By Dan Sinykin
I listened to Barack Obama’s first inaugural address on a bus, in the desert, in Israel, while jets flew overhead to bomb the Gaza Strip. I was with 35 other American Jews and a half-dozen Israeli soldiers. Next to me sat Amit, who had, not a week earlier, killed Palestinians as part of the ground siege in Gaza. “It’s not like I looked them in the face,” he told me. “We were all shooting.” To avoid nightmares, he hadn’t been sleeping. “When I close my eyes,” he said, “I see things.” Yet he carried himself lightly, had perceptive eyes, a kind face.
We, on the bus, were in the midst of Birthright, a free trip to Israel for American Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 designed “to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.” So, as we listened to Obama speak, belonging was on my mind. Many of us on the trip came with, at best, a marginal sense of our Jewishness. To qualify for Birthright, we needed to satisfy two criteria: to have one Jewish grandparent, on either side; and to deny believing in Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior. My dad is Jewish, my mom is a Lutheran pastor. All my life, when I’ve claimed to be Jewish, goyim have interrogated my ancestry and, after learning about my mom, have said, as if solving a riddle, “You’re not really Jewish.”
And yet. Immediately after our arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, our guide, Ilan, stood before us and, mustering all possible sincerity, said, “I need to pause, because I promised myself I would never make this a cliché.” He paused. “Welcome home.” (Later, in an exemplary moment of protesting too much, he told us, “This is not a brainwashing tour.”)
Belonging catches us up in complicities. That night, in the desert, I was just beginning to reckon with how, if I embraced a Jewishness I found seductive, I would have to engage a nation-state that, in its merciless Zionism, could slaughter nearly 1400 Palestinians as part of Operation Cast Lead, while devastating the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure and leaving it in ruins.
What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be American? These questions are deceptive in their apparent simplicity. They often evoke ethnic nationalism, easy patriotism. Sometimes, too, they call forth self-righteous disavowals, happy denunciations of what we dislike about our people, our nation, without acknowledgment of our complicity. Now we inaugurate Donald Trump as the U.S. president. In living rooms and coffee shops, I hear friends and strangers asking that 9th grade civics question with a sudden dark urgency: what does it mean to be American under Trump? We are bound to learn something, amid the vapid rhetoric, when he mounts his podium at the west front of the Capitol building to deliver his inaugural address.
It is the job of an inaugural address to unify a partisan nation. After a divisive election, it ought to tell each citizen welcome home. But in fact it has, in U.S. history, become an ironic genre. “We have chosen hope over fear,” said Obama at his first inauguration, “unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” trying to create a fact by uttering it, though Mitch McConnell, Roger Ailes, and Donald Trump had other plans. Abraham Lincoln’s call “to bind up the nation’s wounds” at his second inauguration could not prevent his assassination. William Henry Harrison, braving inclement weather, delivered the longest inaugural speech to date in an attempt to prove, despite his old age, his robustness, and in so doing caught the pneumonia that would kill him 60 days later.
But, in 2009, out there in the desert, little seemed ironic about Obama. I was one of the ones with hope. We listened against the backdrop of war, a war framed for us as between Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, Hebrew and Arabic. Good American students of liberal arts colleges, we asked skeptical questions about Operation Cast Lead and were told we were bad Jews. Over the airwaves, Obama said, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.” He said, “we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.” I was not immune to the romance of American exceptionalism, especially not at that moment. What a pretty picture, such a world. How parochial, how undemocratic, the idea of a state designated for one ethnicity, one religion. Those of us on the bus, the Americans, felt buoyed, and walked into the desert night ready to drink around the bonfire and celebrate a faraway place that we could, after the Bush years, more easily call home.
What sounds, to some, like welcome home, says, to others, we wish you great harm. When Obama, in his first inaugural address, said, “we will restore science to its rightful place,” some heard a threat to strip religion from schools and public life. When he vowed “to extend opportunity to every willing heart,” some heard socialism. Some saw, in the first black president, not progress or a promising cosmopolitanism, but a Kenyan Muslim with designs to submit America to sharia law. Not all perceived threats, it turns out, are equally valid, a fair and balanced mistake that has come to endanger U.S. democracy.
What we did not understand, my fellow American Jews and I, asking naïvely about Operation Cast Lead, was that our welcome home was about more than Birthright’s stated goals of developing solidarity among world Jewry. Wealthy conservative American donors, like the nefarious Sheldon Adelson, fund Birthright to combat what is known as the demographic problem. Israel, to maintain its identity as both a Jewish and democratic state, requires a majority Jewish population. Much of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians — housing demolitions, zoning restrictions, settlement building — serves this end, restricting Palestinian population growth by denying them space and infrastructure and by making life miserable. Birthright, in complement, aims to grow Israel’s Jewish population by inviting immigration — welcome home — and by Birthright’s well-known facilitation of hook-ups, toward the production of Jewish babies.
Our welcome home, then, indeed meant for Palestinians, we wish you great harm.
What was already clear to many in 2009 has become undeniable, openly expressed by members of the Israeli government. The two-state solution long ago became farce. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pursued a policy of settlement building in the West Bank to establish what its Israeli advocates call “facts on the ground,” intending Israel’s ultimate annexation of some or all of that territory. The U.S., for decades, regardless of president or party, has condemned Israel’s settlement expansion. Trump, on the other hand, has appointed, as his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who zealously defends settlement expansion and who has compared supporters of J Street — a moderate Jewish political organization that is mildly critical of Israel — to kapos. We are, so many of us now, bad Jews.
I don’t remember hearing, on that bus in Israel, Obama’s description of “the price and the promise of citizenship.” He said that “we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
For Obama, citizens have duties, though the specifics are vague. His emphasis on obligation — to ourselves, our nation, the world — harmonizes with his tendency toward the rhetoric of personal responsibility, which he especially directed at African Americans, a rhetoric that Ta-Nehisi Coates marked as frustrating in his recent retrospective on Obama’s presidency. To be a good citizen, we ought, gladly, to do our part to make America the place it ought to be.
This is strikingly different from acclaimed poet Claudia Rankine’s idea of “how you are a citizen,” from her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric: “Move on. Let it go. Come on.” Rankine gives us another picture of citizenship in the Obama years. Hers is one of casual racism, slights that cut and hurt, black bodies dead in the street, citizenship best performed not by attending to any duty toward a nation that inflicts harm, but by repeating a resigned mantra, a tired litany to resist what hasn’t changed: Move on. Let it go. Come on.
Trump has rousted forms of racism that lay dormant, and legitimated violence against women that had seemed, to many, long beyond the pale. All the same, in the face of an outrageous vulgarian, it is too easy to ogle the Internet’s parade of Obama nostalgia porn, to forget Rankine’s citizenship. Because Trump is so ludicrous, we forget the ways our politicians — Republicans and Democrats alike — have paved his path. Ajay Singh Chaudhary and Raphaële Chappe put this best in a passage worth quoting at length:
“Many in the United States fear a Trump election because there might be an explosion of state repression against the vulnerable, particularly against specific racial and ethnic minorities. And yet, the neoliberal state has already created a penal system to rival the world’s most authoritarian dictatorships. The United States imprisons more citizens (total and per capita) than any other country on Earth, and African Americans and Latinos at a vastly over-represented rate. Many fear Trump would bring massive deportations of undocumented immigrants. And yet, the neoliberal state already engages in mass deportations, at the level of millions during the current administration, with countless more waiting in dire conditions in the world’s largest network of immigrant detention camps. Many fear a Trump election would bring mass persecution, surveillance, and restrictions for American Muslims. And yet, the neoliberal state already spies on Muslims, administers religious tests at borders, and polices Muslims for nothing more than their religious practices. Many fear a Trump election might bring economic ruin, and yet, for most Americans, wealth is vanishing, wages stagnant, real unemployment steady.
“While their economic nationalisms are doomed and their ethno-nationalisms are abhorrent, the Trumps, Le Pens, and Farages are correct that the “established order” is not delivering for the vast majority of people. Furthermore, people do not simply feel more and more disenfranchised, they quite simply are. Trump [will] probably bring an erratic, unpredictable foreign policy. And yet, all that the neoliberal state has delivered in this arena are unending wars of aggression, intervention, and destabilization for political and economic gain.”
Citizenship feels, to me, like a strange scale of belonging. So abstract. I feel most at home among provisional communities, often populated in the single digits. Citizenship demands allegiance to the nation, another abstraction, without recognizing that the government expresses less the nation’s purported will — whatever that means — than the will of neoliberalism, embodied in corporations, advocated for by lobbyists. What it means to be American under Trump is, maybe, more than most of us would like to admit, not so different from what it meant to be American under Obama. If we have a duty as citizens, maybe it’s to note not only Trump’s novelty — not least his authoritarian tendencies — but also this sameness as we, so many of us, feeling newly the fire, dissent.
An inaugural address, in this millennium, is absolute phantasmagoria, a kind of collective delusion, the fantasy that the president serves the citizenry, when instead he incarnates its desire. He is a glorious cipher, and his inauguration is an occasion for carnivalesque exuberance or despair, the rebirth of a nation in the forgetful waters of Lethe. Welcome home: we wish you great harm.