Think America is a ‘Christian nation’? George Washington didn’t.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Re-enactors of the American Revolutionary War perform to commemorate the swearing-in of former President George Washington at Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York April 30, 2013.

At the White House’s Hanukkah celebration Monday night, President Biden attested to the “permanence” of the Jewish people in the United States. As did past presidents, he welcomed the holiday that seeks to “re-create the wonder of the Maccabees and the oil with a blessing that recalls the miracles performed both in the days of old and at this time.”

But he did not ignore the cloud of antisemitism hanging over the joyous holiday season.

“I recognize your fear, your hurt, your worry that this vile and venom is becoming too normal,” Biden said. He added, “Silence is complicity. We must not remain silent. . . . Today, we must all say clearly and forcefully: Antisemitism and all forms of hate and violence in this country can have no safe harbor in America. Period.”

Biden’s remarks provoke an interesting line of inquiry: Just how “permanent” a home do we Jews have in the United States? How connected to the American story are we? Here, history enlightens.

The Jewish community in the United States is as old as its democracy. In August 1790, George Washington sent a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I., thanking them for their well wishes.

He wrote: “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.” He added, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were 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.”

To a people long denied citizenship in the Old World, kept as a people apart from Christian neighbors, Washington was explaining something quite revolutionary: The United States does not simply forbear Jews; Jews are part of the United States. As the Touro Synagogue in Newport explains on its website: “The letter reassured those who had fled religious tyranny that life in the new nation would be different, that religious ‘toleration’ would give way to religious liberty, and that the government would not interfere with individuals in matters of conscience and belief.”

From the start, defense of religious liberty and rejection of state-established religion were two sides of the same coin. Together, they allowed not only relief from sectarian strife but also fellowship among all Americans. Without religion as a defining feature of citizenship, pluralism and comity were possible.

Those who view the United States as a “White Christian nation” would do well to ponder Washington’s letter. Its closing passage, which speaks in terms familiar to the people of the Torah, stands as an eloquent rebuke to that notion: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Washington was fully aware of ancient prejudices against Jews, but here he declared that the United States was different. Every American has their own vine and fig tree – their own faith and their own road to the pursuit of happiness. He concluded, “May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

The Founding Fathers are often criticized (or excused) on matters of race and gender as men trapped in the blinkered vision of the past. But in this case, the most esteemed American of his time plainly saw beyond the common prejudices of his era. For that reason, he earned a special place in the hearts of American Jews.

It was no small thing to be included in the American family under the protection of the rule of law. Jews remain as central to the American experiment as any other group of Americans. That’s not a Hanukkah miracle; it is a consequence of Washington’s wisdom, of the First Amendment and of Americans’ enduring belief in “we the people.” We Jews will remain part of the American experience so long as Americans of whatever faith or no faith heed Washington’s admonition.