E pluribus Unum has defined the United States from its earliest days. “From Many, One” indicated a unity of values rising from a diversity of origins. The initial idea focused on the prevalence of colonial or state identities that had to merge into Benjamin Franklin’s concept of ‘the American’ as distinct from a ‘British subject.’ By the start of the twentieth century, the process of building unity adopted the parameters of assimilation — blending new immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Russia with older groups from Germany, France, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom.
Many writers have emphasized the exclusion of African Americans from this process as the reason for the exceptional narrative of the Black Freedom Movement, but the stories of the American Jewish community hold profound historical value as well. Jewish families were part of the original republic and enjoyed the protections of the First Amendment for religious freedom in ways few other societies in world history to that point offered. A century later, the rising number of Jewish immigrants faced increasing waves of anti-Semitism, especially in industrial cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit. These conflicts reached their peaks in the third decade of the twentieth century when the Second Ku Klux Klan dominated politics nationwide and fostered widespread violence against Jewish youth.
It was in this context of peak hostility against Jews everywhere in the world that Zionism emerged. Pograms, massive displacement, endemic discrimination, and, ultimately, the Holocaust of the Second World War drove a moral imperative to create a Jewish homeland – Israel – from the ashes of British colonialism in northern Africa and eastern Asia. Israel’s politics have yet to escape the shadow of the genocide and oppression sustained by both Anglo-Saxon Christianity and Arabic Islam at the start of the last century. These poisonous roots continued to sabotage any peaceful resolution of the conflicts in today’s Middle East and to threaten millions of people’s lives in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran.
Yet, American Jews have achieved unparalleled social and economic acceptance over the last three generations. There was a brief notation of Senator Joseph Lieberman’s Jewish identity in his run for the vice-presidency in 2004, but there was no serious criticism of him or his politics based on his faith and culture. President John Kennedy faced much more public scrutiny for his Catholicism during his successful 1960 campaign. Jewish Americans are perhaps the hallmark example of “E Pluribus Unum” in the twentieth century.
Today, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community aspires to follow in their footsteps. 2006 was the flashpoint year where the issues began to change. For decades, anti-gay campaigns had been a fortress of political strength for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. The 2004 Presidential campaign was just the most recent manifestation of a long-standing pattern that galvanized the evangelical Christian right to protect traditional values. The failure of the Federal Marriage Amendment to pass the Senate in June may be the closest event to mark the shift. After that point, the language of discrimination carried the debate, paving the way to equality for all people, regardless of their sexual identity. It was a cultural shift similar to the way hip hop responded to the Contract with America in 1994. While the conservatives held the national political stage, the youth culture turned away from them and found a voice in artists like Nas, Notorious BIG, andTupac. In 2006, Neil Patrick Harris became a symbol for bold, mainstream, gay voices in American public life.
Terms like homophobia and heterosexism, which had been unrecognizable academic vocabulary, entered public discourse. The range of musicians, artists, actors, writers, and directors who supported equal marriage rights grew exponentially. By the start of 2014, the entire political equation on the issue had flipped from 27%of Americans supporting equal marriage rights in 1996 to 34% of them opposing those rights in 2014. No demographic segment of American society had gained popular support in the face of violent oppression as swiftly as the LGBT movement had done. In this drama, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds the role played by German Chancellor Adolph Hitler in the last century. Putin’s Olympics in Sochi showcased state discrimination and autocratic rule on a global scale. Hitler faced global embarrassment when the Berlin Olympics failed to sustain his Aryan supremacy theories. Open, accepting societies outperform those that maintain oppression and violence. Recent world history has been consistent in its verdict.
From this perspective, President Barack Obama must be understood as an antecedent, not an achievement. Where President Franklin Roosevelt established the conditions to return Israel to the world stage, President Obama has positioned himself to secure the human rights of the LGBT community. The common tie in the historiography for the rapid acceptance of these two groups – a century apart -must be their relative aggregate wealth, smaller demographic distribution, and the resulting political organization that derived from both factors. Unlike the continuing marginal status of women, Chicanos, American Indians, and African Americans, there is also a variable in Jewish and gay social visibility – some can pass for Christian or straight more easily. These distinctions offer starting points for asking more incisive questions about the similarities between the Jewish civil rights movement of the twentieth century and the LGBT civil rights movement of the twenty-first. Perhaps there are also lessons for every citizen about strategies for effective civic engagement.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Executive Director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (http://www.icmetrogrowth.com/) and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).