The January 6th hearings on Capitol Hill mark the end of American innocence – and a jarring juncture for American Jews.
Of course, the end of American innocence has been proclaimed many times. It ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It ended again with the Army-MacArthur hearings of 1954. It crashed to an end with the Vietnam War, and then again with Watergate, and for another time with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Yet this time is different. And especially so for American Jews.
This time American innocence about its safety from great-power attacks, or terrorist attacks, is not at issue. Nor the notion of American invincibility in war. Nor even the idea that the American presidency was the province of generally respectable figures who themselves had respect for the Constitution.
This time, the innocence that vanished is even more searing: that a president would defy the choice of the people who elevated him to the office in the first place – and that a president who didn’t win the support of the majority of the voters but nonetheless benefited from the peaceful rotation in office would deny the peaceful transfer of power to his successor, a fully elected president who did win a majority victory.
The succession in 2021 following Joe Biden’s victory was anything but peaceful. A mob rampaged the Capitol, the revered symbol of democratic rule in the United States and the venue for nearly four dozen peaceful transitions of power. The rioters smashed windows, breached the legislative chambers, threatened to hang Vice President Mike Pence and might have done so had they found him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might have fared no better.
The country swallowed the end of the other elements of its innocence. Whether it can swallow this frightful episode is the question of the hour – the question with implications for all time.
Jews, of course, have never been innocents. Jews may have been innocent in 1492, and again in 1938, and at countless momentous turning points in their history. But they were not innocents.
Except for one nuance. Jews have been innocents about America, about the promises it made (and largely kept) to them, above all about American promise itself. Here the rule of law prevails. Here a family can apply hard work and ingenuity and find prosperity and happiness. Here the vote has always been theirs.
Which is why the events of January 6, 2021, came as a shock to American Jews, who, in the term employed by Steven T. Katz, the founding director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University, regarded the United States as the goldene medina, which is Yiddish for the “golden country.”
“And this with good reason as, until now, America has been an exception to all the rules of Jewish history,” he explained. “Unfortunately, the current situation in America, of which the January 6th incident is only one example, is undermining what remains of the innocence of American Jews.”
That innocence was well-earned. It wasn’t until 1858 that British Jews could take a seat in Parliament without taking a Christian oath of office. But David Levy Yulee was elected to the Senate from Florida 13 years earlier, followed by Judah P. Benjamin in 1853; the Louisiana lawmaker later held three Cabinet posts in the Confederacy, including secretary of state. Lewis Charles Levin of Pennsylvania was the first Jew in the House of Representatives, taking his seat in 1845 – ironically, as a member of the nativist American (or Know Nothing) Party.
All of which goes some distance to explain why Jews have regarded the United States as more than a safe harbor. It explains, moreover, why Jews have had a special loyalty to the democratic values that the country has espoused and why they view with special fear any disruption in the customs and procedures that protect the political system.
“From the days of the Old Testament, Jews have been persecuted by all kinds of groups,” said Ron Kaufman, national committeeman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. “They’ve been slaves, they’ve been killed, they’ve been victims of antisemitism. Anything that threatens democracy makes Jews particularly nervous.”
The January 6 hearings have set out the contemporary threats to democratic rule in sharp relief. There were claims of election fraud that were themselves fraudulent. There was an effort to ignore election results that were clear and were upheld by dozens of judges in scores of court cases. There was a riot at the Capitol, a building, bathed in light of a late January evening, that stood as a besieged symbol of a political system under the gravest threat.
Precisely 160 years earlier, Abraham Lincoln left a train at Washington’s Union Station, at the foot of Capitol Hill, to take command of a country that was falling asunder. When he looked up that hill he saw scaffolding on the Capitol – an apt metaphor for his task, which was to build up, to preserve, the Union rather than to preside over its demise. He did so, and did more than save the country. He preserved its values, and enhanced and enlarged them.
He also said: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general.”
He did more than that, too. He employed the language of religion in his quest.
The scholar Earl Schwartz pointed out in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 20 years ago that the man who would become the 16th president spoke of his commitment to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by mobilizing the language of Psalm 137, saying in a speech at Independence Hall in the month before he was inaugurated, “‘May my right hand lose its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth’ if ever I prove false to those teachings.”
The task of the January 6th committee is to examine a period when Americans proved false to those teachings. The country might have snoozed during the hearings. But Jews awakened as if from a nightmare.
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.