In the America in which I grew up, the just-concluded Republican National Convention would have been a puzzling affair. America, we were taught as suburban Jewish kids, was a place where the public square focused on our sameness. Our religions, our different heritages, the narratives of our ancestors – those might be important to us, but they were private matters, not for public consumption in that most welcoming of lands. We were welcomed, we were essentially told, but at a price – we would keep our differences, and even our religion, mostly to ourselves.
Fast forward some 45 years, and it is impossible to deny that that conception of America was simply wrong. Republican or Democrat, it is an astounding thing to watch a Mormon running for office alongside a Catholic, at a convention in which the opening invocation is offered by an Orthodox rabbi, who uses Hebrew verses and phrases, who mentions only one country other than the United States – Israel. What would we have been taught to make of Senator Marco Rubio’s introduction of Mitt Romney, in which he celebrated his Cuban heritage, spoke partly in Spanish, and then said, in part:
“We [Americans] are special because we’ve been united not by a common race or ethnicity. We’re bound together by common values. That family is the most important institution in society. That almighty God is the source of all we have. Special, because we’ve never made the mistake of believing that we are so smart that we can rely solely on our leaders or our government. Our national motto is ‘In God we Trust,’ reminding us that faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.”
We are witness to an America in which difference is now celebrated, in which Mormon and Catholic campaign side by side not because their religious differences do not matter, but because they believe that what each of them stands for affords them something to make America greater.
As different as this language is from the religious-free-public-square image that American Jews have long cultivated, I believe that we Jews ought to celebrate this new comfort with difference. For the celebration of difference, the recognition that humanity’s greatness is to be found largely in its heterogeneity is key to what Judaism has taught since the days of the Bible. In the Tower of Babel, the Book of Genesis makes a plea for human difference. Biblical visions of the world to come are largely not about the erasing of difference, but rather, a vision of a world in which different peoples remain distinct yet live together in harmony. As the Israelites near the Promised Land, the book of Deuteronomy specifically details lands that they may not capture, because God has promised those regions to other peoples.
It is in this focus on difference that we can locate much of the world’s discomfort with the State of Israel. In an era in which Europe still pretends that borders and languages and differences can all be blurred, in which people still sway to John Lenon’s lyrics, “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too,” a country that openly declares that it was created to be “by the Jews, of the Jews and for the Jews” is bound to rub Europe the wrong way.
As I argue in my just released book, “The Promise of Israel,” we have for too long sought to defend Israel by focusing on how similar it is to other liberal democracies, rather than celebrating both its democracy and the ways in which Israel is different from other countries, and therefore, utterly necessary. Many Jews today are uncomfortable with difference, which makes this a hard argument for many to buy; that’s precisely why I wrote the book.
If difference is what makes human beings great, if difference (as I argue in the book) is the key to human freedom, we ought to celebrate the difference that lies at the core of Israel’s values, and the Christian values that lie at the core of America. Can we do that? Can we liberate ourselves from the misconception that only an America devoid of religion in the public square will be an America in which we can all take pride?
The answer to that depends much less on the United States than it does on our finding the strength to recover our belief in the importance of our distinctiveness and our difference, perhaps one of the core commitments not only of the Jewish state, but of the Jewish tradition itself.