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Jews in American History

Did you ever wonder what was the founding fathers of America’s view of the Jews who came to settle here? You are sure to be surprised!

    The first Pilgrims who came to America in the early 17th century were Puritans. They compared their “exodus” from Europe with the Jewish exodus from Egypt. To them England was Egypt, the British King - Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean – the Red Sea, America – the Land of Israel and the American Indians were the ancient Canaanites. They saw themselves as the new Israelites, entering in a covenant with G-d in a New Holy Land. And that is not all: Thanksgiving – first celebrated in 1621, a year after “Mayflower” landed, was a day similar to the Jewish Day of Yom Kippur.

     In September 1654, before Rosh Ha’shana (Jewish New Year), twenty three Jews from Holland arrived in New Amsterdam (the future New York). But the Governor, Peter Stuyvesant, did not want them there, and decided to get rid of them. Using the usual formulas of curses, he called the Jews “repugnant, deceitful” etc, and recommended to his workers to send them back. I guess he was one of the first official American anti-Semites. Poor Governor, his dream did not come true!

    The Creator rescued his People. The Dutch West Indian Company blocked the Stuyvesant proposal because the Company depended on Jewish investment and his bosses at that Company in Amsterdam fired him for his intolerance. Purim happened in America!

    There were about 250 Jews living in the Colonies in the 17th Century. They did not have the right to practice medicine, law and other professions.

    The Bible played a big role in the founding of a few Universities in America, such as Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Princeton and others. Some of these Universities used Hebrew words or phrases on their official emblem or seal. The Hebrew language was popular among students in the early 17th century. Some colleges even taught courses in Hebrew.

   By the time of the War for Independence in 1776, there were approximately 2,000 Jews (mostly Sephardic) living in America. I can proudly write that our People played a significant role in the struggle for Freedom and Independence. For example, in Charleston, South Carolina, almost every adult Jewish male fought on the side of the Patriots. Plus, Jews spent a lot of money for the Revolution. The most important of the financiers was Haym Salomon. He gave the American government $200,000, but was never paid back and died bankrupt.

    President George Washington remembered all that. When the first synagogue opened in Newport, Rhode Island, he sent the following letter, dated  August 17, 1790:

    “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the Land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

  But unfortunately, not all of the “Founding Fathers” respected Jews like Washington did. Others had ambivalent feelings about the Jewish people.           

    John Adams said a lot of good words about Jews, but also noted that “it is very hard work to love most of them”. And he looked forward to the day when the “asperities and peculiarities of their character would be worn away and they would become” Liberal Unitarian Christians”. Thomas Jefferson thought that Jews needed more secular learning so that “they will become equal object of respect and favor, and without such learning they could not expect to be respected.”

   The idea that there was freedom for Jews in America as long as you were not “too Jewish” kept most religious Jews away. In the 1820’s the Jewish population in the U.S. was only about 6,000. But starting with the 1830’s the U.S. began to experience an influx of Reform German Jews, who have changed traditional Judaism, and were not “too Jewish”.

    There were around 150,000 Jews in the U.S. during the American Civil War. About 6,000-8,000 Jews fought on the Confederate side and 4,000 on the Union side. Nine generals and 21 colonels (all Jews) participated in the War. Judah P. Benjamin served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War for the Confederacy.

    Before the Civil War, tensions over race and immigration, economic competition between Jews and non-Jews, and jealousy. combined to produce the worst outbreak of anti-Semitism. Americans on both sides accused Jews of helping the enemy etc. The culmination of hate was the most shocking of all to Jews with General Grant’s “General Orders No 11 “expelling Jews from areas under his control in Western Tennessee within 24 hours.” Published on 12/17/1862, this order was enforced in a few towns and later President Abraham Lincoln annulled it.

    The first Jewish member of the U.S. House of Representatives was Lewis Charles Levin and of the Senate it was David Levy Yulee, were elected in 1845.

  In conclusion, I would like to write that the Jewish people played an important role in early American History. They participated in many areas, including politics, economics, cultural life, religious, scientific, and so on. History has shown that those countries that allow Jews to live freely and prosper have  themselves prospered and done well.


1.   The American Jewish Experience, Edited with introduction and notes by Jonatan D. Sarna

2.   The Unfinished Nation, 5th Edition, by Alan Brinkley

3.   Jews and the Founding of America, by Rabbi Ken Spiro, Internet Source

4.   History of the Jews in the U.S.A., Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Internet source.


By Yony Zirkiev, a “Shalom” reader

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