February 20, 2009

We've all seen the bumper stickers. They are a somber black with white numbering: 1.20.09. They appeared shortly after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. In one sense, they were reassuring. Those who hated Bush-and they were intense-were indicating their willingness to wait for the end of his constitutionally prescribed term. The real crazies wanted to impeach him. Some members of the loony Left wanted something even worse.

It's now just one month after the day longed for by millions. I've been struggling to recall anything said in that Inaugural Address. I remember the day-cold and clear. I recall the wonderful crowds-millions of people, cheerful and hopeful. At least 1.8 million folks came to the National Mall and not one person was arrested. God bless them.

Still, it is strange, isn't it, that we cannot recall any ringing phrase, any soaring statement from that long-awaited day of days?

Memory failed, so I checked the text online. Yes, it was there, that odd formulation:

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture..." This was perhaps the first time in American history that Muslims preceded Jews in such a ceremonial listing.

Why is this significant? Perhaps it is because this nation was founded by Protestants deeply imbued with the Hebrew Scriptures. For the Pilgrims and Puritans, for the Anglicans and Quakers, many of whom were literate in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the Jews were no strangers. Jews came to colonial America early. They were admitted to Dutch New Amsterdam in 1655, long before America became an independent nation.

Over a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt congratulated the Jewish community on 250 years in America. He made an exception to his rule against such letters, he said, because of the extraordinary suffering of the Jewish people in Russia, Eastern Europe, and in other parts of the world.

T.R. loved American history. Like President Obama, he studied at Harvard and at Columbia. But he seems to have drunk more deeply from the streams of America's storied past. President Roosevelt wrote to the Jewish organizing committee:

The celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the settlement of the Jews in the United States properly emphasizes a series of historical facts of more than merely national significance. Even in our colonial period, the Jews participated in the upbuilding of this country, acquired citizenship, and took an active part in the development of foreign and domestic commerce. During the Revolutionary period, they aided the cause of liberty . . . During the Civil War, thousands [of Jews] served in the armies and mingled their blood with the soil for which they fought.

Why did President Obama give priority of place to the Muslims over the Jews? To be sure, America does extend the rights of full citizenship to all. America does recognize the right of all to freedom of worship. But when in 1790 President Washington became the first leader in history to recognize the Jews as equal fellow citizens, he also spoke of the need for all to obey the laws of this great new republic. His Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport pledged the United States to "give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." One hopes all Americans-including Muslims -- will read this vital letter.

Was President Obama's odd formulation just a figure of speech? Or does it portend something else? Israel has just elected Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. He has vowed never to allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. President Obama has vowed to talk directly to the Iranians without preconditions. Ahmadinejad has responded to the President's extended hand by launching a satellite, proving to the world that if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, his Islamic Revolutionary regime has the means to deliver it-to Jerusalem, or to Washington, D.C.

The Psalmist tells us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. America was the first nation in the world to recognize the State of Israel. President Harry Truman, a strong Democrat, overrode the objections of his Secretary of State, the great George C. Marshall, in doing this. Truman regarded Marshall as the greatest man in America. Yet he was willing to risk Marshall's resignation rather than to abandon Israel to five invading Muslim armies.

Does President Obama know this history? Does he appreciate the meaning of Washington's letter? Or will his promised message of change mean a change in America's relationship with the Jews at home and abroad? These are heavy tidings to ponder just one month into the new era.