I’ve never felt less American and more Jewish. As an American, a white one, I’ve always felt safe. I’ve always assumed my country would be stable. I’ve always assumed the Constitution would restrain power’s tendency to corrupt. I’ve never feared my government or the people with whom I share my country. I’ve never hated them.
Without thinking much about it, I internalized Barack Obama and Martin Luther King’s view that, although history zigs and zags, progress eventually comes. America ended slavery. It enfranchised women. It ended segregation. It legalized gay marriage. It elected an African-American president. Time will pass. My country will remain fundamentally the same, only a bit freer and less hateful, as the years go by.
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I don’t feel that way anymore. As an American, I don’t know what to feel. I’ve never experienced anything like the election of Donald Trump. I’ve never experienced anything so frightening or destabilizing. I’m experiencing political vertigo.
As an American, I’m totally unprepared. The only way I can ground myself is as a Jew. My grandparents were born in Lithuania and Egypt. My parents were born in South Africa. They didn’t feel safe. They didn’t understand the people with whom they shared their country. They didn’t believe history marched forward toward a better day. It didn’t march forward when the Nazis and then the Soviets swallowed the Baltic states. It didn’t march forward when South Africa instituted apartheid. My grandmother, who began her life in Alexandria and ended it in Cape Town, used to laugh at me when I boasted about America. She told me not to get too comfortable. She said a Jew must always know when to leave the sinking ship.
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I’m not leaving America. It’s my country. I have to fight for it. I have to fight – every American Jew has to fight – to protect the American Muslims who right now must be terrified beyond belief. I have to fight the dozens of American Nazis who have descended on my Twitter feed to celebrate their victory. I still love America to my core. But I don’t trust it in the same way. And I don’t trust progress. I keep hearing my grandmother’s voice in my ear.
My country is young and hopeful. My people is old and weary. And tonight I feel older and wearier than I’ve ever felt in my life.