In 1790, before air conditioning and the Acela, our nation’s first president traveled hundreds of miles over land the same week that our nation’s 45th president and his political rivals focused on Jews in America.
President Washington’s destination was Newport, Rhode Island. This was the largest city in the smallest state in the world’s newest country.
From different political parties, the president was accompanied by New York Governor (and future Vice President) George Clinton and a South Carolina Congressman.
The city had suffered immensely during the Revolution. The British held the city and, consequently, the nascent American Navy blockaded the harbor. All residents, regardless of politics or religion, had endured great hardship in the years prior. Less than three years after the Constitutional Convention concluded in Philadelphia and seven years after the last shots were fired at Yorktown, the economy and morale of Newport were in shambles.
Newport was America in miniature, and on the morning of Aug. 17, the entire town came out for an open-air quintessential New England town meeting. An estimated third of the population was black. They stood shoulder to shoulder with white Baptists, Quakers and Catholics. Alongside their neighbors were the congregants of the first synagogue in the United States.
Four days later, Washington penned a letter to the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport.” In it the president pledged “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.”
From the Oval Office to a lectern in Minneapolis, like many Jewish Americans, the last two weeks have led to a deep introspection of what it means to be a “good citizen.”
Constitutional scholars cite President Washington’s 340-word letter as the foundation for religious liberty and pluralism in our great country. Since that diverse town meeting in Newport, differing opinions and faiths have been our strength as Americans. Indeed, learning from those who may not worship like I do or speak the same language at the dinner table that I do makes for a “good citizen” in our increasingly diverse democracy.
Like countless Jews around the world, but certainly here in the “Land of Liberty,” I have examined my faith as anti-Semitism has manifested itself in violent tragedies and been propagated by elected officials of both parties uttering ancient tropes and stereotypes.
Regardless of religion, the words of the Prophet Isaiah are timeless: “For the mountains may move and the hills shake, but my loyalty shall never move from you.”
Yeshuat Israel is the name the Jews of Newport decided on for the first synagogue in our country. This translates to Salvation of Israel. Perhaps the dream of our great country felt like a salvation for these early Jewish Americans fleeing violent anti-Semitism and loyalty oaths.
More than any politician could, Mark Twain summarized what it means to be a “good citizen.” In the equally divided and contentious period after the Civil War, he quipped, “Loyalty to country always. Loyalty to government when it deserves it.”
As we approach what will inevitably be the most expensive and bitter election year our country has ever seen, as a Jewish American I will be loyal to our great country. However, I will pray daily that our government leaders remember the wisdom of Washington and the bipartisan and multicultural unity on display that hot August morning in Newport.
Ari Mittleman lives in Pikesville. For generations, his father’s family lived, worked and worshiped in Rhode Island.