American Distinctiveness…

by Nigel Savage

Thursday, January 11, 2018 | 24 Tevet 5778
Dear All,

I begin with condolences and congratulations.

Condolences: We join with many others in mourning the tragic loss of Hannah Weiss, z”l, and her family. Hannah’s memorial service took place this week. Although I had never met her, several of our staff worked with her over the last year and they were shocked and devastated by her loss. She was an amazing young woman and a passionate young Jewish environmental leader. She inspired others and took action on her deeply held beliefs. She led the Green Team at Columbia Hillel and started a composting initiative at List College. She felt strongly and intuitively the interconnection between her Jewishness and her commitment that we need to live more lightly on this planet. Hannah was at our JOFEE Network Gathering last fall and was the leader in seeking to have Columbia Hillel join Hazon’s Seal of Sustainability. May her memory inspire all of us to work for a better world. Hazon staff Rachel Aronson and Hannah Henza and I – and everyone at Hazon – send enormous condolences to her family and to everyone who knew her.

Congratulations: to Judith Belasco, our recently announced EVP, on being accepted into the second cohort of the Wexner Field Fellowship, the Wexner Foundation’s newest leadership development program, created in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation. Les Wexner has had a remarkably clear view about the role of leadership, about how one engenders and supports it, and the impact of his and Abigail’s foundation in this regard is quite extraordinary. The alumni of the different Wexner programs play a simply ginormous role in the leadership of the American Jewish community (and in Israel also) and numbers of Wexners – lay and professional – have had a significant impact at Hazon. I’m thrilled for Judith, for Hazon, and for the Wexner community that she’s been accepted into this program. (For more information on the program click here and to see the list of professionals in Class 2, click here.)

Leadership is both innate and learned. Hannah was a natural leader; and it was because she was a natural leader that Rabbi Steve Wernick, the CEO of the USCJ, had taken it upon himself to meet with her and mentor her as she left the leadership ranks of USY and headed into her college life. The same with Judith – she’s naturally good at what she does, and/but part of being good at anything is learning and striving to be better.

We’re now entering the early parshiot of Shmot (Exodus), which are about leadership and the birth of a nation. As an Englishman in New York, living in this strange moment – blessed-but-dyspeptic – I have been thinking about origin stories, and especially in relation to the USA.

The idea of America has exerted a force upon the imagination of the good and the restless of the world, for more than three centuries. First it was the land, the immensity, the possibility, the riches, the unknown, the adventure. Then, from the time of the revolution onwards, it was the idea of America itself – free, democratic, self-creating.

I have been struck, as I have grown older, that it is so frequently the case that people’s downfall and failure are not separate qualities but are in the fact the obverse or the downside of their greatest strengths. The quintessential example of this in my lifetime was Margaret Thatcher. To become the first woman to lead the Tory party, the first woman prime minister, to face down the unions or General Galtieri and to upend the postwar compact in the UK; all of these things required of her focus and determination and the absolute certainty that she was right. She literally could not have accomplished any of the things she did without this certitude. And yet it was exactly this aspect of her character, and nothing else, that led to her downfall. She never lost a public election: she was felled, as prime minister, not by the 50 million plus electorate of the British people, but by an electorate of 372 – the Tory MPs whom she led to power but who, after ten years of her leadership, were thoroughly fed up of her certitude, and knifed her, in the end, not in the back, but in the chest. A public execution, from which she never recovered.

I have been thinking about this in context of America itself. It is very hard for an American, for someone born here, to tease out what is distinctly American. If for decades there has been McDonald’s and Disney and Coke around the world, and now Amazon and Apple and Starbucks, then in what way is America different from anywhere else?

This was one part of what Francis Fukuyama was trying to get at in his (in)famous essay, The End of History. He was saying that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalism now was the last idea standing. And he was implicitly assuming that those things that made America distinctive would now be true of all the world, sooner or later.

We know that in the short run at least, he has been very wrong, and at least two other local/global ideologies – fundamentalist Islam, and populist (and often racist) nationalism – were far from down and out. Each indeed has grown in the shadow of “the end of history;” each has been given life and force by those who believed themselves not blessed by capitalist internationalism but damaged or left behind by it.

This much is clear. But I want to think, for the moment, not about global internationalism but rather, in a deeper sense, about the idea of America itself.

This is the thing that is hard for Americans to fully tease out. It is a mixture of American clichés, American truths, and a mix of things that were once true but may no longer be. A country that is about freedom, but murdered the native Americans. Which believes in equality, but embraced slavery and Jim Crow. Which believed in Manifest Destiny – and then got confused.

The fact that Guantanamo still exists, or that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed couldn’t be tried in downtown Manhattan, or anywhere in the United States; the bizarre fears that underlie these facts runs deeper than the current craziness in the White House or in Washington.

America is in some ways being brought down by that which made it great.

“The right to bear arms” has given us the gun lobby and civilian deaths that dwarf those of any other western economy. “Freedom” gives us privately owned prisons, and the private sector incentive to lock up more people (more black men; more people with ADD) and throw away the key. “Freedom” and “choice” gives us the richest per capita large economy in the world, and yet one that has homeless people on the streets of every city; the best doctors and hospitals in the world, but also literally millions of people who don’t have or can’t afford decent healthcare.

Many of the commonsensical solutions to these problems exist, but they fall athwart of the core ideology of America – the ideology that made this country great, and which on bad days now make us afraid that we’re going to be next on this list: Roman, British, Soviet…. American.

The bedrock of “this is not how we Americans do things,” like the refrain of “USA! USA!” or “America First” is too embedded in this country and its narratives and its education and its discourse. It is, literally, “un-American” to suggest such things as universal free health care or removing guns from circulation.

And this leads me finally on to the topic of Jewishness and of Hazon’s work.

I know that I explain this next thing imperfectly.

But the animating idea and connection behind all of Hazon’s work is that the world needs the Jewish people and the world needs Jewish ideas and teachings, and the conversations we have in general in Jewish life are far too small.

It is from the long-run of Jewish history –  over 3,000 years, not 300 years – that I believe we have to love America, critique it, support it, be part of it, interact with it; and do this from a distinctively Jewish place. The argument in Jewish tradition about the tension between din and chesed – between justice and mercy – needs to air in public space. We need to offer the rhythms of time – Shabbat, sefirat ha’omershmita – on a wider stage. “The environmental crisis” isn’t just technocratic; it needs a slow, day-in and day-out engendering of love and sanctity and gentleness and awe which many of the great rabbis seemed to have. Rav Kook was unique and unusual, but he arose in intellectual and human soil that was tilled by generations of ancestors who believed in their bones, and taught to their kids, that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof…,” that to eat a piece of fruit without saying a bracha, a blessing, was essentially a form of theft.

People have within them goodness and the ability to do harm, and so too religious traditions, and so too entire nations. May we read the Torah, and reflect on the world, and help our own communities and this great country itself to be the best that we truly can be. Like Moses, may we be determined and modest. Like Judith Belasco, may we commit to learning and growing. And like Hannah Weiss, may we take for granted that we, I, each of us, can make the world a little better, day by day. Not knowing, any of us, which will be our last.

Shabbat shalom,