Reflections on an Unusual Thanksgiving

There are events that force us to reconsider our fundamental assumptions and relationships. This is true of the tsunami of antisemitism that has surged in America in the aftermath of the Simchas Torah pogrom.

For decades, the Jewish community has experienced life in the United States virtually free of antisemitism. This was completely in character for a country that sought to create a “great society” that cared for its most vulnerable citizens and was fiercely committed to the protection of the rights of all people to live free from discrimination. It led the great rabbis of America to describe this country as a malchus shel chessed, a kingdom of kindness.

In this context, much of our Jewish government advocacy work focused on getting our fair share of that kindness. As taxpayers, we sought government support for our secular education, as a faith community we pursued government partnership in our social programs, and as observant Jews we required protection of our religious liberty.

That dynamic has shifted. The schools and the streets of the malchus shel chessed do not feel exceptionally kind right now. While our elected officials have been steadfast in their support of Israel and their unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and of antisemitism, they have thus far been unable to curb the antisemitic bile that is exploding from a coalition of the vicious and the confused. The zealous protection of the right of free speech has enabled an environment in universities, schools, and streets, where the hateful are free to intimidate, demonize, and threaten with little fear of consequence. Jewish students in the universities have discovered that higher education can be taught without basic values. All of us have been shocked to witness previously unimaginable expressions of Jew-hatred in the United States. In meeting after meeting in which we join with other Jewish organizational leaders to engage with government officials in pursuit of solutions, genuine tears are shed by officials who recognize the problem, are committed to address it, but have not yet found the solution. They, as we, feel that there are areas in the land of liberty where things are spiraling out of control, parts of American society where there is neither greatness nor goodness.

This change compels us to shift our own focus from pursuing our fair share of the country’s kindness to ensuring that it endures as a kingdom of kindness. Instead of considering only what our country can do for us, we need to use our presence and our voice to uplift our country and help it find its way.

We are a community of values. America needs those values.

One week ago, an interviewer remarked to me that as he was watching the various protests across the country, it appeared to him that on one side the protests almost invariably led to physical threats or actual violence, defacement or destruction of property, tussles with police, and arrests. By contrast, on Tuesday, November 14, almost 300,000 supporters of Israel assembled in DC and there was not a single police report. Clearly, those who come together to celebrate butchers and rapists and chant support for the destruction of Jews from the river to the sea will descend into violence, unlike those who genuinely seek peace and who rally in support of those who take up arms only to prevent attacks on innocent civilians.

As we continue to advocate and to rally for Israel and against antisemitism, we should not be solely pursuing our own personal or communal benefit but promoting the values and the attitudes that have been fundamental to the character of this great country and that will ensure its long-term well-being. As we continue to raise our voices on behalf of the hostages and against the unconscionable crime of their continued imprisonment, we must not only advocate for our beloved brothers and sisters but to restore the scruples and sensitivities that had previously and must once again define all our human relationships.

We are the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Avraham was seen by the citizens of his host country as nesi Elokim, a Godly prince, someone whose presence elevated the society around him. Yitzchak was approached with respect and reverence by his contemporaries who had seen that G-d was with him. In our parsha, Lavan identified Yaakov’s presence in his community as a source of blessing to all. That is how we as Jews must approach our relationship with society, not simply fighting for our own survival but seeking to bring blessing to the families of the world.

In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed the festival of Thanksgiving as a day “to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”

That is how we have always approached this day. This year, we blend our gratitude for the unique blessings and freedoms of America with a personal and communal commitment to preserve them. Today, our country needs more from us than we need from it. For the foreseeable future, our task is not limited to protecting ourselves or to getting our fair share. We will do our part to pray for the peace and well-being of our country and to act to ensure the continuity of America as a truly great society and a kingdom of kindness.