Okay, so if he were writing today, Thomas Jefferson might very well have made that “all people are created equal,” but the concept is clear and embedded in the world-view of the United States and our society. Jefferson was indeed a remarkable man, but he had his inspiration – the Bible. It is unavoidable to embrace the common dignity and divine image in every human being if you read the first few chapters of Genesis.
“Equal” does not mean “the same.” To be sure, every person has a collection of talents and attributes, challenges and limitations that makes a personality unique. Some people subscribe to a belief system that others consider to be inferior or even anathema to their own. The pursuit of selfish interests is a far more common phenomenon than a constant commitment to altruism. Some folks you like, and others you don’t.
But Jefferson was on the right track when he affirmed the worth of every child of God as equal to every other child of God. It is we, with our own peculiar set of priorities and prejudices, who assign a hierarchy to the value of a certain life or set of lives.
I am a firm believer in the same representations that were made in Torah and echoed in the Declaration of Independence of our country. No person or group of people has any less a claim on the dignity of existence – what the Declaration called unalienable rights – than any other. When a bully on the playground or a tyrant in a government asserts that some people are worth less than others, it is the responsibility of all people of conscience to object.
No one has a crystal ball that enables us to see what will become of the countries where oppressive leaders are being overthrown by populations too long abused. There may indeed be other tyrants waiting in the wings, and they, too, will face the power of expectation from a constituency. But if we are genuine believers in Jewish values and true patriots devoted to the American cause, then we can only celebrate the aspirations of some people to be free. Tolerating, let alone supporting oppression in the name of our self-serving interests is a short-term benefit, but a road to a long-term disgrace.
May liberty and justice for all be more than a slogan.