Bigoted Americans would have their fellow countrymen think of Jews as foreigners, immigrants, “aliens” from Russia who came over in the early 1900’s. But the truth is Jews have been in America since the very beginning – to the benefit of this great nation.
The first permanent settlement of Jews in New York (that is, 17th century New Amsterdam) was a group of 23 people (4 men, 2 women, and 17 children) on the tip of Manhattan Island in 1654. They became part of an 800 member Dutch settlement there. By 1690 they had established Congregation Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel) and built an official house of worship in 1729.
Asser Levy (1628-1682) faced severe civil prejudice in New Amsterdam, but peacefully overcame it, and obtained rights to conduct trade and to obtain citizenship. Levy was an advocate of equality from the earliest days of European American colonies.
“From the beginning there was the conviction that Jewish interests coincided with American well-being,” observed Abraham Karp, in “Jewish Perceptions of America,” B. G. Rudolph Lectures in Judaic Studies (New York: Syracuse University, March 1976).
In 1658, fifteen Jewish families came from Holland and settled in Newport, Rhode Island. By 1764 they had established the famous Touro synagogue, designed by Peter Harrison of New Haven, Connecticut.
By 1773, there were five hundred Jews in a community of Charleston, Virginia. This was the largest of the pre-Revolutionary communities.
Prominent banker Francis Salvador, and English Jew, came to America in 1773 to manage his family’s plantation in South Carolina. He was elected to the first General Assembly when South Carolina drafted its first state constitution in 1776. He was the first Jew elected to public office in some 1,900 years.
That same year, serving with 330 militiamen under Major Andrew Williamson, Salvador was shot by the British Tories and scalped by Cherokee Indians (who were then allies of the British). He was the first Jew to die in an American war, and probably the first Jew to be scalped by Indians.
The patriot list goes on. There was David Salisbury Franks, Haym Salomon, Bernard Gratz, and Benjamin Nones, to name a few. These men fought quite consciously for freedom and equality, and enlisted their lives and fortunes in the American cause. Take a look at Bernard Postal and Lionel Koppman’s Guess Who’s Jewish in American History (New American Library, 1978).
Though it’s even less known, Jews had an enormous part to play in the settling of the American western frontier. This story begins in the northern wilderness of colonial Mexico, including today’s southwest Texas. In 1579, Spain’s King Philip decreed to a Jew one of the largest land grants ever made. Don Luis de Carvajal became governor.
But Carvajal was one of those “converts” to Catholicism called marranos, who practiced Judaism in secret. After ten years reigning over his “Kingdom of the Lion” Carvajal was persecuted by the Mexican Inquisition. He and more than 100 of his Jewish colonizers fled north into what is today New Mexico and south Texas.
It has been estimated that 20 percent of the population in Mexico City was Jewish in the 1570’s. The persecution of Carvajal was inevitable.
And so was the Jewish presence in the American Southwest. In the 1690’s, the Pueblo Indian Rebellion loosened the Spanish grip in the territory, and Jews enjoyed a respite.
After Mexico’s revolution against Spain, that nation cautiously invited immigration in order to build up the population, and a new wave of enterprising Jewish people came into the Southwest. Major trades and businesses were established which truly shaped the socio-economic development of this part of America. Two of the most famous companies were Spiegelberg Bros. of Sante Fe (1846) and Levi-Strauss – maker of the famous Levi’s jeans – of San Francisco (1872).
And we can’t forget Julius Meyer (1852-1909), the most famous Indian trader of the West. He paid famous Indian chiefs, like Red Cloud, to have their pictures taken with him. Once, Pawnee Chief Standing Bear nearly took Meyer’s scalp. Meyer bore the scar the rest of his life, but repaid the chief’s mercy with lifelong supplies of food and clothing. Call it the first “reservation” concept.
Indeed, Jews were all over the Western Hemisphere almost as soon as it was discovered. As early as 1549, Jews were in positions of leadership in the West. Thomas de Souza, the first governor-general of Brazil was Jewish. In the next century the Jews created the sugar industry in the West Indies. By 1671, the governor of Jamaica recommended Jews to the British Crown as ‘most profitable subjects.’ Surinam (Dutch Guiana, South America) declared the Jews ‘useful and beneficial to the colony.’
Jews have played a prominent role from the very first days of our Western culture. Both are now under attack; that is no coincidence.