by Norman Berdichevsky (July 2007)
Why should American Jews have had such a long and prominent role in political affairs in the United States? The American system was adopted with enthusiasm and regarded by almost all Jewish immigrants as particularly congenial and better suited to traditional Jewish concepts of rule than any other existing form of government. The Constitution came to occupy a place in the hearts and minds of Americans in a way which recalled to Jews the role of the Torah (Hebrew for the first Five Books of the Old Testament. i.e. - The written Law).
The American Revolution which established the system of federal and state government in the United States promulgated a respect for equality of individual citizens before the law -- a cardinal point that rejects monarchy and above all places ultimate reliance on a fixed document -- the Constitution -- rather than a monarch held in great reverence. In this regard, the United States, a Republic from its inception, developed a written code which was the final arbiter of all problems and conflicts. It is the means to decide what is legal and what is illegal.
The designation in modern Hebrew for The United States is “Artzot haBrit” that literally means “The Lands of the Covenant.” For Hebrew speakers, this name struck an immediate responsive chord that America was a country that placed the rule of law foremost above all persons and privileges. “Brit” means covenant and was also the term used for “circumcision”, the act that made the covenant a visible sign in the flesh between God and the descendants of Abraham and Isaac. This covenant - The Torah, constituted the voluntary acceptance of a righteous moral code.
The Torah and the Constitution were elevated by Jews and Americans respectively as the final recourse and supreme arbiter of political disputes and moral conflicts. The “LAW” rather than any President or King was acknowledged as the source of power in the state. A King Ahab or a President Nixon were displaced not by armed insurrection or devious political maneuvering but by the sense of public outrage that they had abused the moral authority that had been entrusted to them. The Prophets had the Torah and the political opponents of the administration had the Constitution on their side. A King Solomon and a President Clinton even if not impeached or deposed, suffered the scorn and humiliation of having betrayed their sacred trust. Nowhere else but in ancient Israel and modern America is there a document that is so respected and carries such weight.
In Chronicles II Chapter 7, verses 16-20, God clarifies the nature of the covenant He has made not only with Israel but with granting Solomon the office of King….
16. For now I have chose and sanctified this house, that my name be there for ever ; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.
17. And as for thee, If thou wilt walk as David, thy father walked and do according to all that I have covenanted with David thy father walked, and do according to all that I have commanded thee and shalt observe my statutes and judgments:
18. Then will I establish the throne of thy kingdom as I have covenanted with David thy father saying, There shall not fail thee a man to be ruler in Israel.
19. But if ye turn away, and forsake my statues and my commandments, which I have set before you, and shall go and serve other gods, and worship them:
20. Then will I pluck them up by the roots out of my land which I have given them…..and I will cast them out of my sight
Fulfilling a similar covenant, the oath of office requires the President to swear on the Bible “To Preserve, Protect, and Defend the Constitution of the United States - so help me God!
Monarchy traditionally relied on faith and belief in the divine right to rule. In this respect, it was ordained as part of the Christian emphasis on just those qualities. Most Christian theologians have stressed the significance of Faith. It, rather than 'good works', is for them the key to salvation. On the other hand, traditional Judaism has always relegated belief to a very unimportant consideration, but insisted that the key to following God's will and 'being religious' was to obey His ordinances -- i.e. committing acts and deeds rather than having a distinct faith or doctrine of belief.
For Orthodox Jews, these have been elaborated into a compendium of 613 precepts to be followed to the letter. Less observant Jews or those who consider themselves more in tune with modern society still have a strong partiality to acting out their commitment to religious principles by performing worthy acts following God's written word rather than believing in a specific dogma.
This insistence on the written law parallels American regard for the Constitution as the document by which the highest Judicial authority -- the Supreme Court -- was given the right to interpret it in order to decide what is the law of the land and what is forbidden to be rejected no matter how many legislators voice their approval. Until the destruction of The Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., The Great Sanhedrin, a type of Jewish Supreme Court met in an assembly of 71 members. They had both judicial and legislative functions and claimed powers to try the king, extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem, and settle all questions of law. In some cases, it was only necessary for a 23-member panel (functioning as a Lesser Sanhedrin) to convene. In general, the full panel of 71 judges was only convened on matters of national significance (e.g., a declaration of war) or in the event that the 23-member panel could not reach a conclusive verdict.
From the earliest days of the New England Puritan colonies, the following elements made the acceptance of Jews for high political office more likely than other new immigrants:
* a great respect for the Ten Commandments and the Hebrew Language;
* an emphasis on education and literacy;
* a commitment to abide by mutually agreed upon written covenants.
Furthermore there was an esteem for the Old Testament reflected in the prevalence of Biblical place names such as Salem and Bethlehem and personal names. Colonial America, especially New England was populated by countless Isaacs, Josephs, Jacobs, Joshuas, Solomons, and Abrahams (one American commander at Bunker Hill and in charge of the Continental Army in New York was Israel Putnam), as well as Sarahs, Ruths, Rebeccas, Rachels, Deborahs and Abigails. Reverence for the Old Testament extended down to copying the measure for a barrel of beer in Massachusetts as specified in Deutoronomy.
All this evident regard for the Biblical-Hebrew heritage made New England initially hospitable to early Jewish settlement. Nothing better illustrates this immense respect for the Old Testament than the words uttered in May, 1775 by Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont. When challenged by British soldiers at the gates of Fort Ticonderoga, on whose authority he was acting to demand its surrender, he replied: 'By the authority of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress'!
The Puritan respect for Hebrew extended to it being a required subject on a par with Latin and Greek and it was part of the curriculum in Harvard, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth, the last three of which universities preserve Hebrew inscriptions in their official seals. A Hebrew oration was given annually at Harvard graduation ceremonies until 1817. An intimate knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures in English translation was part of the formative home education of many New Englanders and early settlers in other regions.
After all, as the influential Anglo-Jewish historian Cecil Roth puts its: 'Generation after generation of Englishmen heard the Bible read in church and studied it at home. In many cases, it was the only book; in all, the principal book. At last, its cadences, its music, its phraseology, sank into his mind and became part of his being. Hence by slow degrees his daily speech was not merely enriched, but to some extent molded by its influence'.
Hundreds of Biblical expressions and Hebrew words became a part of the English language and American culture as if they had originated in it and were subsequently borrowed for successful novels, films, political slogans, popular mottoes embracing folk wisdom, allegories, proverbs, and even stamped on the Liberty Bell -- (Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof -- Leviticus 25:10) -- The Good Earth, Little Foxes, East of Eden, Chariots of Fire, Let My People Go, Pastures of Plenty, Grapes of Wrath, Each Man under his Vine and Fig Tree, By the Sweat of Your Brow, etc. and words directly transcribed to English -- amen, hallelujah, hosanna, manna, cherubim, seraphim, Satan, shibboleth, cabal, mammon, paschal, messiah, abbot, Sabbath, alphabet, leviathan and so on. This common vocabulary, moral code, religiously inspired heritage and the form of Constitutional government prescribed in the Torah with divinely sanctioned rights that no monarch can violate is what is meant by the adjective "Judaeo-Christian" to characterize our way of life.
Like most of the merchant class incensed by British trade restrictions, American Jews, many of whom were Sephardim (of Spanish-Portuguese descent), enthusiastically supported the Revolutionary cause in the 1770s. Their loyalty was acknowledged and reciprocated by the country's earliest leadership. Although some voting restrictions existed in several colonies, they were all abolished within the first few decades of independence.
George Washington had set an early example by proclaiming that “The affection of such people is a treasure beyond the reach of calculation”. His successor, John Adams wrote to the Jewish New York politician Mordechai Noah “I wish your nation be admitted to all the privileges of citizens. This country has done much. I wish it may do more, and annul every narrow idea in religion, government and commerce“.
The list of appointments and honors accorded to American Jews prior to the Civil War included U.S. Marshall for Maryland (Reuben Etting) by President Jefferson, American Consul in Tunis (Mordechai Noah) by President Madison; action by American diplomats to protect the Jews of Damascus from the absurd accusations of ritual blood murder (President Van Buren), the appointment of an American Consul to Palestine (Warder Cresson, a Quaker convert to Judaism!) by President Tyler, and signing the charter to permit the first synagogue in the District of Columbia (President Pierce). These appointments were not made in order to placate a "Jewish lobby" among the electorate for Jews were too few in number to have any political influence at the time but were awarded on the basis of individual merit.
In succeeding generations, many millions of immigrants to the United States sought the same economic and social opportunities as did Jews but none found so many important elements of their religious or political culture so embedded in the original American civilization established by English, Scots and Ulster Irish settlers. Greeks and Italians might point to the classical Greek, Italianate and Romanesque architecture of American public buildings but only early Jewish immigrants could feel the same sense of welcome expressed by Thomas Jefferson who declared himself 'happy in the restoration of the Jews, particularly to their social rights and hope they will be seen taking their seats on the benches of science as preparatory to their doing the same at the board of government'.
A scant three generations after American Independence, the Civil War made extensive use of Biblical imagery against slavery. The Battle Hymn of the Republic which became a second national anthem during the war invoked the biblical specter of God's 'Terrible Swift Sword' trampling out the vintage where the 'Grapes of Wrath' are stored and many abolitionists who helped escaped slaves reach the 'Promised Land' (either the North or Canada) before the war saw themselves as continuing the tradition of the biblical prophets.
Yet on the other side of that dreadful war, Southern Jews played a prominent part in the struggle. Savannah and Charleston both had Jewish communities in colonial times. Judah Benjamin (born on St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies) who became the Confederacy's Secretary of State was the highest ranking Jew in American history until President Nixon appointed Henry Kissinger as U.S. Secretary of State.
There is thus a distinguished history of American-Jewish participation and involvement in the country's destiny for more than two hundred years yet few observers commented that the Republican Party already nominated a candidate for President of the United States back in 1964 -- Senator Barry Morris Goldwater who was 'half Jewish' by descent. Had he been elected, no doubt he would have been compared to other political leaders of Jewish origin such as Disraeli in Victorian Britain. Anti-Semitic forces would certainly have maligned Goldwater no matter how conservative he appeared to the great majority of American Jews who voted overwhelmingly for Lyndon Johnson.
Goldwater grew up in Phoenix, Arizona which lacked a synagogue and any organized Jewish community but his parents who converted and became Episcopalians never hid or were ashamed of their origin -- the Goldwassers from Prussian-ruled Poland. Barry Goldwater himself stated on several occasions in public speeches that 'I am proud of my heritage' and that 'The bigots are not going to vote for me because my grandfather was a Polish Jew'. Due to the very pronounced liberal tendency of American Jews to support the Democratic Party, there was a reluctance to exhibit any of the pride and enthusiasm verging on adulation in supporting Senator Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for Vice-President in 2000.
The difference is that Goldwater like many of the colonial Jews was eventually assimilated -- the pronounced goal of millions of immigrants to the United States who dreamt of being part of the 'melting pot' (a term invented by Israel Zangwill) and envisioned a country blind to ethnic origin, religion, or race but which seems to be outdated in the new vision of a 'multi-cultural society'. Senator Lieberman by contrast has held firmly to maintaining his strong sense of Jewish heritage and is regarded as a “modern Orthodox” Jew, one of the few Jews who have held high political office and “kept the faith” above and beyond the Ten Commandments. He undoubtedly idealizes what is meant by “multicultural” in America today.
In 1984, the Democratic Party nominated a woman and an Italian-American, Geraldine Ferraro for Vice-President to run with presidential nominee Walter Mondale, a much bolder and more courageous break with the past, yet totally forgotten today. It was a bid to recognize the large feminist constituency and grant recognition to women. Moreover, she was the first real non-Anglo-Irish/German/Dutch 'ethnic' candidate in American political history. Italians trace their presence in America in significant numbers only from the latter part of the 19th century.
Like Senator Lieberman’s nomination, it created a brief fury and media hype. Perhaps the record breaking loss of the Democrats in the election has helped dim memories. Many American Jews prefer to ignore that the United States has strayed from the commitment to its basic founding principles of the equality of individuals. In many of its administrative procedures from the census itself, it classifies people as belonging to groups. Reading the Constitution today one is still struck that all the civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are extended to individuals, not groups or communities.
American Jews have the right to follow either the Goldwater or the Lieberman path. Some have even wavered or zigzagged between the two options. They should, on reflection, realize that they have deep roots in the country that extend back to the founding fathers. It is not surprising that a Jewish candidate for a 'major office' was selected recently, or that Israelis have such a strong affection for the United States.
It may well be that a large part of the intense hostility Arab and Muslim radicals and Islamists feel towards Israel has been compounded by the almost automatic sympathy and solidarity Israelis feel towards the United States as much as the other way round. Just as there continues to be a special bond of both “blood” and shared political values and cultural heritage between Anglo-Americans and the peoples of the British isles, there is a strong link between most Christian Americans and the Jews stemming from the more than two hundred and fifty year old coexistence in North America and the two thousand year old Judeo-Christian ethic.
George Washington in a letter to Moses Seixas, Warden of Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island in August, 1790 expressed the wish that ….”The children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree”. This wish has long been reciprocated.
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