An exploding pandemic, nationwide street protests against police killings of African American men, a cratering economy, and not least of all, a president who is aggressively trying to destroy democracy and install himself as absolute dictator for life — All mark America as a nation suffering from multiple fundamental crises.
But I’m not giving up on America.
Why? Because America is more than a country. It’s an idea, and a promise.
A Jewish concept from the Book of Isaiah is the foundation of the American idea: “Come let us reason together.” To apply that to our modern moment, don’t let tribal passions divide us. Let’s talk about our differences of opinion and see if we can try to compromise to find a solution.
At the core of our founding documents are two ideas that America is still struggling with. But at least we’re struggling with them.
One, all men are created equal. Two, we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
America is obviously far from perfect. But the country has never settled for mere tribalism, which makes it different from most other countries.
It’s important to mention what we all know — that white people decimated the continent’s Native Americans and stole their lands, a historical tragedy. And white people enslaved, tortured and tormented Africans by the hundreds of thousands, a 400-year Black holocaust. I think about these terrible crimes virtually every day, in terms of how we can find justice for the wounded descendants and victims of conquest, enslavement and continuing racism.
There always have been countervailing voices exercising their free speech rights to say that these awful things were — and are — terribly evil, and must be combated and alleviated.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is reason enough to fight for our nation, guaranteeing us freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
Despite all the terrors of the present moment, America still holds promise. That people of different religions, skin colors and cultures can co-exist and even thrive together.
Right now, Donald Trump is the biggest threat to this promise.
When, in 2017, white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, shouted in cadence, “The Jews will not replace us!” it flooded me with horror and disgust at their prejudice and paranoia.
Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville protests. I don’t think so!
Also, let’s not forget what Trump recently said about the notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford: He had “good bloodlines.”
That’s not a dog whistle. That’s a trumpet call to the Trump troops. (Come on, Donald, why not go all the way and proclaim white people the master race, as Adolf Hitler did?)
To combat Trump, in my mind, I find myself searching back through time for the words of George Washington, who wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, as the American nation was just finding its feet.
“For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
To see this idea, the promise of America — encapsulated in just one place — consider a humble public school classroom in the Bronx as an example of what America is and can be.
I work as an elementary school teacher in the northeastern part of the borough. Over the 18 years I have been a teacher, many of my students have been African American. Some are immigrants — from Jamaica and the Caribbean — and a few from Ghana and Kenya. But most are native-born.
Many of my students also have been Muslim, mostly from Bangladesh, and a few from Yemen.
I have taught children whose parents emigrated from all over Central and South America, from Mexico to Peru and Ecuador. In my classroom, I have seen students who parents left China, Africa, India and even Eastern Europe, to come to America.
So here we have a Jewish teacher, whose grandparents left Russia and Poland more than 100 years ago, fleeing persecution from governments that treated them as less than human, working with a veritable United Nations of children to educate them in phonics, reading, mathematics, science, social studies, and the rules of citizenship, for a country I love.
This wonderful mix of people, this mélange, is America.
These kids are poor. But their parents are determined to make it in America, and they have instilled in their children that ethic, a classic immigrant story.
The vast majority of my students work hard. They have a drive inculcated in them by their parents. It’s difficult to teach that.
I’m not counting these kids out, and neither should you.
I will tell anyone else that they shouldn’t count out America.
Democracy has been at risk in America every since Trump was elected president. I’m not giving up on either democracy or America. They’re both worth a fight, possibly the most difficult fight of our lives.