Jews in America: Beyond toleration to freedom

Sunday, September 19, 2004

September 2004 marks the 350th anniversary of the arrival in 1654 of the first Jewish families in what is now the United States — an event that is being widely commemorated throughout the nation.

First arrivals, being first, get all of the attention. But the second arrival — one that happened four years later — merits the greater celebration.

Two arrivals, but two very different receptions. And the contrast tells the story of America’s ongoing struggle to move from mere toleration to full religious freedom.

The first group came to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now New York), only to be met with the same hostility and intolerance they had known elsewhere. Confined to ghettos, excluded from most professions, subject to periodic massacres and expulsions, Jews had long experienced oppression throughout the European world.

Choosing a Dutch colony made sense, given that these Jews had enjoyed toleration in Recife, Brazil, under Dutch rule. But when the Portuguese recaptured Recife in 1654, the Jews were once again forced to flee. Twenty-three of them made their way to New Amsterdam.

Unfortunately for them, Gov. Peter Stuyvesant — supported by the Dutch Reformed clergy — opposed allowing in what he called a “repugnant race,” fearing that their presence would lead to eventual toleration of “Lutherans and Papists” as well as other groups considered dangerous by the established faith.

Overruled by the directors of the Dutch West India Co. in Amsterdam (mostly for economic reasons), Stuyvesant was forced to allow the Jews to remain. He did succeed, however, in denying them many basic rights, including the right to build a synagogue.

The bare toleration granted Jews in New Amsterdam stands in sharp contrast to the reception given a second group of Jews who had the good fortune to land in Rhode Island just four years later in 1658. There, for the first time, Jews found a place where they could practice their faith openly and freely — and where their standing as citizens had nothing to do with their religious affiliation.

The freedom of conscience Jewish families discovered in Rhode Island was rooted in the religious convictions of Roger Williams, founder and first governor of the colony. Williams founded what he called “a haven for the cause of conscience” after his banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635.

Williams was every bit as devout as the Puritans who expelled him, but he had a very different vision of what God required. He insisted that it was against the will of God for any state to interfere in matters of faith. Because God created the conscience free to choose for or against God, Williams argued, every individual must be free to follow the dictates of conscience.

Williams' commitment to what he called “soul liberty” led to the founding of the first society to fully separate church from state, and the first place in America to grant full religious liberty to people of all faiths or none. Jews, Quakers and others not welcome elsewhere made their home in Rhode Island.

Few people in the 17th century imagined that Williams’ “lively experiment” could succeed. A society without state religion, especially one that defined religious liberty as an inalienable right, was widely viewed as having no chance of survival.

After refusing entry to a boatload of Quakers in 1657, the Dutch clergy (the same clergy who had attempted to turn away the Jews) explained where they thought the Quakers went:

“We suppose they went to Rhode Island, for that is the receptacle of all sorts of riff-raff people and is nothing less than the sewer of New England … . They are not tolerated in any other place.”

Despite bitter opposition from surrounding colonies, Rhode Island’s radical experiment in liberty of conscience not only survives — it eventually becomes the American arrangement as embodied in the first 16 words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

But in 1658, Jews had every reason to doubt that the haven they found in Rhode Island would endure. That may explain why when you visit the oldest surviving Jewish house of worship in America — Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. — you’ll find a trap door built into the floor near the pulpit.

But here’s something well worth celebrating in this 350th anniversary year: Despite periodic outbreaks of nativism (most recently against Muslims), recurrences of anti-Semitism, and efforts by “Christian America” advocates to dismantle the First Amendment, the Jews in Rhode Island have never had to use that trap door.

Thanks largely to the protections of the First Amendment, America remains (on our best days) “a haven for the cause of conscience.”

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