The Fourth (and Fifth) of July

Yesterday, July Fourth, Americans across the country celebrated Independence Day…

Yesterday? As a newspaper, Hamodia aims for timeliness as much as possible — today’s news today — and since this event required no inside information to predict, it would seem more appropriate to have prepared an editorial about the Fourth of July to run on the Fourth, not the Fifth.

But in this case, it allows us to make a point about historical accuracy. Although the “Glorious Fourth” is the traditional day of celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, historians have come to agree that the evidence shows that while the founders adopted it on July 4, 1776, they didn’t actually sign it until August 2. Copies of the approved text went out to the colonies on July 5. So we’re not really late at all.

As it does every year on the fourth of July, in cities and towns throughout America, tradition prevailed with the usual parades and fireworks, speeches and music; the traditional trappings of patriotism. There were also the traditional indulgences of backyard barbecues and hot-dog eating contests. They may have nothing to do with American history nor anything meaningful, but at least they are nonpartisan.

To be sure, there were some new variations on old-time themes: The high risk of wildfires has led some towns in California and Arizona to put on drone light displays instead of pyrotechnics. They lack the big boom that yields the “oohs” and “ahs” from fireworks watchers — just a low buzzing sound — but they’re safer.

Another sign of the 21st-century national concern for health and safety: The 118 air pollution sensors nationwide run by the Purple Air Network took its annual measure of the spike in unhealthy particulates from fireworks. But the pollutants waft away overnight and the government hasn’t seen the need for regulation, at least not yet.

It’s hard to pin down when it started, but it’s also become a kind of July 4th tradition to lament the disunity that plagues the country. This has bipartisan appeal. Republicans and Democrats are equally mournful over the political divisions — which they of course blame on each other.

But arguably the most important tradition — the most relevant to what America purports to be about — is that of new U.S. citizens being sworn in at locations around the country.

This year, more than 14,000 people became full-fledged citizens on July 3rd. Like millions before them, they pledged to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.” (Overall in 2017, 770,200 achieved citizenship.)

They recited those words in places as soaked with historical authenticity as George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Independence National Historical Park, Calvin Coolidge Homestead and Old Sturbridge Village. But they also made that declaration in such mundane venues as the Los Angeles Convention Center and Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio, Texas.

Amid the current tumult over illegal immigration, this relatively quiet, annual event tends to be forgotten. But it is no less moving for the participants.

The judge for the swearing-in in LA reportedly “got emotional” prior to administering the oath. He wasn’t the only one.

“I am proud to become an American citizen! A beautiful day of celebration!” exclaimed Luiz Pamplona. “Let’s keep America great for all who really love this country! G-d bless all and G-d bless America!”

This is an experience that many of our parents and grandparents went through. Whether they became naturalized citizens or not, they made the Atlantic passage, got through Ellis Island, braved a strange land with ways that were alien and often threatening to the traditions and customs they had lived with for centuries in Europe.

Tragically, many fell by the way spiritually. But for those who clung to the Torah, the freedom to follow their faith, despite severe economic trials, was an undreamt-of blessing.

In the lands they left, anti-Semitism was not only a deeply-rooted “tradition” among the gentile population, it was often the law of the land, mandating all manner of discrimination in jobs, in housing — almost no aspect of life was untouched by it. In Russia, the “Pale of Settlement” kept Jews in a ring of unrelenting poverty; and in Germany, the humiliating terms of defeat in World War I morphed rapidly into the infamous Nuremberg Laws and the Nazi Holocaust. It became a “crime” to even be a Jew or to save a Jewish life.

In America it has been the opposite. True, Jews have suffered, and still do suffer, from bigotry. They faced signs saying, “Jews not allowed” and quotas that kept them out of medical school and off of Ivy League campuses. Recent studies show an uptick in anti-Jewish incidents, including cemetery desecrations and verbal and physical violence.

But the great difference between the European experience and recent Jewish history in the United States has been that these abominations are blatantly against the American tradition of religious tolerance. Anti-Semitism here is still an individual aberration, consistently condemned by public officials.

Unlike Europe, there were no laws on the books to enforce anti-Semitism. On the contrary, the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion, and court rulings and government regulations since then have strengthened that guarantee.

Whatever disputes exist about where exactly to draw the Constitutional line separating church and state, there has never been any doubt that the law of the land allows for the rights of yeshivos, chadarim, Bais Yaakov schools, shuls and every other type of Jewish organization not only to exist but to thrive. And they have flourished to an extent that no one a century ago would have imagined.

We mark July Fourth with deep gratitude as a blessing for our people. In this malchus shel chessed, where it is not a crime to be a Jew, where one can live as a Jew in freedom and dignity.