By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
This week, I became an American citizen. As I intently studied my naturalization certificate after the oath-taking ceremony, it struck me how fortunate I am to be accepted into this nation on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, of all occasions.
I should stress that my own story is rather routine and uninteresting. I came to the United States from the United Kingdom with my family, I had a job and a home in New York, and as the years went by, I progressed from a work visa to a ‘Green Card’ to full citizenship. Along the way, I did nothing more dramatic than fill out lots of forms and attend periodic interviews with immigration officials.
But there were 199 other people in the room with me, from 60 different countries, and with vastly different experiences that, nonetheless, led us all to this single moment. As I wound my way to my seat, climbing as delicately as possible over the outstretched knees and handbags on the narrow floor between the rows in the auditorium, I said hello to individuals I learned were originally from New Zealand, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines. When we went up to the stage to collect our naturalization certificates, it felt as if the entire world had been locked in the embrace of American democracy: a fellow from Côte d’Ivoire, another from Mali, a young woman from Bangladesh, an older woman from Ukraine, even a couple of people from Israel, just moments after we all swore the same oath of allegiance before the same flag.
For me, taking the oath was the most powerful part of the ceremony—the clearest reminder that America is built upon the idea of liberty, and the most compelling signal to all of us present we were now participants in the American republic. Consider, if you will, the last clause of the oath: “ … and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.” Is there any pithier expression of the idea that we are, as humans, bestowed with individual consciousness, along with an innate ability to think and speak freely and make our own decisions, so long as the circumstances allow? Does any country represent and respect that idea better than the United States?
More than two centuries after the American Revolution, we accept this idea as commonplace. But that ceremony reminded me of just how revolutionary it is. Thomas Paine – a son of Norfolk, England, who came to these shores in 1774—wrote in his splendid pamphlet, “Common Sense,” that the “independence of America, considered merely as separation from England, would have been but a matter but of little importance had it not been accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of governments.”
These principles have been considered utopian, but I believe they also reveal a fundamental truth about how humans should be governed. We are imperfect, we are selfish, we will always clash, but we have as well common principles and common beliefs that bring us together—the task of government, therefore, is to reconcile those two poles in a manner that is lawful and liberal in the classical sense of that term. For all the bitterness of our current politics, who wants to live in a society where beliefs and opinions are imposed from above? I’d rather be free to pick my way through the drek of social media than have my access blocked by the government. I’d rather be free to express disappointment in the society I live in—silly and unjustified or eloquent and persuasive—than be compelled by my rulers to toe the line. That is a key element of the historic promise the U. S. continues to offer.
In his speech to the United Nations this week, President Donald Trump quoted John Adams, the second U.S. president, observing the American Revolution was “effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” That collective sense of freedom – which breeds furiously divergent opinions, rather than dull uniformity—is what led the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville to note in 1831 that America’s free press contained “such a strange mixture of good and evil that, without its presence, freedom could not thrive and with its presence, good order could hardly survive.”
That ever-present tension, perhaps, is part of freedom’s very nature—yet as the years have progressed, “good order” has become more stable at no discernible cost to our revolutionary liberties. And it’s that same good order that allows us to take for granted what our forefathers in foreign lands certainly did not: the right to spend a peaceful Rosh Hashanah with one’s family in a land with no established religion. This year, I will do that as an American for the very first time.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.