Monday, December 20, 2004

Hannukah at the White House

Dennis Prager writes about celebrating Hannukah at a White House party attended by the President and Mrs. Bush, and the slow realization by Jews that American Christianity is not an enemy of the Jewish people, but rather an ally.

Only in America does a president light a menorah while a Jewish choral group sings Hebrew songs and the Marine band plays American songs. Only in America do Jews feel so honored as Jews and yet so completely part of the larger culture, fully Jewish and fully part of the greater nationality. Non-American Jews (including even Canadians) are often amazed at how completely American Jews in the U.S. feel. We take it for granted, but as a former college lecturer in Jewish history, I know that this is unique.

It is an incredible blessing to be an American Jew (or "Jewish American" — both terms are accurate). We are doubly blessed. An Israeli interviewer once asked if I were first a Jew or an American, "I have two fathers," I said. "George Washington and the patriarch Abraham." So to be one of about 200 Jews invited to celebrate Hanukkah at the White House with the president of the United States was about as profound a personal moment as I have experienced. My two loves -- America and Judaism -- in one place, reinforcing each other.

I suspect that this feeling was shared by just about every Jew present, including bearded Orthodox rabbis heretofore not prone to affirming any non-Jewish national identity. As a yeshiva graduate, I never thought I would live to see identifying Jews, let alone Orthodox rabbis, so happy to be in a room with a menorah and a Christmas tree. Yet that signified a sea change taking place in American Jewish life — the realization that Christianity is no longer the enemy or the great Other but, for the first time in 2,000 years, a great ally.

This realization has yet to dawn on many Jews. The memory of almost two millenniums of European, i.e., Christian, anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust is seared deeply in Jewish hearts and minds, and it is very hard for most Jews to truly believe that the cross is a friend, not an invitation to a pogrom.

But American Christianity has never been like European Christianity in its attitude toward Jews and Judaism. Jews have been equals and honored as such from even before the creation of the United States. Many of the founders studied Hebrew; Thomas Jefferson wanted the Seal of the United States to depict the Jews' exodus from Egypt; Yale University's insignia is in Hebrew; a verse from the Torah (Leviticus) is inscribed on the Liberty Bell; a rabbi attended George Washington's inauguration — the list of pro-Jewish expressions in U.S. history is endless. But perhaps most telling is the fact that although there have been any number of Christian countries and there are many secular ones today, it is the U.S. that calls itself Judeo-Christian.

Also: PowerLine notes that the Jewish people are celebrating their 350th anniversary of being New World citizens.

The first Jewish community in North America was established in New Amsterdam (New York) in 1654. In 1658 fifteen Jewish families arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. By 1759 their numbers and resources had increased sufficiently that they undertook the construction of what has become America's oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue of Newport.

Also: On my drive home for lunch today I swear I heard Bill O'Reilly bloviate that the biggest opponents of the Jews are Christians. Can anyone confirm? This would have been at about 45 minutes into the first or second hour of his program. I'll get a repeat broadcast this afternoon on another station that I can get at my desk, and I'll try to confirm it myself.

UPDATE: Okay, O'Reilly didn't say what I thought I heard him say. A caller had expressed some concern that many of the most outlandish anti-Christian statements have come from Jewish people. (He gave Al Franken as an example.) O'Reilly said he felt it was possible that "if pushed too far the Christian majority will start to rethink its position on worldwide Judaism," and noted that "the strongest defenders of Israel are Christians." O'Reilly went on to say that we shouldn't let "the crazies" define American Judaism for us.

I don't know how I heard "opponents" in the place of "defenders." My excuse was that the windshield wipers were scraping away at the rapidly gathering ice, and made it hard to hear O'Reilly clearly. Another hazard of winter driving.

Anyway, I don't believe conservative Christians would rethink their position on Israel just because of "crazies" like Franken. If O'Reilly believes that, he has a poor understanding of American Christians.


Post a Comment

<< Home