffed. All those nasty e-mails, in the end, fell on deaf ears. For me, the ultimate absurdity occurred last week. when Obama visited his dying grandmother and the conspiracists unabashedly proclaimed that he was travelling to Hawaii in order to whitewash his birth certificate. Had the campaign lasted two days longer, no doubt the same people would have accused him of killing his grandmother as part of the cover up.

Naturally, McCain was also victimized by sleazy e-mails and misleading ads. All such tactics are wrong. But the Jewish community was specifically targeted for a negative bombardment only by one campaign, McCain's, and it is satisfying that, according the the exit polls, people didn’t buy it. Bubbe and Zayde did all right – not because of whom they voted for, but because they gained a real understanding of the dangers of the Internet. It took them a lot less time to figure out how to sift through the garbage than the rest of us youngn’s.

A word of gratitude for Chris Shays, a man who has typically stood above the political muck and always did us proud. Since he and I began our current jobs at about the same time, I’ve always kind of felt like we grew up together. Over the years he has been a loyal and good friend to me and so many others – and most especially to Israel. As I wrote to him today, “I’ve been proud to live in a district associated with you and your efforts at bipartisanship and justice.” I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more from him in the years to come.

I am also looking forward to working closely with Jim Himes (and indicated as much in a congratulatory note to him). I wrote last summer about my first opportunity to get to know him, when we met for breakfast on a veranda in Jerusalem. I was impressed then and remained so throughout the campaign.

Today, the day after, we go on with our lives. But the world is not as is was 24 hours ago. I feel unburdened as an American.

The cloud of our peculiar culpability has been lifted at last.

1 comment:

Malerie Yolen-Cohen said...

Wonderfully put, and healing. I wish Obama a smooth transition and I hope this country will pull together after so much back-biting.