Alan Silverstein

Celebrating American Jewish Heritage Month

May is American Jewish Heritage Month, in 2024 celebrating the 370th anniversary of the arrival of permanent Jewish settlers on these shores. In September 1654, 23 Jews fleeing the oppression of the Roman Catholic Inquisition in Portuguese Recife, Brazil, landed at the Protestant Dutch New Amsterdam — which ten years later was renamed New York by the British.

As noted by Robert Rifkind, chair of the 350th commemoration: “The entire destiny of the Jews has been forever changed by that migration. Consider what would have happened if there had been no migration to America by so many European Jews in the decades before the Nazi genocide. In addition to the many millions more we would have lost during the Shoa, so many others would have grown up under persecution behind the Iron Curtain.”

As the saying goes, “There, but for the grace of God….”

Again, the 370th milestone calls for the collective gratitude of American Jews. Let us proudly affirm: “Only in America.”

1) The unique Philo-Semitic nature of American culture — European Christendom as well as Islamic culture imposed a pariah status upon Jews. For Christian societies, we were “Christ killers.” For Islam, we were either “dhimmi” (second-class residents) or “infidels” (targets for attack). This was not so in America; from its origins, this blessed country embraced its Jews.

The Puritans of New England linked Jewish and Anglo-Saxon destinies. They identified not against but with the people portrayed in Hebrew Scripture. They referred to this land as a “New Canaan.” Their cities were dubbed Bethlehem and Bethel and so forth. Knowledge of Hebrew was colonial America’s sign of erudition. The oppressive King George was likened to a modern-day Egyptian pharaoh oppressing the Jews. Benjamin Franklin proposed the new republic’s seal to be a heroic Moses lifting his wand to divide the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s troops were submerged in its waters. In August of 1790, President George Washington visited and wrote a letter to the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, assuring them that the Jews of the new nation should have no fear of oppression, referencing “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance….” He continued, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other Inhabitants….”

And it was John Adams who emphasized, “The United States is not a Christian nation, any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan nation.”

Only in America!

2) Separation of church and state — The platform preambles of the Republican and Democratic parties affirm: “We honor the central place of faith in the lives of our people…we believe that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith.” This reference is not to any particular religion, but to religion as such. As President Eisenhower famously stated: “Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith — and I don’t care what [specific faith] it is.” Thus Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in the 1830s observed: “State religions may serve the interests of political power, but they are always sooner or later fatal for the church.”

Religion has flourished in America in contrast to modern-day Europe precisely because it has been separated from government — with its corruption, self-interest, and power politics.

In this unique environment, wonderful for Jews, the USA became the most God-infused country in the world. On June 21, 2004, “Time” magazine reported: “Surveys show that in the USA…nearly two-thirds call religion very important in their lives.” The prevalence of a generic faith commitment led Alan Dershowitz to conclude: “The separation of church and state has been the single most important reason for the success of the American-Jewish community.”

Only in America!

3) America’s cultural pluralism is a blessing to American Jews — Over my decades as a rabbi, some people have asked: “Rabbi, who needs one’s distinctive religious or ethnic or cultural heritage in the melting pot of America?” My response has been: “Yes, melting pot is one American image that applies to civics. We must learn the English language and how to function in our land, thereby melding into one civic polity. But the dominant overall American ethos remains that of American philosopher Horace Kallen (1882-1974), who spoke rather about cultural pluralism. He noted that “America has believed that each [religious, ethnic, cultural] group has something of particular value which it can contribute.” His favorite image was that of an orchestra playing a symphony. Each section is encouraged to cultivate its “instrument” to the finest quality.

Cultural pluralism has come to mean that preserving the symbols and values of Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, etc., is good for America. Conversely, the failure of American Judaism or any of the other faith groups would rob this great country of one of the pillars upon which it rests.

Only in America!

4) Pursuing the “American Dream” is a blessing to American Jews — On July 4, 2004, Elie Wiesel said, “The day I received my American citizenship was a turning point in my life. I had ceased to be stateless. Until then, unprotected by any government and unwanted by any society, the Jew in me was overcome by a feeling of pride mixed with gratitude.”

Merit-based advancement and free and open opportunities have served as great blessings to us. In 2001, LA Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was asked whether Tamir Goodman, the Shabbat-observant Orthodox Jewish high school basketball whiz could be a future NBA prospect. “If he is good enough, U.S. pro sports will find a way to accommodate him, the same way it adjusted to the needs of Hakeem Olajuwon’s observance of Ramadan,” Jackson responded. “Enabling people the freedom to sustain their diverse religious beliefs, that is what America is all about. Just as long as your jump shots keep going into the hoop!”

In the United States, we should face no quotas. Opportunities should be limitless. The only meaningful constraints legitimate to America are those of energy and talent. Every occupation and almost every position in American society is open to us. Jews are leaders in corporate America, as presidents of major universities and hospitals, as judges, in the cultural arts, and so forth. The late Sen. Joe Lieberman’s campaign for national office resonated with voters precisely because of the authenticity of his Jewish religious message. He almost became vice president, save for a few hanging chads.

Only in America!

5) The United States uniquely positions itself as an enemy of Jew-hatred (anti-Semitism) at home and on the world scene — Historian Paula Hyman said, “When people think of the history of the Jews [in countries in which they have lived as minorities], they think of persecution, expulsion, tragedy, mass murder, and now terror…American-Jewish history stands as the great exception to this melancholy story.”

The prayer recited by the rabbi in “Fiddler on the Roof” for the leader of the country in which he dwelled was “May God bless and keep the czar — far away from us.” In contrast, on Labor Day weekend 1994, Alan Dershowitz proudly brought President and Mrs. Clinton to join him in attending Rosh Hashanah services on Martha’s Vineyard. Dershowitz observed that “things have certainly changed [with regard to official anti-Semitism]. Standing next to the president of the United States at services brought that home to me more powerfully than any statistic.” Unlike the rest of the world, the American ethos affirms that the persecution of Jews must not be tolerated even when it occurs abroad.

Only in America!

6) The unique affinity of America and Americans with Israel — Israel is brutally opposed in the UN not only by Arab nations, but also by many Asian, African, and even European countries. The exception is the United States. As social commentator William Bennett wrote, “The essential American kinship with Israel is based upon an understanding, almost religious in nature, that to our two nations above all others has been entrusted the fate of liberty in the world…. I myself am one of the tens of millions of Americans who have seen in the founding and flourishing of the Jewish state the hand of the same beneficent God who attended our own founding and has guided our fortunes until now.”

In the early summer of 2002, following harsh pressure being applied upon Israeli foreign policy, President George W. Bush delivered an address that was among the most pro-Israel presidential speeches on record. Why?

It was preceded by hundreds of thousands of telegrams in support of Israel not primarily from Jews but from Evangelical Christians. Also in June 2004, both houses of Congress passed near-unanimous bipartisan resolutions backing President Bush’s historic pledge to Israel. It affirmed that any two-state peace plan must take into account realities “on the ground, including existing major Israeli population centers [settlements] in the West Bank.” It also rejected the insistence upon a so-called Palestinian “right of return” to pre-1967 Israel.

Similarly, when the UN’s World Court handed down its biased judgement against Israel’s security fence, the nations in the General Assembly said, “Amen.” Only the American ambassador to the United States rose to offer an articulate and forceful dissent!

Only in America!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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