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Labor Day- Reflections on Early American Jewish History
Our Torah reading today opens with the words: Shoftim ve shotrim”- You shall establish judges and executive officers, or what is in modern Hebrew, police. It is appropriate that this reading falls this year on Labor Day weekend when we celebrate the role of the working man and now woman in developing America. This day came about as the result of the struggle of workers to secure essential rights in the workplace 130 years ago.
Establishing fairness and justice for all levels of society suffuses this portion as well as the portion before and after and this atmosphere certainly has served as a prod to challenge America to attempt to create “ a more perfect union”. By this, I don’t mean, of course, a more perfect “Labor union”, but as intended in the preamble to the Constitution, a better run and functioning society.
It might seem natural that as Jews, we would take a keen interest in the society around us. Thus, the prophet Jeremiah advised us as we began on our first exile to distant lands:
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."( Ch 29). Getting involved in our societies would seem to be the very Jewish thing to do.
As I wrote this, however, I couldn't help but think of a joke that was especially popular when we had the first Jewish candidate for vice-President , Joe Lieberman. The story goes that he is one day elected President, and his mother is invited to the inauguration. She turns to the woman next to her and says proudly, “You see up there. Standing next to the President? That’s my son the doctor!”
Everybody talks about “My son the doctor” or “my son the lawyer”. Naturally, all Jews become doctors or lawyers. But do we ever talk about,” my son the governor”, or “my son the judge”?
But I guess, that when the mother of either Rahm Emanuel or Jack Lew saw their sons, they told their friends, “See,my son, the President’s Chief of Staff.”
Truth is, it has been just as natural for Jews to enter government as it is for them to be in any business or profession.
We have a long history of it, even before Moses. After all, Joseph in Egypt is second to the Pharaoh. Later on it was Mordecai to Ahashaverosh. Last week, we read love poetry by Samuel the Nagid, the Vizier of Granada. In early modern Germany, the was a Jud Suess Oppenheimer , advisor to a German prince ( tragically,executed when his political fortunes fell)
We have also made excellent Prime Ministers, ever since Moses. Disraeli in England, Leon Blum and Pierre Mendez France in France.
Even in countries that we associate with heavy anti-antisemitism, Jews had a role—Walter Rathenau in Weimar Germany, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kaminev in the USSR. Notably, all of them were eventually murdered.
It is no surprise ,then ,if Jews play part in government in anti-Semitic lands or lands in which Jews were barely tolerated, that in US there should also be Jews taking active part in government in a free, open democracy, as equals.
So , if you allow me, I want to touch upon some celebrated and some unknown examples of how Jews, in the very earliest years of American society , took their place in making for a “more perfect union”.
Jews began to take active part in America’s politics already during the colonial and revolutionary period. To the most parts, we tended to side with the revolution, even though some Jews were prominent on the British side. Perhaps it was appropriate, for example, that
when the British left Rhode Island, the local legislature convened in the Newport synagogue, rather than in one of the local churches that may have been bigger.
Attaining full rights in this land was not an easy done deal. Some of you may remember that we dedicated a Friday evening service to Jews in America. One of the readings was a letter by George Washington to the Jews of Rhode Island.
The Jewish community had good reason to ask for a letter from the great President. Just because we had a constitution that stated” no establishment of religion” did not yet mean full equality. That was a clause for the national government, not yet a clause for the individual states. For example, it was agreed that any new state, number 14 through 50, would need to abide by the Bill of Rights on religious equality , but the original states, 1-13 were grandfathered in. This had nothing to do with Jews, but everything to do with getting all the original states to go along with a new union.
So, we had to slog it, state by state. It was a struggle, not just for Jews, but for Baptists, Catholics and other Christian groups as well.
In I784, there was an attempt in Virginia to declare Christianity the state religion, but it was defeated. It took Jefferson, Madison and Mason two more years to remove religious discrimination in Virginia and Jefferson made sure that his fight for religious freedom was inscribed on his tombstone.
Gradually, Georgia, Pennsylvania came aboard. The Bill of Rights, with its great First Amendment, was not adopted till 1791. But, as I said, even that was no ironclad guarantee.
The Jews of Rhode Island gave the State legislature its first meeting place and President Washington wrote his great letter of acceptance to them, but the people of Rhode Island did not grant Jews full rights till 1842. The irony here is that Rhode Island was founded by people seeking freedom of religion from the oppressive leaders in Massachusetts.
New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland and North Carolina held back till after the Civil war and after the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing rights to all citizens.
Here are some examples of the fights.
Maryland, for example, was an unusual case. The State Constitution, going back to the colonial era, required a public official to declare belief in Christianity. Any blasphemer or one who denied divinity of Jesus was liable for capital punishment. This proved to be troublesome for the colonies first Jewish doctor in the 1650’s who was tried on blasphemy but spared by a general amnesty when Cromwell took over the reins of Britain.
The fight over religion continued until, in 1825, what was called “ The Jew Bill”, was passed by a majority of one vote. It was enough to declare "Belief in a future state of reward and punishment." The irony in all this is that Maryland was originally intended as a refuge for Catholics fleeing Anglican oppression.
Jacob Henry in North Carolina won election to the state legislature in 1809 but was denied the right to take his seat. He gave stirring defense of liberty and equality and was finally seated on technical grounds: Jews have legal right to make laws, but not to enforce them.
For all of this, keep in mind, we weren’t given our rights; we earned them.
I go back to the part that Jews took in helping administer and advice governments.
In the early revolutionary years, as I mentioned, Jews took an active part in fight.
Here are some examples
Frances Salvador from a prominent Jewish family in London, came to the colonies to save the family fortune, and built up farm lands South Carolina. He went from silk stockings to leather stockings, a real frontiersman, and soon was elected to the provisional congress
As a representative of South Carolina, he was authorized to stamp new American currency.
Keep government costs down, and took part in drafting the state constitution. He would die in battle for the newly emerging State
Then there was one Mordecai Sheftall, Chairman of the Parochial Committee of Christ Church Parish, effectively, the governor of that part of Georgia. This stunned the British colonial governor James Wright, who protested, "One Sheftall, a Jew, is on the parochial committee. This fellow issues orders to captains of vessels to depart the king's port without landing any of their cargoes legally imported!.”
He was captured as a rebel and imprisoned. Here we learn how Yiddish is useful. While the British captures tormented him with pork, he chatted with the German-nationals in the British forces in Yiddish and made friends.
He escaped and was recaptured and was finally released. Later, US Congress would repay Sheftall for money he loaned to the government. Congress owed him $139,000 and he got back about 20 cents on the dollar. Not a good loan.
I’ll add a colorful American Jew, from the early years of the new country, Mordecai Manuel Noah. We could have used him in the middle east today.
During the War of 1812, he was appointed US consul to Tunis, to obtain the release of captured Americans.. He obtained favorable treatment of Americans by proving to Moslem leaders that, by constitution, the US was not a Christian country and it therefore deserved special treatment, unlike Christian Europe. Sending a Jew to a Moslem country even then did not make sense but he did not let the fact out, but his personal political rivals enemies did let the fact get out and he was recalled.
He then became newspaper publisher and next, High Sheriff of New York. His enemies declared” What a pity that Christians are to be hung by a Jew"!
To this he retorted: What a pity that Christians should have to be hung by a Jew!”
Of course, we best recall him for his grand dream of a Jewish homeland near Niagara Falls to be called Ararat. That, however, was not his first choice. His first choice was Palestine and in his very fertile imagination, he had accepted the consul position in Tunis in order to raise a Jewish army that would free Palestine from the Turks. What a dream, long before Herzl!
Now, I will add a colorful American Christian to my list of early American Jewish leaders. Just as a Jew was consulate to a Moslem state, so a Christian was appointed consul to Jerusalem, originally in hopes of converting the Jews to Christianity. Warder Cresson, a Quaker, soon discovered that the Jews, despite tremendous poverty, could not be moved by the missionary’s lures. He began to study Hebrew, then Talmud, and Kabballah and in 1848, to the surprise of the Jewish community, asked to be accepted as a convert with the name Michael C. Boaz Israel !
Upon return to the US, his family had him thrown in jail on charges of insanity. The court released him on the grounds that conversion to Judaism is not proof of insanity. He returned to settle in his adopted city of Jerusalem.
Here was another victory in the battle for rights; in previous ages and in other lands, for a Christian to convert to Judaism must have been a sign of insanity because it was tantamount to suicide, it was an act punishable by death. In this country freedom of religion also came to mean freedom to choose religion or to switch religion or even to opt out of religion.
We as Jews in America took part and parcel in creating a society that was open to freedom of conscience and, true with fits and starts, a society of justice for all. That is a key part, in the modern world, of a society of “ shoftim ve shotrim”, of judges and magistrates. We have benefited greatly from this society; so may others, of all backgrounds, benefit and may this spread across the globe in this era of growing religious intolerance elsewhere.