I spent this past Saturday morning holding back tears. For my Judaic Studies class, I went to a conservative Shabbat service at a conservative synagogue in Ann Arbor. When I first saw the assignment on my syllabus back in September, I didn’t think much of it. I thought the conservative service would be akin to the services at the Reform synagogue I grew up going to, but longer and more formal. The only difference was that it just so happened that the Shabbat service was a week after the Pittsburgh shooting.
Jews and non-Jews of all ages filled the room in a show of support. There was a mourners’ Kaddish — a prayer for lost loved ones — dedicated to the victims. After, three rabbis gave eloquent sermons about what happened in Pittsburgh. And, though it was overall a solemn and, at times, melancholic two hours in the synagogue, I left feeling much better, mostly because of the head rabbi’s exceptional sermon.
The head rabbi’s sermon was delivered at the very end of the service. First, he argued that his interpretation of Jewish values supports tolerance and inclusion and that Jews should support globalization, immigration, refugees and diversity because of the moral teachings in the Torah. He told the congregation that Abraham, who was thought of as the first patriarch of the Jewish people, was a refugee. Abraham sought refuge in both the promised land of Canaan and later in Egypt. His wife Sarah, the first matriarch of the Jewish people, should be revered for her strength because she was welcoming of Abraham, even though he was born in a different land and had different customs. He concluded that ultimately, tolerance and love will defeat intolerance and hate.
Continuing with the theme of tolerance and diversity, the head rabbi argued that adherence to the moral and religious precepts of Judaism trumps having Jewish ancestry as a determinant of Jewish identity. The rabbi was arguing for a more universalist conception of Jewish identity, rather than a particularist conception where shared ancestry through a Jewish mother defined Jewish identity. The more universalist conception of Jewish identity the rabbi argued for was primarily about adherence to Jewish moral and religious values. The rabbi told the congregation that like America itself, Jewish communities all across the country were becoming more diverse. He contested the view retained in parts of the Jewish and rabbinical community that lament intermarriage and the loss of a particular Jewish ethnic peoplehood. He predicted proudly that in 40 years, the congregation of the synagogue we were all sitting in would be much more ethnically and racially diverse, as would America. As a half-Filipino Jew, I found this comforting.
I realized during the walk back to my apartment that the rabbi’s argument about Jewish identity, of values versus genealogy, is also applicable to American identity. In this country, we are facing a fundamental choice of what it means to be an American. Like Judaism, American identity has had a tension between universalism and particularism. The U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution speak of ostensibly universal values, in the form of “unalienable” rights, liberties and equality. These values are central to the American identity and what it means to be part of “We the people.” But, for much of American history, the ability to benefit from these values have been particular to white men, rather than universal. Racism and sexism, in the form of slavery, segregation and barriers to citizenship and other rights is omnipresent in our history. Some would argue this history of particularism is still similarly impinging today as it was in the past, while others, like myself, would argue vast progress has been made. But there is still work that needs to be done.
As Americans, we have a choice. Will we live up to the promise of America that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of, where American values and thus identity are truly universal, or will we continue the disappointments of the past? Fulfilling America’s promise is not only a legal matter. Equal application of laws and rights are an integral part of achieving equality. But, fulfilling America’s promise is also an extralegal, social matter. All Americans should be able to reasonably feel that they are equal rights-bearing individuals, free and able to pursue their happiness, without being limited by race, gender, sexuality, religion, among other things.
Yet, President Trump’s Republican party peddles toxic rhetoric that exploits prejudicial sentiment embedded in our national discourse. This type of hateful speech enabled the Pittsburgh shooting, the Kentucky shooting, the mail bombs and the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes. Every week it’s something new, adding to the already extensive annals of Trump’s racism.
This week, the Trump administration is fomenting paranoia about a migrant caravan seeking asylum. Instead of portraying the caravan as they are — desperate asylum seekers who could be accepted or turned away at the border — the Trump administration has turned them into an invasion of “gang members.” President Trump has said, falsely, that there are Middle Easterners in the caravan. It wasn’t enough to demonize asylum seekers using prejudicial tropes about Latin Americans, but Trump also had to use the stereotype of Middle Easterners as terrorists as well. A commercial his campaign launched about the caravan and illegal immigration more broadly has been pulled from NBC, Facebook and Fox News because it was deemed racist. On the one hand, the use of racial or ethnic stereotypes to demonize a group of people by our president is an overt example of the continuity of racism and the failure of American values to be truly universal — and it presents a very clear choice. Trump’s administration is moving us away from the promise of America Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of. Like the rabbi I wrote about earlier, we can embrace diversity and affirm the strength of the values that define American identity. Or we can do the opposite. We can build walls, use divisive language and demonize people who are seen as different both inside and outside of our country. But as we’ve recently seen, doing so comes at a cost. So though this will be published after the midterms, I hope you have voted wisely. The future of our country and its communities depend on it.