Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: The Meaning of 1776 in Jewish History

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In just three years, the United States will observe the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. In my view, the American Revolution not only led to the creation of the United States but was also a “revolution” in Jewish history.

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For the first time in Jewish history since the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E., Jews were fully enfranchised as citizens and no longer were either subjects of the realm or alien residents. In many ways, the Liberty Bell, whose inscription, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land,” (Leviticus 25:10) instantly became a symbol of the new nation and its revolutionary character.

Originally part of the Torah’s discussion of the manumission of slaves at the Jubilee in this week’s portion, the verse was reimagined as a statement about “liberty” from the perspective of 18th-century political philosophy. For American Jews, it helped to codify their new civil status as “equals under law” in the new nation.

Prior to the Revolution, American Jews lived under the law of each of the 13 colonies and the imperial laws of Great Britain. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and were only readmitted in the 1650s. For the most part, their rights were limited and they could not vote or hold public office. It took two centuries before a British Jew was elected to Parliament.

For Jews, the legal situation in France, Germany and other countries was also limited. Because of the teachings of the Enlightenment, the distance between the colonies and the homeland, association of Jews with the white majority and the willingness of American Jews to stand up for their rights, the civic status of Jews began to improve dramatically by the middle of the 18th century.

One of the first signs of the changing position of Jews in Colonial America was the willingness of a group of Jewish businessmen to sign a letter of protest against the Non-Importation Resolutions in 1765. Although they later split between Tories and Whigs, the group made a bold statement not only about British tax policies but also about the place of Jews in American society.

By 1774, an American Jew, Frances Salvador of Charleston, S.C., already held public office in that colony and, two years later, became both the first Jew to hold elected office in the United States and was the first Jew to die in combat in defense of the new nation. During the war, as many as two dozen Jews served as officers with George Washington. It was unprecedented for Jews to be found in such high military circles anywhere else in the world.

On the political front, American Jews were also active in securing their civil rights. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had the right to determine who was eligible to hold public office. Most of the states required elected officials to be Christian. Beginning in 1783, a committee at Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel studied all 13 state constitutions and then wrote letters to various newspapers urging the enfranchisement of Jews, which was finally achieved with the adoption the new Constitution.

Finally, in 1790, President George Washington penned his now-famous letter to the Jewish community of Newport, R.I., declaring that the United States would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Finally, after centuries of marginalization and persecution, a Jewish community could embrace the message inscribed on the Liberty Bell that liberty had been proclaimed “for all the inhabitants thereof.”

Grateful for their new status as citizens, American Jews then commenced with the work necessary to expand the meaning of religious liberty in their new country and boldly fight the enduring scourge of antisemitism.

Lance J. Sussman is immediate past chair of the board of governors at Gratz College.

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