The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, February 1986, Vol. XXIII, Number 7

Lincoln’s Birthday now has a twin.  Martin Luther King, Jr. has joined our sixteenth president  as a national hero deserving a national holiday.  The symbols of national unity are now becoming more diverse. 

Many people thought that the “kosherizing” of this new holiday would never happen.  Many worked hard to make sure that it would never happen.  Bigots had blind masks of respectability, maintaining that there were other, more worthy Americans from Thomas Jefferson to FDR who deserved holidays first.  They missed the point of King’s advocates.  National memorial festivals are not really intended to honor the dead.  They are symbols of political and social realities which merit public attention and respect. 

What is the significance of celebrating King’s birthday for all Americans? 

The birthday reminds us that we are a multi-ethnic, multi-racial nation with connections to many countries and many nations.  At one time, we had an Angleo-Saxon majority who found their sense of roots in England.  Today the citizens of British descent are a minority people, an ethnic enclave in an increasingly diverse state.  For most American, English is not their ancestral tongue.  It is a cultural convenience which enables people of widely different backgrounds to communicate with each other in a mobile urban society where space has to be shared.  The symbols of the state, including its holidays, need to reflect the people who live in it. 

The birthday reminds us that we are gradually ceasing to be a “European” nation.  Blacks, Asians and Chicanos are a very visible presence in our country.  Given the present birthrates of both whites and non-whites, it is quite likely that the future racial composition of the American people will be radically different from what it presently is.  Countless numbers of Americans will no longer be able to find their “homeland” in Europe.  They will experience their roots in Asia and Africa.  As an Africa-American, King is a symbol of the American future much more than a hero of the American past. 

The birthday is a sign of the health of the American political system.  There is an enormous flexibility in our politics structures which enables them to adapt successfully to dramatically new circumstances and which most leftist radicals failed to discern.  Ever since the civil rights marches twenty years ago there have been enormous changes in the pattern of racial segregation and humiliation in the country.  Although unemployment is still widespread in the black (sic) community, the presence of blacks (sic) in politics, academia and corporations is considerably stronger.  Despite all the racial tensions that persist, there is a creative dynamism and health to our society which warrants optimism.  Progress moves slowly.  But it does move. 

The birthday reminds us that it is possible for competing nationalities to negotiate their differences and avoid Civil War. Lincoln was a reluctant war leader.  King was an enthusiastic advocate of non-violence.  In a multi-ethnic world where nationalities are all mixed together in an urban stew, civil war is self-destructive because both sides destroy what they need to share.  Since they cannot really be separated, they have to develop a pragmatic togetherness.  Old models of confrontation no longer work.  Boundaries with hostile forces on both sides are ineffective as more and more blacks (sic) and Chicanos slip into the middle class.  Differences will have to be negotiated peacefully.  Non-violence will mean survival. 

For us Jews, King’s birthday offers at least two messages.  The first is that our historic immigrant skill of climbing to the top by seeking to ingratiate ourselves with the Anglosaxon establishment may now be less useful than it used to be.  Our obsession with impressing white Protestants with our social usefulness and with the benign character of our religion reflects a survival strategy appropriate to an Anglosaxon country.  In a state where blacks(sic) are becoming politically more and more important, we need to reassess the danger of the new hostilities which have surfaced in the past few years between black (sic) and Jews.  We need new skills for dealing more effectively with non-white, non-establishment ethnic groups.  We need to spend more time trying to find out what they want and need. 

The second message deals with our image of the Jewish state.  Although Israel is clearly binational-with a substantial Arab minority with a language of its own-there are no symbols, heroes, or holidays with which the Arabs can identify and which enable the Jews to give public recognition and dignity to the Arab presence.  For Arabs in Israel, the signs of Israeli patriotism provoke only alienation.  For Jew in Israel, they emphasize the “foreignness” of their Arab citizens.  While non-Israeli Jews in the Diaspora can identify with the symbols of the Jewish state, many non-Jewish Israeli citizens of longstanding cannot.  Ultimately, out of both moral and political necessity, Canada had to alter its flag to acknowledge the French, and America had to change its roster of heroes to give recognition to the blacks (sic).  Hopefully, Israel will prove as wise.