Patriotism, Equality and Communal Obligation: Where Shavuot and Memorial Day Meet

by Alan van Capelle

The confluence of Shavuot and Memorial Day this year is a chance to reflect on the Jewish ethos of communal obligation as it pertains to patriotism, and the American ethos of equality as it pertains to Jewish values.

Shavuot commemorates the receipt of the Torah – a pivotal moment when Jews collectively entered a covenant that transformed us into a people – a community bound together by shared obligation. Memorial Day, when first celebrated by African Americans as a way to honor deceased Union soldiers who fought for their freedom, commemorated the sacrifice of life to help create a more just and unified nation.

Today, the remains buried in the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington, most likely soldiers of humble origin, are accorded honors higher than any general, or even the President of the United States – guarded around the clock every minute of every day since 1930 by a rotation of service members who bear no insignia, to ensure they do not outrank the unknowns. Similarly, the Jewish tradition of burying our dead in a plain pine box illustrates a belief in the ultimate equality of all people.

Reflecting on Jewish communal obligation and the American ideal of equality seems highly relevant right now, as millions of our neighbors struggle and our charitable institutions are unable to keep up with the growing need convulsing families and entire communities in our land of plenty.

Last month’s Public Religion Research Institute Survey reminded us that more than 80 percent of American Jews consider pursuing justice and caring for others the key to their Jewish identity. And a majority cited seeing every person as made in the image of god as an important influence in their lives.

For many of us in the Jewish community, these survey results were not surprising. As the researchers summed up, the data “confirmed how central social justice and a sense of commitment to social equality is to American Jewish values.” Still, as we anticipate the confluence of holidays devoted to communal covenant and patriotism, it’s worth considering just why this is the case.

I would argue that Jews’ belief in the promise of America is in our DNA – that it is something we couldn’t escape even if we wanted to – and that we don’t want to escape it because it enhances our lives, infusing them with meaning. I would go further and say that a strong sense of purpose, of being part of something greater and more important than ourselves, is the reason the Jewish community withstood thousands of years of adversity and continues to grow today.

The idea of Jews creating a “holy nation” is tied directly to the moment the Torah was received and we entered the covenant that made us a people. If we take this seriously then, by extension, the active pursuit of a fair and sustainable society is a sacred, authentic, and urgent expression of Jewish tradition. That is why American Jews have such a strong history of acting together, and collaborating across lines of race and faith, to bend the arc of this nation’s history toward justice – whether through our deep involvement in the anti-sweatshop movement, the movement against child labor, the modern labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the movement for LGBT inclusion and through countless local campaigns for economic justice and civil rights.

The United States is the freest, most prosperous, most accepting society that Jews have ever inhabited. Many of us owe our lives to the fact that our ancestors immigrated here. But the promise of America is that everyone can share in the social and economic opportunity of our nation and enjoy equal rights and liberties. Insisting upon and acting on the belief that we can and must fulfill that promise is the very definition of patriotism – which means love of country. It is the bridge between Shavuot – which reminds us of our obligation to build a holy society – and Memorial Day – which reminds us that Americans have, more than once, been willing to die in this effort.

For much of American History, the assumption of shared obligation was inextricable from patriotism and drove both economic growth and social mobility.

Take education as an example. After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, one of the first tasks the new nation set for itself was the establishment of public education. By 1870, all 37 states had free public schools and the United States had one of the world’s highest literacy rates. In 1847, the Free Academy of the City of New York was founded so that poor people could receive a college education. The Academy, which grew to become the City University of New York where I went to school at Queens College, was largely tuition free for more than 100 years. All of this was possible because of a broadly held American belief that education is beneficial not just for the individual who receives it as some sort of personal commodity, but as an essential cornerstone of the common good in a free, prosperous nation.

Social Security, which was enacted at a time when more than half of older Americans were living in poverty, along with unemployment compensation and the minimum wage, were all made possible, despite controversy, because of a shared sense of communal obligation underpinned by patriotism.

A patriotic belief in communal responsibility also fueled the fight for passage of the GI Bill after World War II, which provided eight million Americans with unemployment benefits, low-interest housing and business loans, and free college tuition. And while racism often made it difficult for black servicemen to obtain these benefits, reducing the impact for the African American community, the GI Bill is nevertheless credited with increasing America’s black middle class and educating the generation of leaders who would launch the civil rights movement.

In its greatest moments, America has proven that a fair society is a sacred society, and that a fair economy is a strong economy. In our worst moments, we have broken that promise, to the detriment of all Americans.

Today, American Jews of every stripe care deeply about this country, its people, and our future. We know that bending the arc of our future towards justice requires engagement, leadership, and unfettered democracy. And we know that inaction is not an option. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, the opposite of good isn’t evil, it’s indifference. That’s why, as I prepare to study this Shavuot, I and many others will be thinking of the role that Jewish values and resources – and particularly Jews’ sense of communal obligation and our belief in the essential equality of all people – have to play in moving America forward to fulfill its promise as the nation our ancestors – and so many others – have come here to find.

Alan van Capelle is Chief Executive Officer of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.