The first synagogue in what would become the 13 colonies may have been built in what was New Amsterdam, but it was the English taking over and renaming it New York before Jews were accepted. The Jews were tolerated, but not trusted by both the people already living there and the government. Had it not been for the shareholders of the Dutch West India Trading Company who had to intervene for even that small amount of acceptance, the Jews would have been forced out.
For the first Century after Columbus, the Americas were conquered by Spanish, French and Portuguese forces. Through one of their earliest acts in the Americas, colonization, it changed everything. Colonization, not conquest, was the expansion of English Common Law along with English settles.
There was no rush to reach the New World by anyone prior to colonization, since there was no New World for them to go to. It was seen as nothing more than a continuation of what was already happening in Europe. The protections of Jews put in place under pressure from the Dutch West India Trading Company was the only reason Sephardic Jews were leaving Spain, Portugal and other Portuguese controlled territories the Dutch had taken through conquest for New Amsterdam.
As English colonies rose, including New York, Ashkenazi Jews were drawn to the New World under English Common Law. Though laws initially prevented them from becoming citizens and joining the military, they were free to worship at the synagogues they built. There was no instance of forced conversion in any of the American colonies and no inquisitions.
Ashkenazi Jews came from as far away as Russia to build homes for their families. They were not heading to anything under Spanish or French control, due to how the Catholic nations had treated Jews. Many of those Jews had been forced to convert or descended from those who had, never stopped being Jewish.
Touro Synagogue, a national historical site, sums up what like was like for those early Jews who lived among the Christian settlers.
“Early American Jews were unremarkable in many ways. They looked and behaved like other colonists: they wore the same clothes, lived in the same types of homes, worried about their children and worked to earn a living, just like other colonists. Their religion and their history were the only differences.”
The Catholics faced harsher treatment than any other religion. France was a Catholic nation whose military forces attacked settlements throughout the British colonies in North America. Priests led the way for the forces, including when the tribes allied with the French were responsible for the attacks. It caused mistrust and suspicion among the Protestants wherever the Catholics went.
Why was Britain, who was not the only Protestant looking to expand in the Americas so different from other European powers of their day?
The Magna Carta did not happen anywhere else and is the root of English Common Law. No other nation limited the royals ruling over a kingdom or empire. It was that limitation which resulted in the Peasant Revolt of 1381.
As a means of controlling the population, particularly those under fiefdom, the various lords placed the English copies of the Magna Carta throughout all of Britain as a means to show their power. As happens more often than not, the result was not the intent.
A question came to mind for those who could read when the words were posted. If not even a King or Queen has absolute power, then how can any royal make the claim that they were less limited than the rulers of an entire nation? At the cost of a lot of blood on both sides, the peasants won the rebellion.
They were no longer considered property and free to choose any trade they wished. There were no Guilds to control anything. There was no taxation of any kind. The peasants flourished through innovation not seen anywhere else in Europe.
The same spirit of freedom to pursue whatever trade they wished was carried over and made the New World what it was. People were free like never before, which drew people, Jew and Gentile, to settle with a desire for freedom they possessed nowhere else.
More important than trade was religion. Various Christian sects, both Catholics and Protestants, had been at the receiving end of government backed brutality throughout Europe. Just because someone happened to be Protestant in England, did not mean they were the right type of Protestant.
Only the British American colonies offered the ability to worship freely to more than just the British who were fleeing persecution, but throughout Europe. Jews and Gentiles alike wanted nothing more than to worship as they saw fit, which was denied everywhere else.
There are those who try to paint the whole of Europe at that time with one broad brush, but can point to no other instance where Jews and Gentiles crossed an ocean at great risk to their lives from pirates, Small Pox and a whole host of other problems that were lethal at the time. Other than Britain’s North American colonies, there was nothing that came close to mirroring what happened.
The freedom to pursuit one’s abilities beyond what they were born into and worship as they saw fit did not happen anywhere else in the world.
There is a good reason most Jews sided with the American cause against the British when it came time to part ways. There was no history of animosity among the colonists towards Jews that ever came close to Europe. They had been expelled from England, as they had other nations, but never from the American colonies. There was no forced conversion under the threat of death.
That same spirit who drove them across the sea continued after the last shots were fired of America’s Revolution. Just as the English colonies became a place to pursue freedom, so too did the newly formed United States.
From Roanoke to the American War of Independence, from the War of 1812 to the Alamo, from the First World War to the Second, and every moment of importance that led to what the United States became, has had a Jewish presence. Nowhere have Jews been more welcomed than the British colonies turned American nation and nowhere had there been more opportunity to do more than worship freely.
The New World was uniquely British, since the British were unique as a nation when it came to colonization of North America.