A divided America. Two camps bitterly opposed, threatening the very existence of our democracy. A complete absence of civil discourse where opponents are enemies, not just fellow citizens who disagree. Political subterfuge abounds, and suspicion of the press emanates from the highest echelons of government. Ultimately, violence and death.
While pundits and neophytes alike consider the political climate in our country as unprecedented, I am not describing contemporary America. And that is why I am more optimistic than some, albeit completely disheartened by what I observe. No, I am describing the presidential administration of George Washington from 1789 to 1797.
Represented by Alexander Hamilton, an abolitionist who believed in a strong central government and the need to invest in manufacturing, on the one side, and Thomas Jefferson/James Madison who passionately defended the interests of the agrarian south opposing him, the country as we know it almost dissolved in the throes of infancy.
Their political, economic, and social feud persisted (did not culminate, as racism survived) into the Civil War, where more Americans died than in all other wars combined – American fought American; brother fought brother. While we continue even today to try to rectify the societal inequalities caused by slavery and discrimination - 13th Amendment , Brown v. Board of Education , Civil Rights Act , etc. – America and our democracy have managed to serve as the model and shining light for the world to emulate, despite our many shortcomings.
That is why I am optimistic. Because, this, too, shall pass.
As I write this column, a 9th bomb – now a 10th – has been sent to various individuals who share a certain political view (I’m tiptoeing here). Fortunately, none have detonated, and no one has been injured. Still, are you surprised? I’m not. As those seeking to exploit this disturbing development for political gain engage in a counter-productive, even irresponsible, debate on why the other is to blame, the truth is WE are all to blame. We are all part of this democracy. We, undoubtedly, have all partaken in the vitriol and personal attacks that have created the atmosphere where violence is a logical, albeit unacceptable, progression. I have personally witnessed the end of friendships and marital discord resulting from the toxic climate where disagreement and respectful conversations have yielded to ideological demagoguery and complete intransigence. I witness the exact same behaviors of irrationality and obstinancy from both sides of the political spectrum.
Yet, I remain optimistic.
We live in the best country the world has ever known. For Jews, we live in a time and place unequaled in our history of persecution and flight. Israel, also with its challenges and deficiencies, is a virtual miracle. Even in its short history, she has witnessed the tragedy of political discord, culminating in the assassination of one of its great leaders, Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, not by a Palestinian or a Muslim, but by an Israeli Jew who disagreed with his political direction. Unfortunately, she confronts many internal challenges into the future.
People of all political colors appear to agree that the tribalism, vitriol, and divisiveness of our time must end for our democracy to survive. While they may disagree on the source(s) and culprits, it will be up to everyone to accept personal responsibility and regain the unity that makes us strong.
Unfortunately, on these political issues and many others within the Jewish community, we are not immune from the degeneration of civility that tests our unity as a people. My source of optimism is faith in the human spirit – that we can, eventually, regain the sense of peoplehood as Jews and as Americans that has been indispensable to our growth and survival. It is incumbent upon us all to strive for better. We are not there, yet. Wounds are raw and healing will be necessary. But I’m optimistic. We – Americans and Jews – are a great people. We will endure.
P.S. While disagreement exists and will continue (we are Jews, after all), can we agree that caring for Jews in need and building community is a good thing (see my WTF column)? Good. Let’s start there.