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As President’s Day approaches, we can rededicate ourselves to protecting the liberties we enjoy today by reflecting on Jewish life in colonial America, when we were granted both citizenship and religious freedom for the first time.

To the first president of the United States, George Washington, liberty and democracy were central causes. Letters from various congregations to Washington urging action on these fundamental tenets are considered to be among the most important letters in American Jewish history. An excerpt from one letter from the Newport Congregation in Rhode Island begins “Sir: Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merit. … we rejoice to think that the same spirit which rested in the bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel. … rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of the Chief Magistrate of these States. Deprived as we hitherto have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now — with a deep sense of the gratitude to the Almighty Disposer of all events — behold a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship, deeming everyone of whatever nation, tongue or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.” (Friedman, L. M. [1942]. “Jewish Pioneers and Patriots,”  Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.)  It was signed: Moses Seixas, Warden, August 17, 1790.

Washington replied as follows, “… 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. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. … 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….” (Friedman 1942). It was signed: G. Washington.

The letter from the congregation refers back to our biblical history with pride but it does not hold back from voicing concerns about the status of the Jewish people. Washington’s response reiterated the Jewish writer’s own words in assuring him that intolerance and discrimination had no place in America. Washington added the phrase “the Government of the United States” to emphasize that the Jewish people had the protection of the authority of the federal government. Consequently, for the first time, the Jewish people became both citizens of a nation and enjoyed religious freedom.

George Washington is a towering figure in American history. He was a leader who recognized the real and pressing problems of the new nation. Washington addressed the concerns of a minority group by guaranteeing the principles of equality and religious liberty to the Jewish people. We can be guided today in our own search for good leaders by the sound foundation established by our American heritage. We need leaders who are guided more by ethical principles than emotional reactivity. We need leaders who recognize the real problems our society faces and solve them without putting unjustified pressures on minority groups.

Individually and collectively, we must become advocates for choosing responsible leaders who address real societal problems. Each of us must acknowledge the challenges of our times and take well defined positions on real problems. Real problems are in contrast to imagined problems, which universally falsely target vulnerable minority groups such as the Jewish people. Each of us must speak up and speak out. Every society has real problems that need solutions. Each of us is responsible to direct attention to these problems and to make sure that our leaders listen and act. Our colonial ancestors’ words and actions can be the benchmarks to inspire us with the courage to meet the challenges of being responsible American Jews.

Mary Greenberg, Ph.D. is a member of the State of Kansas Holocaust Commission and Temple Beth Sholom in Topeka, Kan. An adjunct research associate at the Department of American Studies at The University of Kansas, Greenberg also holds a master’s degree in social work. Her commentary is based on “The Staying Power of Anti-Semitism and a Possible Explanation of Its Resilience,” which she gives at speaking engagements.

 

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