In August, 1790 George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island. That visit occasioned a famous exchange of letters between Washington and the "Hebrew Congregations of Newport," in which the Jews of Newport addressed their president--and he replied.
Several sentences from Washington’s letter came to mind today:
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.
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....
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.
These sentences struck me today because they were true then for Jews in America and are true today--but were not true then for Jews in Europe and are not true today.
A story in the Israeli press today is a reminder. Across Europe, Jews are being told by their own community leaders and rabbis to avoid showing any sign of their religion in public: no prayer shawl, no head covering, no Star of David necklace. Nothing--too dangerous. The head of the Jewish community in Marseille (where a Jewish teacher was attacked Monday) has just called upon Orthodox Jewish males there, who wear head coverings as a religious duty, to stop doing so in public. The argument is that the duty to preserve life is greater than the duty to cover one’s head.
That news story, in Ynet News, continued:
The head of the Department for Combating Anti-Semism in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [of Israel], Gideon Bachar, said: "There is a sense of growing fear and worry among Europe’s Jews.
"Many Jews feel that their Jewish identity is a threat to them. We know that many have stopped going to synagogue on holy days for fear of terror attacks. To our regret, Jewish life is taking place more and more behind walls, armed guards, police and security cameras."
It is in that context that Washington’s words are so striking. 225 years later, Jews in Europe do not have the safety that America’s first president promised Jews in the United States in 1790. Nor is there much reason to think that the predicament of European Jews will be solved; indeed logic suggests that it will worsen. Perhaps I should have waited for Washington’s Birthday, which used to be a federal holiday but is now subsumed in the ludicrous "President’s Day," for this post. But any day is a good day to celebrate Washington, and the religious liberty afforded citizens of the United States. "And there shall be none to make him afraid" is a promise that still eludes Jews in Europe.