— by Elanna Cahn
The Jewish month of Iyar is a time of pride for American Jews. We take special satisfaction in the remarkable endeavor that is the State of Israel, this year celebrating its sixty-sixth Independence Day. And we are grateful to be acknowledged by Jewish American Heritage Month, lifting up the role that our community has played in the history and success of the United States.
The United States and Israel are the only two countries that have been democracies without interruption from their inception. It’s not an easy record to maintain given the challenges from without and within that have plagued every nation in the world, particularly in the last half-century. As Jews, we have thrived in genuine democracies. But there are two different kinds of democracies in which we thrive.
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The invitation of the United States to all who embrace it is to become a full participant in the Land of the Free. Both the native-born and the immigrant are guaranteed the self-evident rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as well as the freedoms in the Constitution. The price of those freedoms is civic engagement — the very reason the National Jewish Democratic Council exists — to ensure a body politic that recognizes that our rights and privileges as Americans are continually refined to be ever more inclusive.
Of course, it is necessary for every group of people — family, ethnic group, people with common cause — to address its own interests. Jewish history reminds us constantly of the hazards of relying entirely on others for our own well-being. After two thousand years of minority status, we experienced the renewal of being a free people in its land, able to shape our own destiny and protect our particular interests and the greater good of a just society.
Our detractors demand that we choose between the two. That demand is as nonsensical as it is narrow-minded. Instead, the ability to hold two complementary ideals in our hearts simultaneously is a hallmark of wisdom. Hillel said it two thousand years ago when he acknowledged that he needed always to be for himself, but that being for himself alone fell short of a greater potential.
As Democrats, we celebrate the ongoing success of the State of Israel and the flourishing of the United States, each on its own terms and each with special resonance for us as Jews. We also understand the contributions these two lights among nations provide to each other as inseparable allies and as laboratories of progressive values.
We are most fortunate to live at a time when the land of the free is complemented by a free people in its own land. May we never lose sight of that blessing.
Department of Defense photo of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates arriving in Israel on April 18, 2007.