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Jews in America:
American Jewry’s Man in Roumania

Jews in America: Table of Contents | Virtual History Tour | National Population

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In 1870, H. Z. Sneerson, great grandson of the founder of Lubavitch Hasidism, was granted an interview with President Ulysses S. Grant and his secretary of State, Hamilton Fish. Arriving from Palestine, the black-frocked, Sneerson hoped to persuade Grant and Fish to remove the incumbent American consul at Jerusalem, whom many considered an anti-Semite. Some months later, Sneerson wrote to Grant to ask that Sneerson’s protégé, Benjamin Franklin Peixotto of San Francisco, be appointed unpaid consul to the newly established independent principality of Roumania. At Sneerson’s bidding, Peixotto – a descendant of an American Sephardic dynasty whose personal papers reside at the American Jewish Historical Society–abandoned his budding legal career to advocate for his afflicted co-religionists in Roumania. Peixotto’s politically influential friends, particularly the Seligman family, intervened with Grant to assure Peixotto’s appointment. Peixotto’s pursuit of political equality for Roumania’s Jews seemed quixotic at the time, but proved prescient in light of historical hindsight.

Under its 1858 constitution, Roumania, which remained nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, granted equal political rights to all of its Christian citizens. The constitution proclaimed that "the enjoyment of these rights may [also] be extended to other religions by legislative arrangements." In other words, if Jews were to be allowed to vote or hold public office – and thus be able to defend their other rights – the legislature would have to grant such rights explicitly. When Grant appointed Peixotto to represent the United States in Roumania, he understood that Peixotto’s primary mission would be to advocate on behalf of Jewish political rights in Roumania. Grant was trying to live down his own reputation for anti-Semitism, and American popular opinion at the time mildly supported humanitarian battles for Jewish rights in benighted countries overseas.

Peixotto arrived in Bucharest, the Roumainian capital, with expectations characteristic of other "enlightened" American and Western European Jews of his time: first, that Great Power diplomatic efforts could persuade Roumania’s government to emancipate its own Jews and, secondly, that progressive secular education would help Roumania’s traditional Orthodox Jews assimilate and modernize so that they would appear worthy of the same rights that English, German and French Jews enjoyed. As Peixotto wrote to an American friend, he hoped to start schools that would begin "disseminating modern thought, liberalizing the mind, reaching into [Roumanian Jewry’s] hearts by showing them how they may still be Jews without the frightful social costumes and customs which they persist in retaining."

At first, Peixotto had little luck attaining either of his goals. His efforts to win Roumanian citizenship for Jews were thwarted by the reluctance of the legislature to act and, somewhat, the unwillingness of the handful of successful, assimilated French-speaking Roumainian Jews to advocate on behalf of their Yiddish-speaking brethren. Nor was Peixotto able to raise the funds to organize secular schools for Jewish students. After two years of begging his American and European friends to support his personal expenses incurred while lobbying and his outlays on Jewish schools, Peixotto was bankrupted and discouraged.

Pogroms in two provincial Roumanian cities in 1872, plus attacks on his character in the Roumanian press, persuaded Peixotto to abandon hope that Roumania’s nationalistic government might improve the Jewish condition. Instead, Peixotto decided to encourage Roumanian Jewish emigration to the United States. Without consulting his own government, Peixotto broached the topic in a letter to the Roumanian government, which greeted the proposal with enthusiasm. However, the Grant administration and many European and American Jewish leaders generally opposed the idea. Some argued that Roumania’s Jews would not want to leave. Others worried that Peixotto’s proposal would make things worse for the Jews, who would now be considered disloyal by their Christian neighbors. Others worried that, realistically, few Roumanian Jews could afford the passage, and that they might not be welcome in America. Secretary Fish considered recalling Peixotto, but refrained because he feared signaling American indifference to Roumanian Jewry’s fate.

However unpopular Peixotto’s plan was abroad, it was strongly embraced by Roumania’s Jews. Thousands of individuals tried to apply when they heard a rumor that Peixotto would pay the passage of any Jew wishing to emigrate to America. Peixotto had no such resources available, but he encouraged members of local Jewish communities to establish emigration societies that might send individuals to America to earn enough money to bring others over. American railroads and steamship lines encouraged the dream by sending agents to promote emigration.

Assessing his efforts to encourage Jewish emigration when he found his fight for constitutional reform thwarted by intractable anti-Semitism, Peixotto wrote: "I, a free man, knowing my country and its inhabitants as I do – knowing how she has assimilated hundreds of thousands – nay – millions before, of foreign birth and equally inferior in every way to these poor people – hope that it [the United States] might at least hope to rescue some and possibly promote the safety of all." Peixotto’s words prefigured those of another American Sephard, Emma Lazarus, who also turned her heart to the plight of Eastern Europe’s oppressed Jews.

Peixotto’s encouragement of emigration anticipated America’s role as haven to nineteenth-century European Jewry, which emigrated by the millions between 1887 and 1920. It also highlights what that role might have been -- but was not -- to the vast majority of victims of oppression in the 1930s and 1940s.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society

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