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The Overarching Meaning of America

David Harris, CEO of AJC (American Jewish Congress).

David Harris, CEO of AJC (American Jewish Congress).

By David Harris, AJC CEO

As recent events have so vividly illustrated, Americans angrily seem to have turned against one another and embraced increasingly contrasting narratives of past and present.

To truly remind us of the overarching meaning of America – something too often overlooked in the unfolding schisms – it might be refreshing to ask someone who came here from elsewhere.

In my case, that's easy.

My mother was born in the USSR under Bolshevik rule. She, her parents, and her brother were among the lucky ones to get out in 1929, before the exit doors slammed totally shut. They never, ever looked back.

Joseph Stalin's iron-fisted and paranoiac rule, including the murder of millions, if not tens of millions, of innocent people in the Gulag, and his maniacal, relentless anti-Semitism, made certain of that.

The foursome found sanctuary in France, or so they thought.

Eleven years later, Nazi German forces easily crossed the allegedly invincible Maginot Line and overran the country. To make matters worse, a collaborationist French regime with its capital in Vichy emerged as a Nazi partner. Once again, the family was on the run, in this case from the industrialized machinery of genocide.

In the end, they were among the fortunate few, managing to get US visas on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when entry was almost impossible because of a highly restrictive immigration policy here, including for Jews fleeing Europe.

My 94-year-old mother will never forget how their ship, the SS Exeter, sailed into New York Harbor and they had their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. No, it wasn't just a sightseeing opportunity on a Circle Line tour, but rather the welcome mat to a new country that carried the torch of freedom as its most enduring emblem.

The love affair with America was instant. It never wavered. Life wasn't always easy or fair, but for my mother and her family, in contrast to their past lives, this country had given them the most priceless gifts of all – a new beginning and the promise of safety and opportunity.

As an only child, I was rather indulged by my mother, but one of the very few times she showed raw anger was during the Vietnam War days, when I said some critical things about the U.S. Never forget, she said, that this country sheltered us, gave us a new start, and is the last, best beacon of hope for the world.

My late father was born in Hungary, and raised in Germany and Austria. He arrived in the United States after the Second World War, following an immensely difficult 12-year journey that began with Hitler's assumption of power in January 1933 and didn't end until V-E Day in May 1945.

For him, it was the same as for my mother. Okay, the coffee had been far better in Europe, and American football, as opposed to soccer, made absolutely no sense, not to mention baseball. But still, the US was a unique land, worth fighting for, as he did so valiantly. He treasured this nation each and every day. He, too, had experienced the harsh denial of basic rights, and understood there was nothing more precious than possessing them.

My parents came to realize that America had its shortcomings, especially after a road trip they took from New York to Florida in 1959. I recall how excited I was for their return and the stories of their journey to the land of palm trees and beaches. Instead, all they could talk about was how thunder-struck they were to have witnessed widespread racial bigotry south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, they were all too familiar with institutionalized segregation, but the idea that America, which had sacrificed so much to defeat Hitler and his racial theories, could permit some states to enforce it was unfathomable.

Yet in stark distinction to Nazi Germany and its allies, America was a work in progress that was ultimately answerable to its citizens. Hence the joy that greeted the landmark legislative and judicial decisions ending legalized racial discrimination. Once again, my parents' abiding belief in this land was vindicated.

And then I got to see the essence of America through a third lens, my wife's. She had been born and raised in Libya, a country that never knew the first thing about equal protection under the law, free and fair elections, smooth transfers of power, or First Amendment rights.

Sure, the Libyan constitution, adopted in 1951 when the country became independent, promised everything under the sun, but it was all a tragic façade, especially for the Jewish minority. Years later, my wife and her large family were lucky to escape with their lives. Some other Jews, tragically, perished at the hands of the bloodthirsty extremists.

Ever since she arrived in the US in 1979, and, later, proudly became a citizen, my wife never ceased to say how fortunate she felt to live in a place where her rights did not depend on the whim of a ruler, but rather on the supremacy of law in a democratic society.

But, like my parents, she bemoaned the fact that too many native-born Americans seemed to take the gift of their birth here entirely for granted; that, having never experienced the absence of democracy, they couldn't fully grasp its majestic meaning; and that they too often belittled America without understanding the symbol of hope it inspired across the globe.

At a time when some Americans assail our pluralism and diversity, and a few even wish to glamorize the Nazi era, it's worth remembering where those roads can lead.

We have something special in this noble country worth standing up and fighting for, and, yes, uniting us. Maybe it's best captured, my family might say, in those three defining words, E pluribus unum, and that enduring torch of freedom in New York Harbor.

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