Israel U.S. Jewish Americans May 22, 2011
Jewish Americans. Photo by AP
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Ask an Israeli, even a very educated Israeli, about the history of Jews in the United States, and the likelihood is that they won’t know very much.

The educated ones will know enough to tell you, if you are lucky, that the vast majority of American Jewish population are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the huge stream of immigration that flowed from the inhospitable Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and continued over the coming decades with the lucky few who were able to escape the Nazis, and later, from the former Soviet Union.

But ask them precisely where Jews fit into American history before 1900 – you’re almost surely going to get a blank stare. To be fair, many American Jews aren’t exactly experts on their own history, either. The patriotism they display on July 4 is based on their love of their native land and its values, their own family’s experiences in America, and gratitude for it as a place where their family immigrated a few generations ago, survived, and thrived. And who doesn’t love a parade, a barbecue and a fireworks display?

I happen to know the fascinating tale of the relationship between Jews and America well because I was lucky enough to grow up in the state of Rhode Island, where that relationship was born. As a child, I took countless field trips to a unique place in American history - Touro Synagogue. Touro is the oldest standing synagogue in the U.S. and the second oldest congregation in the country. It was founded by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, allowed to settle there by the colonists in Rhode Island, who were more tolerant than their stiff-necked Puritan Boston neighbors. The first arrivals came in 1658.

When the dust was settling on the American Revolution, the first U.S. president, George Washington, visited Newport in 1790. Those who greeted him included a representative of the Jewish congregation, which then comprised approximately 300 members. After the visit, the head of the congregation sent the new president a grateful note of thanks. In response, Washington wrote this famous letter, which included the lines:

“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.”

Those words, coming from the president of a new nation, at that time in world history, was a tremendous step forward for Jews. All they had to do was live their lives and be good citizens and they would be allowed to dwell in safety? That they would not just be ‘tolerated’ but allowed to be Jewish proudly and publicly? That idea was enshrined in the Bill of Rights a year after Washington’s letter was written.

Life hasn’t been perfect for Jews in America. But the Washington letter set the tone for a country that has freedom of religion in its DNA, not one in which ‘toleration’ was the kind favor of a particular ruler or regime. This was not something those 300 Jews in Newport take for granted and it is nothing that Jews - or any religious minority - ever should. Every year, Touro Synagogue holds a public reading of the “Washington Letter” in appreciation of the words that helped create a country where Jews would enjoy a degree of freedom and acceptance they never had in Europe up to that point, and which so many Jews around the world have been deprived of in years since.

We American immigrants to Israel are indeed a strange lot. We weren’t driven to the Jewish state by an oppressive regime, anti-Semitism, or economic deprivation.

When I first came to Israel as a student and read the early Zionist thinkers, I couldn’t grasp the concept of ‘negating the Diaspora.’ I never felt conflict between my religious and ethnic identity and being a citizen of the United States.  My Diaspora was pretty wonderful. Why would I ever want to negate it? Why should I have to in order to embrace Israel?

Nothing gets my back up more than when Israelis imply that American Jews aren’t flocking to Israel in larger numbers because they are all wealthy and like the good life. Even if all American Jews WERE rich, this claim would utterly ignore the deep and powerful attachment that American Jews have to the United States, one that goes beyond our bank accounts.

Yes, the Jewish state is precious and unique. But the United States is also incredibly special and has done so much for the Jewish people, too. This is as tangible as the Washington Letter - now on display in Philadelphia - and as the beautifully crafted and designed building that houses Touro Synagogue in Newport, which I never get tired of visiting.