We Jews have always looked to Israel as our promised land. The dates 586 BCE and 70 CE (the destruction of the first and second Temples and the start of the Diaspora communities) are etched into the collective Jewish mind, and we end each Yom Kippur and Passover with the saying: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
But in many respects, we Jews found our promised land when we first stepped foot on American soil (Boston, 1649, Solomon Franco), and later when we came in larger numbers during the 1800s (250,000 Jews by 1880). For the first time, Jews had a home country devoid of a history of Jewish expulsion or systematic Jewish bloodshed. For the first time in history, Jews had a country that – from the beginning – gave de jure acknowledgement to the right to practice to Judaism and the right to be an equal citizen as a Jew.
One Jew – Haym Solomon – quickly recognized the opportunities that the liberal values of the American Revolutionaries might afford future Jews. Solomon put his money where his thoughts were and gave $20,000 to George Washington’s army, making him the largest financier of the American Revolution.
Success ensued. Jews have made gold out of lead in many countries – think of Muslim Spain from 711 to 1492 or Nineteenth Century Germany – but none of these accomplishments can hold a feather to what is truly the golden age of Jewish history: Twentieth Century United States. American Jews freely practiced Judaism; American Jews set up Jewish schools; American Jews ran large corporations; American Jews climbed to the top levels of politics; American Jews became top performers and entertainers; and, as we often proudly boast, American Jews won a whole load of Nobel Prizes. We often decry the anti-Semitic canard that “Jews run the country, or at least Wall Street,” but at the same time, we take some pride in knowing that, yes, we Jews have climbed to positions of great power in the United States. By the end of the century, the average American Jewish household earned $8,000 more than the average American family. Imagine what our ancestors would have said had they known that there would be a country in which Jews were not only tolerated, but in which many Jews were the bosses, the ones hiring and firing their gentile peers without fear of violent retribution.
Has the United States been perfect for Jews? No. Obvious examples include anti-Jewish immigration quotas in the 1920s, anti-Jewish quotas at universities around the same time, Jewish bans from country clubs even in the 1960s, and of course the Jewish-filled ships that fled the Holocaust only to be turned back at American shores. The micro Jewish narrative also speaks of Jewish hardships in America – Jewish bullying at school was commonplace during our parents’ childhood, and it still exists in parts of the country today. Additionally, more hate crimes are committed in the United States against Jews than against any other religion (by far – 71.9% of religious motivated crimes were anti-Semitic in 2009).
But imperfection doesn’t preclude greatness. And the American Jewish history is the greatest tale the Jewish people have to offer in the past 2,000 years. Maybe the Israeli Jewish story will someday surpass ours, but if I had to point to a thriving Jewish culture that is free and – to use my favorite saying – “really dominating at life,” I would point to United States, and perhaps I’d even point to right here in Washington, DC, as a place where Jews are having a blast and making the world a better place.
Rock on, American Jews. Happy Fourth!
Stephen Richer is a co-founder and director of Gather the Jews. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.