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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Washington's letter and the American-Jewish experience

This is a few days old, but I still wanted to write about it. On Sunday, Justice Kagan gave the keynote at Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. for the reading of George Washington's 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport. In the letter, written just after an official visit to Newport, Washington presented a vision of religious freedom in which "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." Whether the nation does or has lived up to those principles, they are stirring words, especially giving the (rather negative) Jewish experience as a separate community within a host country.

Kagan spoke about her family history and her experiences growing up as a Jew in the United States, which I appreciated because, as I wrote at the time of her nomination, we are on the same basic point in the curve of American Jewry. My family comes from the same area of Eastern Europe, which was sometimes in Russia and sometimes in Poland. Like hers, my grandparents primarily spoke Yiddish, worked laboring jobs (they owned a fruit stand in Brooklyn), and made sure their children got an education (usually at one of the schools in New York City, such as Hunter or City College), and broke into professions. By the time their grandchildren came around and moved into adulthood, there were no avenues that were closed off to Jews because they were Jews and little or no formal or institutional anti-Semitism. As Kagan said, all that is possible because of the commitment to religious and political liberty (even if purely rhetorical) reflected in Washington's letter.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 21, 2013 at 04:40 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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Washington's commitment was not merely rhetorical. There are numerous examples demonstrating this. One of the earliest was his instruction to Benedict Arnold in Sept 1775 (15 years before the Newport letter) prior to his invasion of Canada where most of the population was Roman Catholic. Washington directed Arnold to respect the religious belief of Canadians telling him:

"While we are Contending for own own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others; ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men and to him only in this Case they are answerable"

Posted by: Mark | Aug 22, 2013 6:40:11 PM

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