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American by the Grace of God

Becoming a citizen of this great nation is a divine gift, not a universal right

Liel Leibovitz
Tony Badran
July 03, 2024

Library of congress

Library of congress

What, to an immigrant, is the Fourth of July?

For the two of us immigrants—a Christian from Lebanon and a Jew from Israel, respectively—Independence Day, in addition to hot dogs on the grill and fireworks in the sky, is about taking a moment to reflect on the seminal decision of our lives: the decision to come to America to be part of a great and good nation.

If you’re detecting a religious undertone in our love for this country, you’re not wrong. Though we come from two very different faith traditions, we both see becoming an American as an act of grace, an unmerited privilege bestowed on an individual in the belief that he or she can, in the brightness and warmth of this singular country, find salvation.

We left behind our native countries because we believed that in America we could find the freedom to pursue our passions without being encumbered by the chill of chaos or the yoke of a restrictive society judging you based on the accidents of your birth rather than the content of your character. We were moved by the signs, the sights, and the sounds we’ve seen and heard as young boys: American music, swinging with optimism and propelling us to explore new boundaries. American films, telling stories that gave us new insights into our own selves. American literature, painting magnificent vistas in a language pulsing with a unique rhythm. American democracy, boisterous but confident in the self-evident truths of its foundation. All those, we believed, came to us courtesy of something we understood as the American spirit, partaking in which is a divine gift. In short, becoming American, to us, is not a universal right; it’s the most supreme privilege imaginable, an invitation to write a sentence or two in the greatest story of the modern era, the story of American exceptionalism.

Which is why this Fourth of July, our festiveness is marred by anger. Because everywhere you turn these days, America—its symbols, and its spirit—is being not just desecrated, but attacked with intent to destroy.

On the streets of New York, Los Angeles, and our other formerly thriving cities, American flags are being uninterruptedly burned by kaffiyeh-clad thugs. American emblems are replaced by the banners of Third World passions and their grotesque aesthetics. Set Old Glory on fire these days, and you’ll find no shortage of pundits and politicos who will bray about the merits of robust activism. Indulge in the symbolism of sectarian grievance and tribal identity politics, and you are celebrated as the fulfillment of what true, improved, America ought to be.

We look with sadness at the empty slab in front of Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History, where a statue of Teddy Roosevelt once stood, or at New York’s City Council Chambers, where an 884-pound Thomas Jefferson presided over the proceedings for 187 years before being unceremoniously removed. These decisions aren’t just political theater; they’re the rites and rituals of a competing belief system, one that believes that only the oppressed, real or imagined, are righteous; that America was born of the sin of slavery and raised by the light of racism; and that a complete inversion of its founding principles was required to repent for all these evil doings.

Many of these masked marauders are our fellow immigrants. Ironically, their chief interest seems to be the degradation of America into the festering backwaters they themselves had rushed to leave behind. Obscenely, the current administration seems to want them to do just that.

During Joe Biden’s term in office to date, more than 6.4 million illegal immigrants have crossed the border into America. And last month, the president announced a new executive order that will reward an estimated 550,000 illegal aliens with green cards, work permits, and other stepping stones to citizenship.

The security challenges of letting in a torrent of unchecked migrants are obvious: The number of military-age Chinese nationals crossing the border, for example, has spiked by a mind-numbing 7,000% since 2021, according to the Hudson Institute’s Jeremy Hunt, and that’s just for the first half of 2024—if the numbers continue apace, the increase will cross the 14,000% mark. But our concerns this July 4 are primarily spiritual, because our current catastrophic open border policy turns grace into its opposite—entitlement.

If the doors of the house have simply been removed, then an invitation is no longer needed. The house, and all that’s in it, are there for the taking.

For the current wardens of our forefathers’ home, this is just and good, for the house was built on an evil foundation. And so they have resolved it an act of historical justice and manifestation of righteousness to break down the doors, erase the boundaries and encourage everyone to do as they please inside.

That’s not the salvific gift of grace. It’s an act of defilement and a violation of the patrimony with which they were entrusted by the great men and women who built it, who forged its codes of conduct, the very ones that kept America from becoming one of the world’s many benighted nations—those whose monuments are being trashed by the ingrates, guests and spoiled members of the household alike.

We grieve when we see the mores we so enthusiastically adopted being denounced as bigoted by a self-indulgent and dishonorable intellectual elite, and we hurt as the nasty and brutish spirit we thought we’d left behind in the Middle East—the rampant Jew hatred, say, or the scenes of mobs cheering for revolution—is now resurrected stateside. But most of all, we rage at the absolute lack of gratitude on display.

When member of Congress Ilhan Omar brags about making America do whatever she and her fellow Somali immigrants wish, she’s not just being dismissive of her duties to serve the American people and American interests. She’s also pointing a middle finger at a nation that rescued her from the hellish landscape of her failed native state and elevated her to fame, fortune, and influence. This kind of ingratitude is not only emotionally disgusting; it’s also morally corrupt—and corrupting.

“I believe in American exceptionalism,” Barack Obama told a reporter in 2009, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

To Obama’s mind, America was exceptional precisely because it was smart enough and soulful enough to recognize that it wasn’t. But to paraphrase that masterful document of American political theory, Pixar’s The Incredibles, if everyone is exceptional then nothing is exceptional, especially not America.

We disagree.

America is more special than other countries. Moreover, it has withstood greater crises than these, and each time, a divine hand has guided it onward to greatness.

But the only way this will happen is by understanding that grace, while freely given, is nevertheless contingent—it is decidedly not an entitlement. It requires a fundamental transformation in accordance with the rules of the house, and so it comes with an inherent warning against precisely the sort of exploitations we’re seeing these days from our fellow Americans.

We immigrants have been invited into this great house, but ungrateful guests can and should be asked to leave. Grace is an act of adoption, the incorporation into a familial bond that is not yours by birthright, not a license to demolish the very foundations on which we all stand.

As students of the Bible and of Hebrew, we are inspired by the fact that the Hebrew name for America is Artzot Ha’Brit, or the lands of the covenant. Ours is a covenantal nation, which means that each generation must renew the covenant with the Almighty and be found worthy anew of the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our predecessors did so by repelling the British, ending slavery, and preserving our legacy of freedom and equality. It’s now our turn to do the same. As we stand by the barbecue soon and enjoy our bounties, then, we’ll do so with the three words on our lips that had inspired immigrants since the dawn of our national sojourn: God bless America.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.

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