The mood on the bus to Philadelphia was anything but celebratory.
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Many of us – volunteers to register voters and canvass for Hillary Clinton - were veteran campaigners. We all know this two-year process of electing a president is both electrifying and nerve-wracking, and being anxious a month-a-half before Election Day is not a new thing. But this year is different. This year we aren’t just anxious. This year, we are afraid.
Our collective fear goes beyond worrying that our guy (or gal) will lose. Given that many of us on the bus from Manhattan were Jewish, we all got to talking about what’s really keeping us up at night.
When, last year, my husband and I took our kids to Philadelphia for the weekend, we made the usual stops: Independence Hall, Betsy Ross’ house and the Liberty Bell. We also stopped at the National Museum of Jewish American History. That museum, a supremely confident, proud, all-out celebration of the many contributions of Jewish Americans, was still on my mind on the Philadelphia-bound campaign bus.
A cousin of mine who lives overseas once told me that fortune has shined on America. I would go one step further and say that fortune has shined on American Jews. American Jewish history has not been without its dark moments, but this is a country in which we can live as we choose, worship as we choose, and raise our families in ways that are consistent with our values.
My seat-mate on the bus happened to be a friend as well as a Jewish historian. As we drove through New Jersey to Pennsylvania, she told me that at the parade in Philadelphia celebrating the ratification of the Constitution in 1778, there was a table of kosher food so Jewish patriots would also be able to eat. She directed me to the 1790 letter from George Washington to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in which he assured them that the religious tyranny from which many of them were fleeing would find no home in the United States. Washington famously wrote that “[T]he government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” concluding, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Less than a hundred years later, in 1862, when General Ulysses S. Grant issued the anti-Jewish order known as General Orders No.11, expelling Jews from the “Department of Tennessee” on the grounds of smuggling and cotton speculation, a man by the name of Cesar Kaskel rushed to Washington, D.C. and met with President Lincoln. Lincoln had the Order revoked and later affirmed that “he knew of no distinction between Jew and Gentile.”
Our freedom as Jews is sewn into the fabric of this country. As I saw in pictures of Jews in covered wagons heading west at the Jewish museum in Philadelphia, our story is part of America’s story. It isn’t just that Donald Trump (and some of his children) have given a national platform to the alt-right movement, or that Jewish journalists who write anything negative about Trump know that in a matter of minutes, they will be receiving hateful tweets replete with gas chamber imagery. It’s that many of us who live here, and love living here, fear that Trump threatens the fabric of this republic.
We are scared by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, because we are all the descendants of people who came because of the freedoms President Washington wrote of. The birther nonsense is daunting, because we can only imagine how birthers would undermine the first Jewish president (she’s a Zionist spy, or worse.) But it’s our very freedom to worship and express our opinions that is essential to our day to day life as American Jews. As Democrats, we can live with a Republican president. We’ve done it before. As American Jews, we cannot live without the freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution.
Trump is not only unaware of what the Constitution guarantees all of us, he doesn’t want to understand it, and worse, if it were up to him, much of it would be changed. For example, he doesn’t understand that the press and his opponents have a right to disagree with him. He is unaware that even an American who has tried to terrorize a city, as was the case last week in New York, has the right to counsel. As Trump has demonstrated, it does not take much to anger him. What if we ran afoul of him as President? What would happen then? (And please, don’t tell me that we are all safe because he has Jewish grandkids, because that hasn’t done much to stop him from letting the White Nationalists rise out of the margins and take center stage.)
It isn’t just that we could be next, it’s that those of us who choose to live here, want others to have the rights that we do. That’s part of the fabric, too. This country provided succor and opportunity for all of our grandparents and allows us to live as we choose, surrounded by other people doing the same. That’s why we are here and that is what’s at stake in this election. It’s the reason that many of us are so active, and if we aren’t yet, it’s the reason we should be.
Lea Geller is a writer and blogger www.thisisthecornerwepeein.com who lives in New York City with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @lrgeller