Jewish reflections on the Fourth of July

As a Jewish immigrant to America, coming from Argentina, I'm very grateful for the freedoms and the legal protections Jews - and all Americans - have in this country. As a student of History wherever I go, I can see the long road that took to get where we are. If I look at the whole experience of Jews in America, I would have to say it is complicated, and a mixed bag.

The first officially recorded Jewish settler in the colonies was Jacob Barsimon, and envoy of the Amsterdam community who arrived in 1654 ahead of a group of the Jewish refugees from Dutch Brazil. His (Barsimon's) mandate was to make sure the refugees were able to settle in New Amsterdam (New York). When the 23 refugees arrived a month after Bar Simon, governor Peter Stuyvesant refused them entrance. It took many back-and-for exchanges with the Board of the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam, and pressure from some of its Jewish members, to get Stuyvesant to give conditional permission for the refugees to come into the colony - and that only on the condition that they would take care of their own poor and their own needs and not be a burden to the colony.

Now let's talk about Asser Levy, a German Jew who lived for a while in Amsterdam, where he was denied burghership, before moving to Dutch Brazil. Upon the fall of Dutch Brazil he was one of the 23 refugees arriving in New Amsterdam in 1654. When in 1655 Stuyvesant was ordered to attack New Sweden (Roughly today's Delaware), he called a general recruitment of colonists. When Levy volunteered to serve, Stuyvesant issued an ordinance "that Jews can not be permitted to serve as soldiers, but shall instead pay a monthly contribution for the exemption". Levy initiated a legal battle to be allowed to serve and be relieved from the monthly payment. He eventually won and became the first Jew to serve in the Colonial Militia.

And again Levy. In 1657, Burgher status was made essential for certain trading priviledges, so Asser Levy applied for a Burgher license. The application was denied and Levy appealed to the governor (Stuyvesant) and the council, clasiming that since he served militia duty like any other colonist, he should be granted the Burghership. Stuyvesant, the prior conflict with Levy still fresh in his mind, granted the request. Thanks to his newly acquired status, Levy became the first Jew to own Real Estate in the colony (1661) and in 1664 he lent money to the city to build fortifications against the English.

By 1700 about 200 to 300 Jews, mostly Sephardic, lived in the English colonies. While Jews were denied the right to vote or serve in office in most of the colonies, they became very active in colonial affairs, and by the time of the Revolution they were well represented on both sides of the conflict.

It was not until the 1790s, after the Revolution, that Jews were granted political rights in the five colonies where they were the most numerous. They still could not serve in Public office in many places because the Oath of Office prevented non-Christians to do so.

Jews served in the Revolutionary Army; with Haym Solomon playing a key role financing the Revolution. Francis Salvador is the first known Jewish casualty in the fight against England, and Mordecai Sheftal of Savannah was the highest ranking Jewish officer in the Colonial Army. George Washington acknowledged the support of the Jews for the Revolution in his famous letter to the Touro Synagogue.

The Bill of Rights in 1791 finally gave Jews full poliitcal rights, even though in some jurisdictions it took longer - the last one being New Hampshire in 1877. By 1791, about 2,500 Jews lived in the English colonies. In the Southwest, an unknown number of Hidden Jews settled in the lands of present day New Mexico, Texas and Arizona since the 1600s; first under the auspices of Luis de Carabajal y Cueva, Spanish governor of Nueva Leon and a hidden Jew himself. This Marrano population, however, remained hidden and it would only be in the XX Century that some of their descendants returned openly to Judaism.

During the Civil War, Jews were active on both sides. Probably the best known Jew of that time is Judah Benjamin, who served as Treasurer and Foreign Minister for the Confederacy. Probably the most controversial situation involving Jews during the Civil War was General Order 11, issued by General Grant in 1862, expelling all the Jews from the area under his military control. It took very active lobbying by the leaders of the Paduccah (KY) Jewish community, who visited Lincoln in the White House, to get Grant to rescind the Order under the pressure of the War Department. Ironically, it would be President Grant who will appoint the first Jews in the Federal Government, and the first Jewish governor of an American Territory.

The arrival of large numbers of Eastern European Jews in the mid-to-late XIX Century, triggered Anti Semitic sentiments in America intertwined with the anti Immigrant Movement. There were also strong negative feelings among German and Sephardic Jews already in America. A fight for control of the Jewish community ensued for the rest of the XIX Century between the German Jews and the newcomers. The overwhelming demographic imbalance, eventually led to Eastern European control of many if not most Jewish institutions. The most famous feud was between the American Jewish Committee (made up of prominent German Jews of New York) and the American Jewish Congress, which advocated for a more democratic structure for the organized Jewish community.

Anti Semitism remained a strong factor in American Jewish life for decades, well into the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s. Jews organized to defend their rights through organizations like the B*nai Brith and the Anti Defamation League. Through organizations like NJCRAC (National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, known today as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), the National Council for Christians and Jews and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Jews were very active in the Civil Rights Movement and as strong supporters of Martin Luther King.

We could go into more details of how Jews gained access to Ivy League schools, or how the Borscht Belt was born of the discrimination against Jews. Suffice to say that History show us that America embraced Jews only reluctantly, and that it was the active fight of Jews for their right that changed the situation. Equality was not "bestowed" upon Jews - Jews earned it every step of the way.

The 1960s brought radical changes to America. Probably the most emblematic example of how Jews integrated in America was the fact that it was three Jews (Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld and Joel Rosenman) who were the main force behind the organization of the Woodstock Music Festival. When the owner of the original location they had secured rescinded the contract, it was another Jew (Max Yagur) who gave them space. Woodstock is, without a doubt, one of the founding events of American Counterculture.

Jews, through the organized Jewish community, asserted their rights in America and reached out on behalf of Jews around the world. The advocacy for European Jewry in WWII, support for the Zionist efforts, advocacy for Soviet Jewry, the rescue of Jews from battle zones in Yugoslavia, the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry and the Jews from Arab Lands. All this went hand-to-hand with action to secure acceptance of Jews in Universities and as doctors in Hospitals; the lifting of residency restrictions in American cities, etc.

The American Experiment is a remarkable story of expansion of freedom and rights from a priviledged group to the masses. But it would serve us all well to remember that said expansion was not automatic; it took the active struggle of generations - and the story is still incomplete. The Jewish story in America is a story of multigenerational fight for equal rights not only for Jews but for all. That story is probably the best embodiment of Rabbi Tarphon's admonition: "You don't have to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it"

On the Fourth, let us Celebrate America; let us Celebrate all the generations of American Jews who brought us to this present, and let us honor them by involving ourselves in the continuation of the struggle to make the words "With Freedom and Liberty for all" a reality.


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