Where have you gone, President Washington?
It wasn’t uncommon to hear the music of Simon and Garfunkel filling the rooms and hallways of my childhood home, and it would be folly to belittle Paul Simon’s prowess as a songwriter. Still, aside from our shared Jewish heritage and affinity for the New York Yankees, Simon and I likely share very little in common, particularly in the realm of politics.
When Simon first began writing his most famous song, “Mrs. Robinson” had the working title “Mrs. Roosevelt.” Simon changed the name for Dustin Hoffman’s breakout film, “The Graduate.” You’d certainly never find me writing an ode to Eleanor Roosevelt.
And yet, in recent days, a single line from the song has been stuck in my mind. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Simon once explained that the line was a longing for American heroes at a time when such heroes seemed to be in short supply.
No offense to Joltin’ Joe, but the line going through my head today would begin, “Where have you gone, President Washington?” Forgiving the obvious change in syllables, as I don’t claim to be a songwriter or a poet, both America and the Jewish community need the country’s greatest general now more than ever.
On August 18, 1790, then-President Washington penned a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. For the first time since the Romans expelled the Jewish people from Israel, a head of state recognized the full and equal rights of Jews in America with “liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
While many Jews stop there in celebration of such a recognition, it is the next line of Washington’s letter that matters even more: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
For centuries, as Jews moved from nation to nation, by choice or more often by force, we sought to participate as citizens without forgoing our Jewish identity. In the few instances we were not enslaved by these regimes and our basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness weren’t violated, Jews were at best tolerated, temporarily, until some kind of social or political problem required scapegoats and we once again became targets of blame, bloodshed, and banishment.
But Washington’s words offered a wholly new paradigm. He reminded Jews, in writing, that recognition of our own “inherent natural rights” — naturally granted by our shared Creator and equal to all other human beings — is not some indulgence or toleration by a higher class of elites.
When Washington welcomed Jewish people as fellow citizens who wanted to live freely and enjoy the “liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” Jews in America believed we had finally found a safe home.
But in the weeks since the October 7 Hamas massacre in Israel, Jews have become significantly less safe in America. What changed?
A century-long progressive makeover of this country has set us on a path of multicultural toleration. These regressive cultural shifts, mislabeled “progress,” have moved many Americans away from the principles of individual natural rights that underscored Washington’s letter back to the old, tribal way of merely tolerating Jews when it’s convenient and targeting and blaming them when it’s not.
Our schools and universities, which have become bastions of progressive multiculturalism, emphasize the idea of toleration as a societal good from a young age. Even those citizens who claim to reject progressivism defend their own goodness by claiming tolerance of other’s beliefs.
Washington’s words were instead rooted in the very foundation of our country: the idea that we are all equal as human beings, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Today, as nihilist mobs chase Jews into libraries in New York and kill our elderly in the streets of Los Angeles, as Jews are merely tolerated by some and outright denounced by others, the cause can be attributed directly to America’s “progressive” evolution. These ideas have shifted the emphasis in our relationships to our differences and inequalities instead of what makes us alike and equal. It’s time to abandon these notions.
Today, 233 years later, I’m no longer sure America is safe. Like Paul Simon in the 1960s, I long for a hero like Washington who can reorient America toward its founding principles.
Today, I look for neighbors who embrace Washington’s closing prayer to the Newport Jews: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
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