Though I’m a little late for Presidents Day, there’s still almost a week until George Washington’s birthday. That’s good timing for a short Jewish appreciation of one event in his presidency which – though it involved a vanishingly tiny number of Jews – I consider to be one of the greatest moments in Jewish history.
It happened in August 1790, early in Washington’s first term in office, not terribly long after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Like today’s presidents, Washington and others had taken to the road to drum up support for a cause. This one was big. The states were considering the adoption of the amendments that came to be known as the Bill of Rights and Washington and an entourage that included Thomas Jefferson was on a tour of states to encourage ratification. At their stop in Newport (née NewPort) , Rhode Island, they were greeted by an array of local leaders, merchants, and clergy.
At the end of the 18th century there was barely any American Jewish community to speak of. The entire Jewish population of America numbered no more than 3,000 (out of slightly fewer than four million). They were scattered around the various states north and south and most were Sephardic, of Spanish or Portuguese descent. As an almost immeasurably small minority, they also had no professional leaders or clergy. Instead, lay leaders took on those roles, men like Moses Seixas, the so-called “sexton” of the Newport Hebrew Congregation (later called the Touro Synagogue), whose letter of welcome was presented to the new president upon his arrival in town.
The congratulatory missive was filled with the usual pieties, sprinkled with references to biblical Israel and gratitude to God. But it also contained the acknowledgment that something brand new had just happened to the Jews. In this young republic they would be counted as equal citizens.
It read in part:
Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
… Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People … generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine….
A few weeks later the congregation received Washington’s reply:
… The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation….
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
… May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. …
— G. Washington
Before continuing with my praise of Washington, it's important to acknowledge that what he wrote was not entirely true. Not everyone in this land was equal. There was plenty of sanction for bigotry and assistance for persecution. Every evaluation of our history must pay attention to America's disastrous racial record.
That said, it is still possible to read these words with awe when we realize that this was the very first time in human history that a nation’s leader had said anything like this to Jews. Consider this: at about the same time that Washington was celebrating full Jewish citizenship in America, Russia was establishing its infamous Pale of Settlement. Further west in the German lands, France, and Great Britain, the so-called Emancipation of the Jews was creeping along at a snail’s pace, equality and citizenship still out of reach. Is it any wonder that Jews were attracted to this country?
In 1790 there was still some way to go before all American Jews enjoyed the full benefits of equality. Early federalism permitted continued discrimination by states even where the U.S. Constitution forbade it. But those barriers fell in short order and the Jewish community grew, even gaining some small influence in the halls of power. By 1840, when the Damascus Blood Libel Affair broke out, the American Jewish community successfully lobbied for U.S. intervention. By the Civil War American Jews successfully lobbied President Lincoln to reverse Gen. U.S. Grant's Jewish-focused crackdown on profiteering.
Happy Birthday to our great (if flawed) first president. May his letter to the Newport Jews inspire us to help spread the equality that we have enjoyed to all Americans.