Every Jewish American at one time or another has asked--and similar questions have been asked by every other minority here--
What does it mean to be an American Jew?
Do I attach more priority, immediacy, or importance to one identity/commitment over the other?
Is it I who chooses or is it the larger culture?
What are the political and cultural trip-wires, the public debates, that seem to force the questions?
How and when did I first become aware of these questions?
Some of us, of course, initially wondered about this over Israel and Near East Policy. Those of us inclined to walk these intellectual and emotional tightropes have been reflecting on this for decades. The current administration's out-of-box approach to what has been pretty intractable for past administrations has not instigated the initial fundamental questioning among thoughtful Jews. We've been asking for a long time. American Jews, the brightest among us, know that when the shrillest voices ask "When You're Down To It, Are You For Israel or For The United States?" they're drawing false rhetorical distinctions for venal domestic political ends. The bully's question has no anchor in our reality.
Yet there's a question American Jews asked themselves a generation ago that is reality-based and was not posed for a base purpose. It was posed genuinely and it resonates over time. I'm prompted to ask it now, again, because it's the time of year when I make my very modest donation to the American Civil Liberties Union. I read again this past week of the death last year of the ACLU's Burt Joseph, the free speech legal specialist largely responsible for a controversial case well-known to most Jews (and many other Americans).
Should Jews in the late 1970s have supported the right of the American Nazi Party to march at Skokie, Illinois, then home to many Holocaust survivors and their descendants? The case centered on whether or not the initial denial of a marching permit violated the free speech clause of the first amendment to our Constitution. Many Jews left the ACLU over its decision to take up the case. I have some sympathy for them even as I think they acted in a short-sighted, self-defeating manner. They were wrong about the law and its purpose and its effect. The great majority of the ACLU's Jews stayed. As it turned out, the Court determined that the first amendment had been violated and the permit was granted but the American Nazi Party decided, in the end, to march in Chicago and not at Skokie.
Many Jews at the time excoriated Mr. Joseph for pressing the case in favor of granting the permit and damned even more David Goldberger, the attorney who handled the matter at the Court. And there were many other Jews, including me, who applauded the decision to represent the first amendment despite the fact that anti-Semitic thugs were the ostensible clients. Of course, the far-Right thugs were secondary; the ACLU's client (as it always is) was the Bill of Rights.
That was the first time in my life I asked myself in a comprehensive way the questions I pose here. I always believed--and I believe now--that when the law pushes potentially violent bigots underground we reward them. We're not only granting them a kind of dim martyrdom, the publicity, and recruiting tools they crave, but we force their schemig even further into the dark. That's always more dangerous whether the immediate concern's Nazis, Klansmen, right-wing militias, or violent religious zealots.
I want to know more, not less, about what my enemies are up to.
But that is secondary.
Primary is what I want my Constitution to do. I want American Law to honor the first amendment no matter who claims it, even if those claiming it would, were they ever to gain sustained, serious, nationwide political power, try to bury it (and me with it). I want the first amendment to be meaningful; that means it has to work even for pin-headed thugs bent on upsetting elderly Holocaust survivors. If first-amendment rights are denied to them they'll certainly be denied to me, to other Jews, and to other minorities, religious, racial, sexual.
If you think that's a stretch, imagine the denial of a marching permit to neo-nazis being used as a precedent to deny Jews or LGBT citizens a similar free speech right. Couldn't happen? Really?
We Jews and other American minorities are sustained, in fact we often thrive because of law that on occasion does result in circumstances that are remarkably obnoxious. Over the range of history it's a pretty small price to pay.