For me the contradiction of the American experience is summed up by the fact that George Washington wrote this letter to the Jewish Community of Rhode Island while holding slaves and pursing an “Indian policy” that regarded Native Americans as savages to be quelled.
As a Jewish American, I cannot forget that when my ancestors were dumped by pirates in New Amsterdam, America became the only place in the world at that time to accept Jews with no legal disabilities. After more than fifteen hundred years in which the best Jews could hope for was “tolerance” as a matter of grace, we became citizens with rights. When George Washington wrote the letter linked to above it was still true that not a single other country in the world permitted Jews to be “citizens” with rights and freedoms exactly the same as any other citizen.
This is a thing that cannot ever be forgotten. It is one reason why I will always love America, and celebrate July 4th publicly as a holiday of pride in my American heritage.
To say all this does not wipe away or somehow ‘balance out’ the real oppressions, ranging from petty indignities to genocides, that populate American history. Nor did this official liberality mean an end to the struggle for real equality for Jews in the United States. And, just as I cannot judge impartially the virtues of the Roman Empire which destroyed the Temple and murdered and enslaved millions of Jews, I do not expect that African Americans or Native Americans who were the primary objects of national policies calculated to crush and enslave them, should share this view.
But nor do these very real evils wipe away or somehow balance against the good that was done and the recognition that all people should be equal in the eyes of the law –even when those who made this declaration and believed in it were able to rationalize their own assault on this fundamental truth.
To borrow from another great American President: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work” of making the ideals of freedom and equality reality. “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us” to resolve the contradiction between word and deed.
To make the sentiments of Washington’s letter real, we must recognize our virtues and our flaws. For it is only in the recognition of our virtues can we give them power to triumph over our flaws. When we have achieved this, we will achieve the vision of Micah quoted by Washington in his letter. “And each shall sit beneath his fig tree, and his vine, and none shall make him afraid — this the mouth of the Lord has promised.”