Our Wounded Democracy

The sadness and the anger we feel right now can be overwhelming. This political moment is supposed to be a time to celebrate the strength of our democracy, a time when the world should look on with admiration – as it first did over two hundred years ago when President Adams left office – when we mark the peaceful transition of power between political opponents. Instead, the world and our nation watched in horror as violence erupted in Washington.

What we saw was a violent uprising, incited by the President of the United States and his enablers. A seditious mob, many wearing explicitly Nazi and antisemitic garb, many carrying the confederate flag – the ultimate symbol of white supremacist violent insurrection in this country – attacked police, breached the Capitol and briefly took control of the hallowed chambers of our Congress. The President who had incited them for months told them later that afternoon “I love you,” an echo of his “very fine people on both sides” response four years ago after Charlottesville.

In two weeks, Joe Biden will be our President and Kamala Harris will be our Vice-President. But even if our current President honors his statement (delivered through aides early Thursday morning) that there will be an “orderly transition,” it will have already been marred by this violence.

Still, I go into this weekend with undiminished optimism. Because the struggle for the American idea that I cherish is not won or lost in a single day or even in a single election. It is the work of generations.

I was reminded of this recently while watching American Creed on PBS. This film follows former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, historian David Kennedy and a diverse group of Americans as they explore whether a unifying set of beliefs can prove more powerful than the issues that divide us.

There are many inspiring and thought provoking moments in this film, but one theme in particular has been giving me strength this week. The Boston based Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz talks about how “people at the margins can bear witness to the reality of our nation and what our future needs to be.” It is an idea picked up by Kennedy throughout the film, and in particular, when he speaks about his own father’s experience during the Great Depression, namely, that the American Creed, the idea of this nation, is a promise. But it is not always a promise fulfilled. There is a gap between the idea and the reality. The challenge for us as Americans is to not allow that gap to provoke us into giving up on the idea.

Our work is to see the gap, to name it, to talk about it, and to re-affirm our commitment to the work of making progress to achieve the promise of America.

The promise of America, and the promise of our democracy, has been wounded this week. But it always was, and still remains an idea, an aspiration, something that can and must be worked for.

I’m very grateful to my friends, our member agency the JCC of the North Shore, and to our partner Facing History, for bringing this film to my attention. They invited JCRC, the Israeli-American Council and others to partner in hosting a program about the film next Thursday night, January 14th. I’m looking forward to joining a panel discussion where we will address themes from the film in an effort to engage our community in thoughtful and respectful dialogue about Jewish and American ideals across the deepening divides.

I encourage you to watch American Creed and then to join us this week, and in the years ahead, not only to discuss its themes, but to do the work of bridging the gap between the realities of America and the promise of our nation that inspires us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy