In one corner, you have the features of universal liberty: freedom of conscience, a free press, the right to own property, the right to elect political representatives, the right to move freely, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, the equality of all before the law regardless of racial origin, religious confession, gender or sexual orientation.
In the other corner, you have the features of racial tyranny: white foreign colonists displacing and ultimately eliminating the indigenous population, the importation of black slaves to motor an economy centered upon the export of commodities, successive denial of the franchise to non-whites, a criminal-justice system that presently incarcerates blacks at five times the rate of whites, a political class whose never-changing purpose is to maintain this unjust system at all costs.
These diametrically opposed interpretations flow from examinations of the same territory (the country that became the United States of America) over the same period of time (500 years or so.) Both have been very much in evidence over this last, excruciatingly painful month, and those who encounter these narratives are given the impression that it’s either one or the other. Between original sin and immaculate conception, there would seem to be no middle ground.
The degree to which these torrid debates about America’s origins mirror similar arguments about Israel’s creation is striking. Israel’s birth and subsequent development as a nation has also been subjected to polarized and vastly differing interpretations. For its allies and defenders, the Jewish state is the only true democracy in the Middle East, maintaining full legal equality for all its citizens, as well as being the home of a free press, fair and transparent elections, and a vibrant civil society. But for its detractors, Israel is a colonial entity that privileges the Jewish majority imposed on the country at the expense of the native Arabs, who were either forcibly displaced or who live under a form of apartheid.
My purpose here isn’t to argue that one of these narratives is the unvarnished truth, while the other is a collection of falsehoods. Nor am I going to say that these competing interpretations are equally careful and rigorous in their substance. The demonized version of Israel’s history will be sadly familiar to many readers, who might recall as well that the demeaning labels thrown in the direction of the Jewish state—among them “apartheid,” “racism” and “genocide”—were first conceived in the propaganda departments of the Arab League, the PLO and the Soviet Union long before they appeared at western universities.
The under-examined question arising here, then, is this: If challenges like inequality, racism and discrimination in the United States and in Israel are to be effectively addressed, do these “origin sin” narratives help or hinder in this task?
Just seeing these words in the context of these two nations fills us with uncertainty and anxiety. They suggest that there is something rotten at the heart of our societies and our communities. And when they are articulated by people who assert that America was and essentially remains a slave society—or that Israel has always been a “racist endeavor,” our sense that everything we are hearing is a malicious lie is merely deepened.
I think this is a regrettable outcome because it lessens the prospects for reform and change, and swallows discussions about policy into disputes over ideology. Look, for example, at the debate over the two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. For more than half a century, the confidence of outsiders that the conflict can be resolved by sharing the land and nurturing a Palestinian middle class has been shattered by the refusal of the Palestinian leadership to move past their conviction that the “original sin” of the Jewish state shouldn’t be there in the first place. And so nothing really changes.
In the United States as well, the urgent need for police reform has been subsumed by calls to defund the police entirely—a proposal flowing from the idea that the police as an institution were an integral component of America’s “original sin” of slavery. At the same time, white Americans are urged to embrace a culture of “wokeness” to self-consciously counter the privileges which a country built upon “systemic racism” entitles them, too. All this deepens the sense that our institutions are so tarred as to be beyond reform, and it’s at that point that some people start talking about insurrections and revolutions. And again, nothing really changes.
However battered our current system looks, it remains true that a democratic system is the best framework for balancing the freedom of individuals with the requirement for social order and civic justice. As an idea, democracy recognizes that societies will never be perfectly balanced, that rival interests will always compete and clash, and that justice has to be argued for and fought for. The alternative is to bind the present generation to the “original sin” of their antecedents and continue with the recriminations.
In this environment, the wildest, most bigoted assertions—from “Israel is worse than Nazi Germany” to “the Confederate flag is a symbol to be proud of”—will inevitably flourish and multiply. But those who are most vulnerable in our society seldom benefit from exchanges like these; and that is a sin.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.