My affair with America began with an explosion.
I was 14, standing on the roof of my home in suburban Tel Aviv and watching American MIM-104 Patriot missiles intercept Saddam Hussein’s projectiles and destroy them midair. I had visited America the place before, but watching the ink-black sky pocked by pinpricks of light as the American munition met its target introduced me to America the idea. America wasn’t just a country: It was a rocket, a boom, a sigh of relief from all of us under attack, a promise that every malicious launch will forever be met by a battery of hope.
I fell in love with America that night, and my infatuation never waned. As soon as I could, I left home and washed up on these shores, like so many other immigrants before me. I didn’t come in search of refuge or opportunity, but in search of a greatness I firmly believed this nation possessed. America, I felt, was exceptionally good, a grace it had won by committing itself from its very inception to life, liberty, and that most astonishing of undertakings, the pursuit of happiness. I came here with $2,000 in my pocket, no address, and a heart swelling with pride: Soon, I will be an American, one of the roughs.
Forgive me, then, if I don’t know quite what to make of this week’s events. I’ve lived here for 20 years now, but I’m still a newcomer. I grew up in a different place haunted by different demons, and some inherently American conversations, like the one about race, are difficult for me to decipher. I’m doing my best to listen and to learn, but weeks like this one remind me how little I really know.
Watching that knee descend on George Floyd’s neck, robbing him of air and life, I howled with outrage and heartbreak. I played that video again and again, unable to look away, feeling nauseated and afraid. That knee wasn’t so different from the one that came down on my grandfather’s mother and sisters in Romania, or on my ancestors in Russia yearning to breathe free. It was a blunt and mindless force that we Jews know all too well, and to witness it unfettered was to relive so many historical traumas and to shout that weary yet sadly still so relevant battle cry: Never again.
And then there are the riots. Much remains unknown about just who is responsible for setting America’s cities ablaze these past few days, but one thing is certain: No society should ever tolerate this. No city should be under curfew, and no business owner forced to watch her livelihood shattered by an angry mob, no matter how righteous the anger that feeds it.
If these last two paragraphs strike you as a tad banal, it’s because they are, or, at least, ought to be. It’s perfectly fine—obvious, even—for a person to feel deep disgust and a yearning for change on the one hand and an unshakable commitment to law and order on the other. In fact, it’s the sort of profoundly American pairing that made this country so attractive to folks like me, coming from parts of the world where substantial progress rarely happens unless consecrated with blood. But this week, I felt uncomfortable sharing my perfectly ordinary feelings with my friends, many of whom fell under the spell of the siren song of sideism.
Theirs was a stark, searing question: Whose side are you on? If you believe that George Floyd’s murder was an atrocity, you must contribute to the bail fund of those arrested for looting Macy’s and join the petition to defund the police. If you believe that smashing windows and stealing stuff is wrong, you must cheer on the president and say nothing about police brutality. Silence wasn’t an option this week; nor were confusion, exhaustion, introspection, or doubt. If you didn’t change your social media profile picture, if you didn’t make big and sweeping claims, if you didn’t stand firmly in one corner and hiss at the other you were chastised for being at best deficient and, at worst, a moral monster. Don’t you know people are dying? Don’t you know that we have no choice but to pick a side and fight for it?
Call it an immigrant’s naiveté, but I refuse to feel this way. An America in which large crowds are mobilized from the top down and pressured to claim their total allegiance to a cause, any cause, is not the America I know and love. An America in which you are ordered to excuse violence of any kind for whatever reason is not the America I know and love. An America in which even a show for toddlers about dogs with jobs feels compelled to make a political message and a television channel for school-age children is urging parents to baptize their kids in the swamp of politics is not the America I know and love. An America in which political interests with deep pockets and bad faith design large steamrollers for the sole purpose of flattening the national conversation into loud, declarative sentences—all cops are bastards! Dominate the streets! Power to the people! Call in the army!—is not the America I know and love. That America, the America leering at us from every TV screen and social media post this week, is one that’s terrible for the Jews—somehow, the zealots on both sides always find their way to the shul—and horrible for Americans.
Thankfully, that’s not the America I see this week. What I see are people like me, who understand that this messy and painful conversation, like all messy and painful conversations, can only be had with open minds and open hearts, with great sorrow and wild optimism jousting for our attention, with enough inconvenient truths to keep us up at night, and without ever succumbing to the Soviet-style expectation that unless we somehow make our politics unmistakably public we may be somehow at fault and at risk.
We have a host of thorny conversations ahead of us, from deciding who to elect come November to making sure no more African American men and women are murdered by those who swore to serve and protect them. But these conversations cannot happen on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and they cannot begin with an accusation rather than an honest inquiry.
And so if you need something to hang on to during this intolerable week, reach out to an immigrant. We’ll tell you that we see the darkness, too, but we also remember how far we’ve come, and how many of the weights that seemed immovable only two generations ago are now footnotes in history books. We’ll tell you that the magic of America is that there are no two sides here, only strangers bound together not by blood or land or faith but by an idea, the strongest of all in the history of the past 300 years, the idea of American exceptionalism with all its terrible beauty and insufferable burdens. We’ll tell you that we don’t need a leader to inspire us or marshal us into war, and that we are free to rise to the moment and not be consumers or subjects but citizens who play their part and nurture their communities and care for their neighbors irrespective of differences of any kind. We’ll tell you that it’s all right to feel many conflicting things or one burning thing or nothing at all, because that’s a privilege that free men and women, and they alone, have. We’ll tell you that even though we can’t explain how, it’s going to be all right, because we believe in this place and always have.
And finally, we’ll tell you this: Many of us, like me, learned to love this country by seeing it protect our native lands. Now it’s our turn—and our privilege—to return the favor, and help protect America.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.