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From Haven to Home: America As A Haven For Jews

From the time of its discovery, America has been a haven for Europe's oppressed and persecuted. In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, the Spanish Inquisition reached its apogee. Spain expelled its Jews, and, five years later, Portugal followed suit. The remnants of Iberian Jewry found refuge in the cities and towns of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, and, in the first half of the seventeenth century, some of their descendants established communities in Dutch-ruled Brazil.

In 1654, Portugal recaptured Brazil and expelled its Jewish settlers. Most returned to Holland or moved to Protestant-ruled colonies in the Caribbean. A group of twenty-three Jewish refugees, including women and children, arrived in New Amsterdam hoping to settle and build a new home for themselves. In the years that followed, the growing Jewish community pressed the authorities to extend to them rights offered to other settlers, including the right to trade and travel, to stand guard, to own property, to establish a cemetery, to erect a house of worship, and to participate fully in the political process.

For Jews, the promise of America was deeply rooted in its commitment to religious liberty. George Washington's declaration in 1790 to the Newport Hebrew Congregation that this nation gives "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," provided the Jewish community with an early assurance of America's suitability as a haven.

Three hundred and fifty years ago an ancient people first took haven in a new land. From those beginnings until today, Jewish life in America has presented both opportunities and challenges. In the early years, Jews fought to be treated like everyone else, seeking the "equal footing" that was theirs by law but not necessarily in practice. More recently, like other minorities and ethnic groups, they have asserted their right to be different and to have those differences accommodated and accepted by society-at-large.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the Jewish community has been to find ways of maintaining its group identity in an open and free society. To this end, American Jewry has created uniquely American Jewish religious movements, institutions, and associations suited to an ever-changing American scene. When millions of East European Jews arrived between 1881 and 1924, American Jews set up networks of organizations to settle and “Americanize” the new arrivals. And when confronted with prejudice and discrimination, Jews responded by creating organizations that fought for tolerance and acceptance.

Fifty years ago, the American Jewish community celebrated its tercentenary. At the culminating event of that celebration, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a stirring address in which he called the arrival of the Jews to New Amsterdam in 1654 “an event meaningful not only to the Jews of America, but to all Americansof all faiths, of all national origins.” Then Irving Berlin, himself a Russian Jewish immigrant, sang his patriotic hymn, “God Bless America.” In so doing, he put into words the deep gratitude that he felt towards the United States, which had been to him, and to countless new Americans like him, first a haven and then a home.

Sources: Library of Congress