On Being An Outsider in America

| October 8, 2011 | 1 Comment

 

Joe Lieberman

                                  I consider myself an outsider who belongs everywhere andnowhere… Being  a human  being is what truly counts. That’s where you’ll find me.

                                               •    Annie Lennox

The U-T in its Sunday edition of September 18 ran a major front-page story on the 150th anniversary of Temple Beth Israel. The newspaper is to be congratulated for its placement and coverage of Temple Beth’s major milestone.

Temple Beth’s place in San Diego history is huge. Some of our city’s finest citizens have been members of its congregation. The list of those “finest citizens” is long and the contributions they have made are great. And all of us owe a debt of gratitude to them and to Temple Beth that helped form and instruct their values of civic involvement.

But the hard and painful history of our town has not always acknowledged the Jewish role in San Diego. There was a time when Jews were not wanted in La Jolla and excluded from owning property; a time when the business and social life of the city Jews were largely excluded

But all of that began to change with the coming of UCSD and the arrival of a great vanguard of Jewish intellectuals, men and women of genius who individually and collectively collapsed those barriers and by so doing immeasurably enhanced the life and culture of San Diego.

All of which led me to reflect on an experience I had a few years back. Here it is:

In the summer of 2000, while on a flight home from Denver, I sat next San Diego Mayor Susan Golding. The mayor had come to Denver at my invitation to meet with members of Colorado’s business and political establishment and to witness the city’s many achievements, not least a new $100 million downtown library – as well as DIA, Coors Field, the Pepsi Center (home to the NBA Nuggets and NHL Avalanche), and a new Mile High Stadium (then under construction).

After watching a few innings of the Rockies game at Coors we made our way to DIA, only to find our scheduled United Airlines flight to San Diego was delayed three hours. By the time we boarded and the flight was airborne the clock had ticked past midnight.

Most of the people on the flight were asleep, but the mayor and I were engaged in a long conversation. I asked what it was like growing up in the Midwest, in a home, I sensed, with demanding parents (her father was then president at Kent State University). I was told it was challenging; her parents expected great things of their children, and the children sought not to disappoint (and their daughter did not).

Susan Golding is highly intelligent and an engaging conversationalist. But during our two-hour flight I witnessed a side to the mayor I had not previously seen. A sensitivity was displayed I found surprising for someone accustomed to controversy and the upheavals of public life. We talked of many things that night, from politics to philosophy to the poetry of baseball, but mostly we talked about growing up.

As our flight passed 33,000 feet above the dark blue waters of Lake Powell, its stunning shoreline visible in the moonlight against the vast desert surrounding it, the mayor told a story I’ve never forgotten.

One day while in high school she was asked by one of her girl friends, “Are you Jewish?” “Yes,” she said. There was a long silence, and then her classmate remarked, “Well, I guess we can still be friends.”

That exchange was three-decades old, but it still troubled Susan Golding.

I was moved by her story, shared as it was by someone for whom I have deep affection. I wondered how her “friend” could have been so cruel. I thought of my own daughter-in-law, Lisa Kurtz Mitrovich, also Jewish, and wondered whether she had lost high school friends in similar circumstances.

Some months later in 2000 Al Gore became the Democratic nominee for president and chose Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate, thus making Lieberman the first Jewish-American candidate for vice president. Beyond believing Gore had made a defensible choice, my only other thought was being impressed by the senator’s faithful observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

But then one night a San Diego attorney, the son of a rabbi, called and asked what I thought about the choice of Lieberman. I told him I thought Gore had chosen well, that Lieberman would help the Democratic ticket (I had no clue the Supreme Court would decide the election). But then it occurred to me this wasn’t just a political question, but rather a question about whether it’s okay to be Jewish in America and a candidate for vice-president.

I think I’m reasonably informed about history, including Jewish history, biblically and historically. The persecution of Jews from Pharaoh’s court to the Spanish Inquisition to Hitler’s death camps to the present rage by Islamic Fundamentalists is a story of great evil; and anyone indifferent to that history has lost their moral standing – if they had moral standing to lose.

But the rabbi son’s question didn’t come from a rabbi’s son living in the Middle East or Europe; it was asked here, in America. It was asked in a nation that has opened its doors to people from every corner of the globe. It was asked in a nation that is, more than any other, a nation of immigrants. It was asked in a nation where Jewish people have achieved extraordinary success, from the arts to business to law to education to science, and yes, in politics and government; and from whose contributions America has been astonishingly blessed and enriched – and is, as the beneficiaries of those immense gifts, a greater and better nation.

So, why was the question asked? Why was it important for the rabbi’s son to want my assurance about Lieberman? Was it because my friend, perhaps like Jewish and other Americans, has a sense of being an outsider?

But why resurrect this now? Why would an 11-year ago conversation with Mayor Golding or Gore/Lieberman still have relevance?

If you believe the United States is hugely different today than at the dawn of this new millennium, that we have achieved these past 11-years a greater sense of equality, that we have openly and enthusiastically welcomed men and women of all creeds and color into America’s family as one, that Barack Obama’s election proves racism is dead, then this month’s column is unnecessary and redundant, and you’ve wasted your time reading it.

But if you have a different view of the Framers’ promise, the promise that we are all equal before God and Constitution, and you believe too many Jews and Muslims, blacks and Hispanics, Asians and Native-Americans, among others within our midst, feel as wayfarers in a strange land, then you cannot be reminded too many times the Framers’ promise was a promise – and the promise 235-years on is not wholly redeemed.

If you are among those impatient with America’s critics, that those pessimistic about our country roil your patriotism and test your tolerance, that you are irked by those who hold a less than affirming view of our “progress,” then I would respectfully remind you of the standard we set for ourselves.

And that standard, the standard that shall hold us eternally accountable, is the one and only standard by which ultimately we shall be judged – the Constitution of the United States of America.

A look around will suggest to you, we’re not there yet. And we will never get there until each of us, in mind and practice, commits to embrace our diversity.

May that day come.

Now!
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George Mitrovich is a member of the San Diego Human Relations Commission. He can be reached at, gmitro35@gmail.com.

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  1. avatar DT says:

    Great article, George, and might I add, well timed.

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