George Washington’s Letter to the Jews

I recently returned from a trip to New England to visit the affines. While there, my children received a gift from one of the aunts — a printed copy of George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport. I think most American Jews, like me, have heard about this letter and understand its importance: It makes clear that Jews were in America before it was the United States, and were welcomed into our polity by perhaps its most famous founding father. A copy of the text of the letter is available at the website of the synagogue it was addressed to (they also have the text of the letter to which Washington was responding) , and there’s a more scrupulously sourced version online as well. This Fourth of July, it’s worth reading not just for what it says about Washington or Jews, but what it says about our country and its ideals.

The first thing to notice about the letter is that it is very short! So it doesn’t take too long to get through. The central sentences of letter read:

“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.”

Today my children and I take it for granted that we citizens of our country and that we enjoy the exercise of our rights naturally, without the indulgent toleration of a religious majority… at least more or less. And our privilege in this regard is not shared by everyone in this country, much less the world. The United States, like most institutions, fails to live up to its ideals. Holidays like the Fourth of July are a time for us to remind ourselves of our ideals and to commit ourselves to realizing them. America is not and probably has never been a place where the government gives to bigotry no action and to persecution no assistance. But this has always been our goal, and it is worth continuing to fight for. Happy fourth of July!