–by Rabbi Carl Choper, President of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania
I recall one year when I was serving as a Hebrew school teacher, I was provided with a book to use in teaching Jewish history. It was a volume of a two-part series, the first part on Jewish history before modern times, and the second on Jewish life in modern times. The author, Abba Eban, had chosen a particular date to use as the demarcation between modern and pre-modern Jewish life: July 4, 1776.
At first I thought it was strange that the author would choose the founding of a country which at the time had at most 3000 Jews in its population as the event that defined the beginning of modern Jewish life. But, as the author pointed out, on July 4, 1776 the United States of America became the first country in modern times to grant full citizenship to Jews. That made it the beginning of a new era in Jewish history.
On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island wrote then President George Washington, saying in part:
“Deprived as we [the Jewish People] heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine;”
More after the jump.
President George Washington responded:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
To be sure, the United States was marked by many other limitations then as now. In particular, the new society which promised religious liberty also practiced slavery. Racial biases continue to afflict us to this day. But at least on July 4, 1776 a step was made towards creating a national political structure built on the assertion that a society could thrive when it first allowed individuals to participate with all their personal diversity. Individuals did not need to be what their government told them they needed to be. Rather, the government was to be shaped by society’s individual participants in loud and raucous conversation. So has been the ideal, yet to be achieved. But on July 4, 1776 – in Pennsylvania, no less – a step was taken towards the attempt, and the world has not been the same.
Since 1790 many attempts have been made to give voice to this vision and to advance it. Also many attempts have been made to roll it back. All of this continually provides the context for many struggles within our society, and the work of The Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania.