Anything to declare?
We all have our hobbies. Some people like to collect cookbooks, others to fish for bass.
I like to read presidential proclamations about Jewish people.
These ceremonial documents often contain coded messages and hints at how we as a people are perceived by folks in power. And while it ain’t The Da Vinci Code, close reading can uncover some gems.
This year’s proclamation of the annual “Jewish American Heritage Month” by President Obama was particularly rich, starting — actually, ending — with the unprecedented omission of the formulaic phrase “in the year of our Lord.” (See related article.) No one seems to have asked them to remove this unmistakable reference to Jesus, but I’m glad it’s gone. I don’t think it belongs in any government document.
Of course, things being as they are between Obama and Jewish officialdom, it’s fair to wonder if there wasn’t more to the gesture than simple sensitivity. Blogging about my discovery, Politico writer Ben Smith suggested the gesture was another salvo in Obama’s “intense charm offensive aimed at the Jewish and pro-Israel communities.”
Not that it will matter much: Check out the comments on Smith’s blog, and you’ll see that Jews and non-Jews alike have made up their minds about Obama: He’s a Muslim, he’s anti-Christian, he’s anti-Israel. Jews are anti-American, America’s a Christian country, no it’s not, yes it is. The only consensus on the Web was among White Supremacists, who took the omission of “in the year of our Lord” as evidence of Obama’s, and the Jews’, continued assault on their values.
There’s more interesting stuff in this year’s 400-word proclamation. It quotes Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poet who wrote the “give me your tired” poem for the Statue of Liberty. “These poignant words still speak to us today, reminding us of our Nation’s promise as a beacon to all who are denied freedom and opportunity in their native lands,” the proclamation declares.
It’s a nice topical opening. With the Arizona “papers, please” law at the center of national debate, the president uses the occasion to recall the contributions of immigrants.
The proclamation presses this point later on: “As they have immeasurably enriched our national culture, Jewish Americans have also maintained their own unique identity.”
Again, an implied political argument: Immigrant groups can maintain their “unique” identities while becoming fully American. It’s not either/or. That’s a lesson for all sides in the immigration debate, although I think here it’s meant to be heard by nativists.
The proclamation also contains what may be the first official use of the term “tikkun olam” by a sitting president: “Today, Jewish Americans carry on their culture’s tradition of ‘tikkun olam’ — or ‘to repair the world’ — through good deeds and service.”
As I’ve written in the past, the term was popularized by liberals as a Jewish synonym for “social justice.” Obama used the term before, in his campaign speech to AIPAC in 2008. But I think he’s using it here as a nod to the Jewish majority that voted for him, who are, I’m sure, more inclined than conservatives to describe their politics in terms of “tikkun olam.”
(I searched the term “tikkun olam” at the websites of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition. NJDC had 23 references; RJC had only four. Three of those quote liberals, and the fourth criticizes Reform Judaism for abusing the term.)
I like how the writer avoids stepping on one mine in listing Jewish accomplishments: “As leaders in every facet of American life — from athletics, entertainment, and the arts to academia, business, government, and our Armed Forces — Jewish Americans have shaped our Nation and helped steer the course of our history.”
Why do I get the feeling they added “athletics” during rewrite? I know: Koufax, Greenberg, and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. But I bet someone looked at the original list (entertainment, the arts, academia, business, government) and figured, “Wow, that looks like a stereotype. Better throw in ‘athletics’ and ‘Armed Forces’ lest we hear from the ADL.”
A reference to our “tireless work to achieve success” is also a bit of a stereotype, but Jews will be okay with it because a) it’s flattering, b) it’s how we describe ourselves, and c) it’s true, mostly.
Now let’s look at what’s not in the proclamation: any mention of Israel. But don’t jump to conclusions: President Bush only mentioned Israel in one of the nine Jewish Heritage proclamations he issued.
There’s one more interesting omission in this proclamation: Judaism as a faith. You can read it and have no idea that Jews practice a distinct religion. That’s a contrast with past proclamations, including one by Obama in 2008, which had an entire paragraph on “mitzvot” and direct references to Passover, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat.
Did something change between last year and this? Did the president lose his religion, or think we lost ours? Or maybe because the National Day of Prayer proclamation was issued on the same day, the White House writers were tired of religion.
Whatever the reason, I would have left in at least a mention of faith, because it’s essential, and it would keep nudniks like me from reading these things way too closely.