10/3/18 This One Is About America
I was going to write about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent UN speech. Alternatively, I considered writing about the fact Israelis are among the very few people in the world to have confidence in President Donald J. Trump (a Pew poll this week shows 82% of Jewish Israelis trust the President’s handling of global affairs, 94% have a favorable opinion of the US). However, watching the Kavanaugh Senate hearings and related events from afar spurred me to write this very different article.
I am 63 years old, trained political scientist, who has spent most of my life writing about and teaching history — American History, in particular. I have also spent almost half my adult life residing in Israel. For most of my life, I have believed I had a deep understanding of America — Not so today.
I currently live in a country that is profoundly divided on two core issues. A significant portion of Israelis believe we can never withdraw from the West Bank (known to them as ‘Judea and Samaria’); as we have a God-given right to that land and nothing can move us from there. Another significant portion Israeli believes one of the worst things Israel has ever done is the occupation of another people (the Palestinians) and that this occupation must end, at any cost. Of course, there is a large centrist group that just wants to live in peace and has no idea how that can be achieved.
The country is also deeply divided on the issue of religion. A significant portion of the population thinks that being a Jewish state requires being a state defined by the dictates of the Jewish faith, and in most cases that means the most conservative interpretations of that code. A seemingly larger group believes that Israel should be a modern 21st-century secular state, whose Jewishness is not defined by Jewish laws created centuries ago.
These are core disagreements; issues that should make the dispute between the sides unbridgeable. These controversies are even more impervious because Israel has no Constitution; no one supreme legal document to unite the country. Despite this fact, political rhetoric in Israel has never reached the levels it has recently reached in the United States — i.e., the lack of civility, the turning of every issue into a partisan food fight. Maybe it's because regardless of political beliefs, Israelis all serve together in the army. Perhaps its because our children all serve together, or because of the realization that if Hamas or Hezbollah start sending rockets our way they will not differentiate between the right-wing and left-wing, or between religious and secular. Whatever its origin, the sense of shared destiny seems to trump (possibly an unfortunate word choice) our differences, although those differences are very real and very deep.
So as I look at the United States, I am at a loss to understand what profound divisions exists. What so separates the citizens of a country with a shared history and Constitution? What so separates a country that until recently believed in its manifest destiny to be the “shining light on the hill”. As a historian, I understand how the US ended up fighting the Civil War. The issue of slavery was an almost unbridgeable gap, and as much as America tried to find a peaceful solution, it was unable. However, what bisects America so fundamentally today that some are talking about a second Civil War?
Some suggest the rift is over abortion. Without getting into substantive questions — does anyone really think overturning Roe vs. Wade will make a big difference? Reversing Roe will only allow states to ban abortion. Of the approximately 780,000 abortions that took place in the United States last year, almost 600,000 took place in solidly blue states, where a ban will likely never pass. Nearly half of those in red states took place in Texas, and North Carolina, states that are trending purple, and might also have a hard time passing an abortion ban. So is that what Americans are willing to start a Civil War over?
If not abortion, is it guns? Does anyone truly believe that when Democrats control the government again (yes, history says that it will eventually happen), they will try to take away guns from law-abiding Americans? True, they might reinstate the assault weapons ban, and require better reporting to keep guns away from the mentally ill and the young — but really, is this is what Americans are battling about?
Americans have always been divided between those who live in rural communities and those who live in cities; there has always been a gap between rich and poor. However, Americans have always been united in their reverence for the Constitution, and in their belief America has a unique role in the world.
As a lifetime student of American history I ask Americans of all beliefs to stop — Ask yourself whether there are issues of such existential important to you that it is worth risking the possibility of second Civil War? Why do you allow the politicians to divide the country instead of trying to unite it?
In the coming years, the United States will have to face many challenges, along with the rest of the world — including the effect of climate change, and technological innovation that will eliminate millions of jobs. If Americans turn every disagreement into an unbridgeable partisan fight they will not be ready to meet these challenges, not to mention, lead the rest of the world in facing them.