When is it time to leave America?
(RNS) — Tuscany. Greece. Finland. Portugal. Toronto. Tel Aviv. Ireland.
No, that is not a recitation of the table of contents of the newest issue of Travel and Leisure.
That is actually a list of places that many of my friends have mentioned in the last week — not as places to visit, but as places to live.
Over the past few days, that whole idea — of leaving the United States of America and settling elsewhere — has become a live topic of conversation in my social circles.
The Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade.
The pervasive gun culture in this country, with mass shootings on a regular basis, and the lack of an adequate political will to curb them.
The Jan. 6 hearings, which have graphically shown the extent to which this nation is vulnerable to fascism.
The possibility of a resurgence, at the polls, of Trumpism.
Or, to quote a great piece of literature about another damaged land: ”Cry, the beloved country.”
That is what we are now doing. We are crying our beloved country.
How do I, as a Jew, respond to this anguish?
First, let us speak of the Roe v. Wade decision.
For the first time in this nation’s history, the U.S. Supreme Court has stripped away a right that it had previously given.
Supreme Court nominees lied about their intentions. They said that Roe was fixed law, but apparently had their fingers crossed behind their backs.
When they say that they are going to stop their rollback of rights with Roe, why should we believe them? Especially when Justice Clarence Thomas suggests that the court could theoretically go after other issues, like same-sex marriage and contraception.
Here is what we Jews know. Rights are fragile, and you can never take them for granted.
In 1791, France became the first European nation to give Jews rights as citizens; 100 years later, mobs in Paris chanted “Death to the Jews!” during the Dreyfus affair, in which a French Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of treason.
Yes, in Europe, Jews were granted rights — slowly. At the same time, and at every turn, other people were rethinking those rights — how appropriate such rights were, and how far they should go. Those people were not the brutes. They were the intellectual class. That was called the “Jewish question.”
In Germany, Austria and Hungary, Jews had rights — until they no longer had those rights.
The state that giveth rights can become the state that taketh those rights away.
That is precisely what Americans learned this past week. You can lose your rights, or your rights can become relativized and localized, varying from state to state.
Which brings me to my second point. If Jews know, better than anyone else, what it can mean for a country to change, and for rights to change and disappear, Jews also know that when it gets too much to bear, it is time to leave.
As someone once said: The most important thing a Jew must have is a valid passport.
This is the story of modern Zionism — of several waves of aliyah in the early 20th century; of German Jews coming to Jerusalem in the 1930s; Russian Jews coming in the 1980s; Jews of the Arab lands fleeing to Israel; Ethiopian Jews coming to Israel; of French becoming the most overheard language in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv several summers ago, as French Jews’ frantic purchasing of properties affected housing prices in Israel — all because of the rise of French antisemitism.
In the United States:
It is the story of Cuban and Argentine and Venezuelan Jews moving to Florida; the story of Russian Jews moving to Queens; the story of South African Jews moving to, say, Houston; the story of Persian Jews moving to Great Neck and Beverly Hills.
Some people have baggage. We Jews have luggage.
That whole thing about Jews being “a light to the nations”? It actually means that Jews have a pedagogical role: to allow our history to become a lesson to others. To say, nations are shaky; rights are shaky; learn to pivot.
Confession: I have engaged in such emigration fantasies. I have examined the cost of living in such places as Algarve, Portugal, which has become a popular destination for American ex-pats, and Barcelona, and yes, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Because, in one sense of Zionism, that is why Israel is there. As Robert Frost would put it: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
And yet, I am not ready to do that — yet.
Instead, I find myself paraphrasing the classic Israeli song “Ain Li Eretz Acheret” (I have no other country):
I have no other country
even if my land is aflame …
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.
I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes
This is a song that dares criticize its country’s direction. It is a song that speaks of disappointment — that Israel has changed, that it is aflame with division.
And yet, it is a song of sheer patriotism. It is my task, says the songwriter, to “not give up reminding her, until she will open her eyes.”
My inspiration for this moment in American history actually comes from an Israeli pop song.
I urge you: Do not give up reminding America of what America is supposed to be, to not “give up reminding her, until she will open her eyes.”
We all have a lot of work to do.