Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jews in Colonial America: Why They Were tolerated, Even Welcomed.

No religious group had it worse in Colonial America than Catholics, who faced an outright ban on the open worship of their religion. The thirteen Protestant colonies feared the bloodshed that occurred in Europe during the Reformation and Counter-reformation periods. By contrast, Catholics were explicitly tolerated in British Canada--in large part because the wily British Parliament sought to drive a wedge between the 13 colonies and their northern neighbor.

But nowhere did Jews have it better than during the colonial period in America. Why? All through history, Jews had been tortured, killed or expelled from their so-called homelands. Gradually finding their way to the North American colonies circa 1654, they were originally rejected by New York City (New Amsterdam) mayor Peter Stuyvesant. But his Dutch superiors convinced him that by trading with their co-religionists throughout the diaspora, Jews would bring prosperity. Jews, who over time settled primarily in port cities (New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah, Charleston), contributed mightily to commerce.

Not a single restrictive law was passed against the Jew in British America. In most colonies, Jews could not hold public office, a ban enforced by requiring Christian oaths. Jews were also far too few in number vex the anti-semites. At around the time of the American Revolution there were between 1,000-2,500 Jews in the 13 colonies out of an overall population of more than 3 million. Many were wealthy, outstanding citizens. Because of their mercantilism, they tended to side with the rebels during the Revolution and thus were signatories of various non-import agreements. Though only a small number served in the military, several as officers, Jews contributed financially to the revolution by generously supplying funds, ammunitions and provisions. 

In the 1790s, George Washington sent out letters to congregations in Philadelphia, Newport and elsewhere expressing honor and respect for Jews. Though anti-semiticism later followed--especially with the influx of European Jews in the 1800s-- colonial America was a safe haven for the Jews. Little wonder they kept arriving from all over the world.

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