The Land of the Free, for Better and for Worse

By Viva Hammer

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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Ten years ago, as a recent Australian immigrant, I was initiated into the American rite of Thanksgiving. How outraged I was! Here we were, comfortable Modern Orthodox-ish Jews, sitting down to a turkey repast in a kind of latter-day American Christmas. My hosts were defensive, and confused at my reaction. This wasn’t a Christian holiday, they explained, it was an American holiday — and aren’t we Americans? Don’t we Jews, of all people, have so much to be grateful for, living in this country?

I shook my head, unconvinced. How could we Jews be so oblivious of our history as to celebrate the thing that is most fragile — our thanks for being so comfortable here? Into my mind crowded all the bitter lessons of the Enlightenment, the promise of belonging at the expense of our identity and then the betrayal of fascism. We in America look like Joseph’s brothers, notables of Egypt, thinking that Pharaoh’s largesse never will end.

And yet I do have much to be thankful for. I sit in a federal government office, a fully observant Jew, with nothing to make me ashamed. In all the jobs I have held, I never have been questioned about leaving early for the Sabbath, or for taking leave for the High Holy Days. People try hard to accommodate my eating needs. My son was accepted to a highly selective university preschool, and we believe it is because they wanted the diversity of a child who has a different ethnic look. Unlike in Europe, Jews in America do not have to give up their language, garb or names in order to succeed. The revolutionary French relegated Judaism to a religion, and offered equality only if the Jews’ national loyalty was to France. It was a bitter price to pay for “equality.”

Americans have no such complexes. They permit dual, even multiple, citizenships. As long as you pay your taxes and keep the laws, they do not demand exclusive loyalty. Neither my job nor my son’s school is a fluke. They are the product of a deliberate policy of multiculturalism, inclusiveness and diversity, which Americans have been striving toward (and often failing at) since white people came to this country. There is no other way America could have managed the mixed multitude that settled here without implementing such a philosophy. My family and I, flamboyantly Jewish Jews, are testimony to the realization of the dream.

Still, after all these years, and all this much to be grateful for, it grates on me to sit and eat turkey on Thanksgiving. I do not believe we have to witch-hunt all the possible sources of antisemitism here. If we avoid University of California, Berkeley, Jews may live in peace in America for a thousand years. But I am too much a student of Jewish history not to believe gam ze ya’avor (this, too, will pass) — that in becoming too comfortable, we forget our identity, our heritage, our purpose and ourselves.

But today there is a quiet source, which, in becoming louder, will keep us on our toes. The strength of America, its tolerance, is also its weakness. Just as Jews can live in peace, so can neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and Al Qaeda. Organizations in which the whole aim is to bring to an end this civilization are supported by “charities” favored by U.S. tax laws. It is difficult for our government to discriminate between the “good” causes and the “bad” ones, because any such differentiation is anathema. Among those groups that thrive in the free-for-all that is America are those without the good of the Jews at heart.

So this Thanksgiving, as always, I am full of admiration for this country, but wary of becoming too comfortable here. I attend the Thanksgiving meal, but pass on the turkey.

Viva Hammer is an adviser to the assistant secretary for tax policy at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.






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