On Citizenship and Soda Cans
Originally posted on New York Jewish Week
It was once a mainstay of think-pieces and then, Shabbaton conversations with high school students: Are we Jewish Americans, or American Jews? The question asked what extent we identified with the culture and values of the society in which we lived, and to what extent we saw ourselves as a nation who dwelt alone.
But “Americans” in that question meant participants in American high and mass culture. It did not speak to our engagement as citizens of the United States – as members of a body politic who express policy preferences, support candidates, and vote.
When it comes to that question, our interaction is often much less philosophically inflected. We tend to approach American politics less as ponderers of intersecting identities, and more as people standing before a soda machine, inserting our quarters and waiting for the cans to drop. Our relationship to our American democratic republic has become largely transactional. What are we giving – in tax dollars, in support for candidates – and what are we getting back? Whether we seek lower property taxes, government funding for our schools, or support for Israeli missile defense systems, the fundamental relationship is the same: we are consumers of a product, the product is government, and the only relevant question is whether what we have purchased is to our liking.
It’s easy to attribute this to our historical experience as subjects of inhospitable regimes. We might have prayed for the well-being of the czar, but we were under no illusions about our relationship with him (or his with us). That, goes the argument, conditioned us to relate to government only with an eye toward what we could get out of it, without a sense of investment, obligation, or values at stake – without that is, a sense of citizenship.
But I’m reluctant to rely on 200-year-old explanations when far more recent ones serve. Jews are not unique in our increasing atomization and consumerism within society – we mirror the broader American trends toward organizational and institutional disaffiliation so thoroughly captured by Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone. (While the title makes it sound as though it could comfortably take its place on the shelf alongside dozens of other pop-sociology tomes, Putnam brings the receipts, in the form of a vast trove of data, to buttress his argument about Americans’ decreasing participation in community-level organizations and groups).
We Should be Deeply Invested in the Well-being of Western Democracies
This point was brought home forcefully to me in, of all places, Beth Moses Cemetery on Long Island. There for the interment of my uncle, I passed sections for the Knights of Pythias, the Brotherhood of Jewish Postal Workers, and various landsmanshcaften. None of these organizations exists any more – and new ones have not supplanted them. Across Jewish society, as across American society more broadly, we have become less inclined to join the local community organizations that, as Nancy Rosenblum argues in Good Neighbors, bridge between the lone individual and the vast abstraction that is our government.
There’s an important question to ask here: So what? So what if we approach voting transactionally, or as consumers? As a passionate believer in our democratic republic and the values that underlie it, I worry about the future of this enterprise if Americans generally do not have any more investment in our government than slotting in our quarters and awaiting the clunk of a can. But both our history and our mission specifically as Jews ask more of us than even our shared citizenship asks of us as Americans.
Having suffered a brutal and painful legacy of discrimination and hatred (one that we might have hoped to have put behind us, but clearly have not), we should be deeply, communally invested in the well being of the Western liberal democracies. That applies particularly to the medinat hachesed (the state of generosity) in which we live – and it cannot flourish without an involved and engaged citizenry. And as bearers of a Torah tradition that calls for a deep concern with the wellbeing of the stranger, the poor, and the marginalized, questions of the right and the good in how we structure a society and allocate its resources should matter to us beyond the extent to which they affect our immediate concerns.
There isn’t any one way to do this. People of different political stripes and persuasions will have different answers to those questions, different ways to interpret and apply the fundamental values of citizenship.
But we as an American Jewish community, and we as a society, haven’t invested enough in recent decades in teaching toward those values, and discussing those questions. The evidence of the fraying of the fabric of our civic society reminds us that we must.