A Birthday for a Nation and For Jewish Religious Freedom

As the nation celebrates its 238th birthday, it’s also a good time to reflect on what the birth of this nation and the principles upon which it was founded has meant to Jews in the U.S. The Jewish experience in the U.S. has been exceptional, where Jews, for the first time in the history of their exile were granted full rights as citizens.

The Jewish experience in Europe was one fraught with fear; they were a minority people devoid of the rights of their non-Jewish countrymen. European monarchs were endowed with near-absolute power, which gave them the right to treat Jews in whatever way that suited the regime’s political or economic interests. If a despot needed a convenient scapegoat to deflect attention from his own failed policies, the Jews were there to serve as a convenient source of blame and would suffer the consequences through persecution, pogroms or expulsion. Conversely, if an autocrat needed Jews to provide an economic stimulus to his country, they were invited to settle and given limited rights. Jews held their collective breaths when a regime fell and a new one arose to take its place, wondering what would the winds of political change bring to Jewish life.

That same uncertainty gripped the small number of Jews in the newly formed United States: After more than a century of British rule, with relatively little persecution, what would a new government, headed by a former general, George Washington, mean for Jewish existence in the new republic?

True, that Jews had fought with fervor with the patriots at some of the most legendary battles of the revolution. They had fought at Bunker Hill and Valley Forge. The appealing notions of a democratic government, not subject to the whims of a monarch, led most Jews to support the struggle against the British.

And it wasn’t only on the battlefield where Jews dedicated themselves to the cause of liberty. Haym Solomon was one of the indispensable financiers of the revolution. Born in Poland, Solomon emigrated to New York City in 1775 and began a long relationship with Washington as a lender and fund-raiser. In current dollars, Solomon’s contribution to the war is estimated at close to $9billion. When Washington’s troops were starving and unpaid, close to mutiny, before the decisive battle of Yorktown in 1781, the general was told that the treasury was empty. Washington turned to Solomon for funds. “Send for Solomon,” the general ordered. Solomon raised the necessary funds to pay and feed the soldiers for the battle of Yorktown, which would be a stunning American triumph and ignominious British defeat, a defeat that would end the war.

Despite those vital contributions to the war effort, American Jews were still not sure where they stood in the new fragile Republic and its ambitious enterprise of democracy. They had expended blood and treasure before in causes, only to see those sacrifices made in vain. The new president made it clear that Jews in the U.S. had nothing to fear of the new government, that a fresh page of their history in the diaspora was about to begin, one where they could practice their religion openly, that they held the same inalienable rights as those of any other religion or creed. Writing to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island on August 17th, 1790, Washington allayed the Sephardic Congregation’s concerns: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Foreshadowing the principles of religious freedom to be granted in the Bill of Rights the following year, Washington also wrote that the “government of the United States gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Washington’s words would set a precedent of religious tolerance for Jews perhaps unequaled in the history of the diaspora. While the Jewish population in the United States is estimated to have been only 2,500 at the time of the revolution, it began to grow exponentially in the 19th century as Jews sought to leave behind the incurable antisemitism of the Old World for the tolerance and amity of the New. Jewish communities sprouted and flourished in the North, South and in the frontier of the West. Jews were given safe haven from the cruelty of Europe, from the discrimination, from the pogroms, in this broad land that spans two great oceans.

Jews also understood that there was  a price for this liberty, that they had to defend it, and so Jews became woven into the fabric of American history, grateful to sacrifice to the cause of freedom that they so enjoyed, contributing 5,000 soldiers to the Union cause, including four generals. That sacrifice on the battlefield would only increase in the 20th century. More than 500,000 Jews served in the American armed forces, with more than 50,000 receiving medals for heroism.

On Independence Day American Jews should express gratitude for the freedom this nation has given them for the past 238 years.