Often at our Shabbat morning service of President’s Weekend, I have read a few key excerpts from George Washington’s famous letter to the Jewish Congregation of Newport, R.I. Penned in 1790, it is a fascinating document — all the more remarkable because it profiles the values of tolerance and inclusion which our first president articulated in his message to a small community of American Jews in the post-Revolutionary War era.
The large waves of Jewish immigration to these American shores were still far in the future. At the end of the 18th century, there were only a few thousand Jews, mostly Sephardim, grouped in the major seaports along the Atlantic coast: Newport, New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. In anticipation of President Washington’s forthcoming visit to Rhode Island, the leaders of the Newport synagogue had written to him, expressing their steadfast loyalty and unequivocal commitment to the then-new American polity. Whereupon 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.”
More than two centuries ago, our first American president was unequivocal in his recognition of a minority — Jews whose own families had been battered and oppressed by the Inquisition and its aftermath, and who fervently hoped that this country would offer security and freedom to them and their descendants. Washington’s words must have been deeply reassuring to those Newport Jews as an antidote to a society in which they could easily have been marginalized and ostracized.
Fast-forward to 2017: The tensions in American life have become increasingly loud, bruising and polarizing — boiling over into the public square and far beyond. Many in the mosaic of America — immigrants of all ethnicities, Muslims, the LGBT community, the disabled, among others — are understandably frightened by the rhetoric of hatred and prejudice voiced openly and without constraint, especially on social media.
For us as Jews, there has also been an alarming and painful increase in anti-Semitic outbursts.
Surely, whatever our particular political perspective may be, we desperately need a renewal of the spirit of civility and compassion exemplified by Washington. The stakes have never been higher. I urge you to participate actively in the debates and deliberations which are unfolding in the public arena and which will define America’s destiny in the years ahead — remembering always that as Jews we have a distinctive legacy which challenges us “to love our neighbors as ourselves” (Leviticus 19:18).
Jonathan A. Schnitzer is senior rabbi at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville.