History of Jewish Immigration to America

"Jews of the United States ... were free ... In a comparatively short time, prospered in a degree unexampled in Europe."

After seven centuries of Islamic occupation, which included episodes of forced conversions and massacres, Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last of the Muslims out of Spain in 1492.

The same year they sent Columbus on his voyage to find a sea route to India and China, as Muslims had cut off the land route.

Under the pretense that some Muslims might be staying in Spain posing as Jews, possibly to attempt an assassination or coup, King Ferdinand decided to order all Jews to convert or leave, thus ending one of the largest and most prosperous Sephardic Jewish communities in the world.

This was similar to Jews being expelled from England by Edward I in 1290.

Jews that converted and stayed in Spain were called Marrano or Converso, some of whom risked arrest by continuing to practice their Jewish traditions in secret.

In regret of this, on December 13, 2016, King Felipe VI of Spain addressed the Conference of European Rabbis:

"Our European identity cannot be understood nor complete without taking into account the decisive contribution of the Jews, who have lived in the continent since the dawn of history ...

Now -- as it did then -- Europe needs the invaluable contribution of its Jewish communities, because we need to be honest and respectful to both our common Judeo-Christian values and origins ...

Esteemed rabbis, I welcome you to Spain, an open and tolerant country in which respect for diversity is a defining characteristic.

We are also filled with pride by Spain's active and flourishing Jewish community ... (whose) rites, liturgy, renowned surnames, ballads, proverbs and seasonings ... should never have allowed to be lost ... "

King Felipe VI continued:

"(In) 1992 ... after entering the Ben Yaacob Synagogue in Madrid, the official welcome was marked by the words of my father King Juan Carlos: 'Spanish Jews are in their homeland' ...

Spain's efforts in recent years to return the country's Jewish culture to its rightful state are simply a duty in the name of justice.

The Sephardim's unyielding love and loyalty towards Spain represents a powerful example ... who, for five centuries, stayed true to their heritage."

In 1492, some of the exiled Jews went to the Ottoman Empire, or Morocco, Tangier, Fez, and areas of North Africa, though they later suffered much persecution and bloodshed.

Some went to Portugal, but when King Manuel I of Portugal married the daughter of the King of Spain, he instituted the same policy in 1497, of convert or leave.

Some Jews fled to the Madeira Islands.

Other Jews went to the Netherlands, which was Europe's center of religious toleration.

Jews migrated to the Netherlands' largest city, Amsterdam, which went on to become the wealthiest city in the world in the 1600s.

Some Jews settled in the city of Leiden, Holland.

From 1575, the University of Leiden became known as a center of the study of Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac, even having a Jewish rabbi as a professor.

In 1607, the Pilgrims fled from King James I of England, crossed the English Channel, and settled in Leiden, Holland, where they became acquainted with the Jews.

Scholars of the era were fascinated with the ancient Hebrew Republic and Israel's concept of a people in "covenant" with each other under God, so much so, that the scholars were given the name of "Christian Hebraists."

The Pilgrims came to identify with the Jews, whose ancestors covenanted together with God, fled from the persecution of Pharaoh, crossed the Red Sea, and entered into the Promised Land.

In 1620, the Pilgrims, having fled from the King of England, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to settle Plymouth, Massachusetts, - their new Promised Land.

Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews back into England in 1657.

New England's Pilgrims, Puritans, and Congregationalists had Hebrew taught at Harvard, Yale, and other universities.

Yale President Ezra Styles identified the country as "American Israel."

Harvard President Rev. Samuel Langdon gave an address to the New Hampshire ratifying Convention, titled "The Republic of the Israelites an example to the American States," June 5, 1788, stating:

"The Israelites may be considered as a pattern to the world in all ages ... (of) government ... on republican principles ...

How unexampled was this quick progress of the Israelites, from abject slavery, ignorance, and almost total want of order, to a national establishment perfected in all its parts far beyond all other kingdoms and States!

From a mere mob, to a well regulated nation, under a government and laws far superior to what any other nation could boast!"

After Rev. Langdon's address, New Hampshire's delegates voted to ratify the U.S. Constitution, and being the 9th State to do so, put the Constitution into effect, June 21, 1788.

The United States Constitution went into effect after the sermon, "The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the American States."

Many Jews had sailed with Dutch merchants to settlements around the world, including the South American city of Recife.

There, Jews built the first synagogue in the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in 1636.

When Spain and Portugal recaptured Recife from the Dutch, they pressured the Jews to flee again.

Twenty-three Jews sailed from Recife to Port Royal, Jamaica.

Then they boarded the French ship Sainte Catherine and headed north, but were soon robbed by a Spanish privateer and stripped of their valuables.

Arriving in the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam on August 22, 1654, they were considered the first Jews to settle in North America.

Being totally destitute after their voyage, members of the Dutch Reformed Church took care of the Jews that first winter.

New Amsterdam (New York) would eventually become the richest city in the world in the early 20th century.

New Amsterdam Director-General Peter Stuyvesant attempted to expel them, as he had previously tried to expel Lutheran arrivals.

The Jewish arrivals were allowed to stay, though, because the directors of Dutch West India Company shared a common sympathy with them, as both experienced suffering under Spanish tyranny.

The Dutch were in a global contest with Spain, Portugal and England over possessions in Indonesia, India, Africa and South America, and as a result, they wanted to quickly populate the colony of New Netherlands for its defense and profitability.

In 1657, the first Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam, but Stuyvesant banished them.

In their defense, 31 residents signed a petition, the Flushing Remonstrance, but the signers, too, were arrested.

In 1663, the directors of the Dutch West India Company, after reading a lengthy protest letter written by Quaker John Browne, sent instructions to Stuyvesant:

"Immigration ... must be favored at so tender a stage of the country's existence, you may therefore shut your eyes, at least not force people's consciences,

but allow everyone to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbors and does not oppose the government."

Jews were allowed to stay in New Amsterdam, but were initially not allowed to own a home, or worship outside their residences, or join the city's militia.

In 1664, near the beginning of the Second Anglo-Dutch War - a war in which British Admiral William Penn, Sr., fought - English forces took control of New Amsterdam and renamed it New York.

This resulted in Jews having more freedom.

In 1730, Jewish citizens in New York bought land and built the small "Mill Street Synagogue," the first Jewish house of worship in North America.

During the colonial era, America's population grew to 3 million, which was approximately:

  • 98 percent Protestant

  • around 1 percent Catholic; and

  • less than one tenth of 1 percent Jewish.

By the time of the Revolution, America's Jewish population was estimated to be somewhere between 1,000 to 2,500, located in seven Sephadic congregations:

  • Shearith Israel, New York City, begun 1655;

  • Yeshuat Israel, Newport, Rhode Island, begun 1658;

  • Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia, begun 1733;

  • Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia, begun 1740;

  • Shaarai Shomayim, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, begun 1747;

  • Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Charleston, South Carolina, begun 1749; and

  • Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalom, Richmond, Virginia, begun 1789.

From the 3rd century on, Jews scattered around the world followed the teaching of Rabbi Samuel of Nehardea in Babylonia, namely, that "the law of the land is the law."

This resulted in Jews refraining from trying to change the politics of the host countries they lived in, similar to the practice of early Christians during their first three centuries.

This teaching is diametrically opposed to fundamental wahhabi Islamic teaching, which attempts to overthrow governments of host countries to establish sharia law.

During the Middle Ages, the Jew's insistence on non-involvement in city politics unfortunately caused them to be held suspect by all political parties.

The American Revolutionary War was the first time since being exiled from Jerusalem that Jews fought alongside of their Christian neighbors as equals in the fight for freedom.

Jewish merchants, such as Aaron Lopez of Newport and Isaac Moses of Philadelphia, sailed their ships past British blockades to provide clothing, guns, powder and food to the needy Revolutionary soldiers.

Some merchants lost everything.

An estimated 160 Jews fought in the Continental American Army during the Revolutionary War, such as:

  • Lieut. Col. Solomon Bush fought in the Battle of Long Island and the Battle of Brandywine, where he was wounded and his brother, Capt. Lewis Bush, was killed;

  • Francis Salvador of South Carolina, the first Jewish State Legislator, who was killed in the Revolutionary War;

  • Col. Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah was Deputy Commissary General for American troops, 1778;

  • Abigail Minis supplied provisions to American soldiers in 1779; and

  • Capt. Reuben Etting fought in the Revolution, being captured at Charleston. He was later appointed U.S. Marshall for Maryland by Thomas Jefferson, 1801.

  • Jewish physician, Dr. Philip Moses Russell was George Washington doctor, who even suffered with him at Valley Forge.

President Calvin Coolidge recounted, May 3, 1925:

"Haym Solomon, Polish Jew financier of the Revolution. Born in Poland, he was made prisoner by the British forces in New York, and when he escaped set up in business in Philadelphia.

He negotiated for Robert Morris all the loans raised in France and Holland, pledged his personal faith and fortune for enormous amounts,

and personally advanced large sums to such men as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Baron Steuben, General St. Clair, and many other patriot leaders who testified that without his aid they could not have carried on in the cause."

In 1975, a U.S. postage stamp honored Haym Solomon, with printing on the back:

"Financial hero-businessman and broker Haym Solomon was responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later saved the new nation from collapse."

George Washington sent a letters to the Jewish Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, and in Savannah, Georgia, stating:

"May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven."

Ashkenazic Jews were few in America until a persecution in Bavaria in the 1830s resulted in many thousands immigrating.

The Jewish population in America grew from a tenth of one percent to nearly 2 percent.

President Martin Van Buren sent a letter to the Muslim Ottoman Turks requesting that they stop killing Jews in Syria during the Damascus Affair:

"on behalf of an oppressed and persecuted race, among whose kindred are found some of the most worthy and patriotic of American citizens."

David Yulee, "Father of Florida Railroads," was the first Jew elected to the U.S Senate in 1845.

He was joined in 1853 by Senator Judah P. Benjamin from Louisiana.

Governor David Emanuel of Georgia was the first Jewish Governor of any U.S. State.

In 1818, Solomon Jacobs was the "acting" Mayor of Richmond, Virginia.

In 1832, Pittsburgh's 7th mayor was Samuel Pettigrew, the first full-time Jewish Mayor in America.

Uriah P. Levy was the first Jewish Commodore in the U.S. Navy, fighting in the War of 1812 and commanding the Mediterranean squadron.

He was responsible for ending the practice of flogging in the Navy. A chapel at Annapolis and a WWII destroyer were named after him.

When Jefferson's Monticello home was decaying, Levy bought it in 1836, repaired it and opened it to the public. He commissioned the statute of Jefferson which is in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

Samuel Mayer Isaacs, editor of the Jewish Messenger, wrote of the United States, December 28, 1860:

"This Republic was the first to recognize our claims to absolute equality, with men of whatever religious denomination. Here we can sit each under his vine and fig tree, with none to make him afraid."

In 1862, the London Jewish Chronicle reported:

"We now have a few words of the Jews of the United States in general ... The Constitution having established perfect religious liberty, Jews were free in America ... They ... in a comparatively short time, prospered and throve there in a degree unexampled in Europe."

At the time of the Civil War, the population of the United States was 31 million, including around 150,000 to 200,000 Jews.

An estimated 7,000 Jews fought for the Union and 3,000 fought for the Confederacy, with around 600 Jewish soldiers dying in battle.

Jewish Union Generals were: Leopold Blumenberg; Frederick Knefler; Edward S. Salomon; and Frederick C. Salomon.

Jewish Confederate officers included:

  • Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of War;

  • Colonel Abraham Charles Myers, Quartermaster General;

  • Dr. David Camden DeLeon, Surgeon General;

  • Surgeon Dr. Simon Baruch served on General Robert E. Lee's personal staff.

  • Major Raphael J. Moses was Commissary Officer of Georgia, and after the war began Georgia's peach industry.

During the Siege of Vicksburg, General Grant issued his notorious General Order 11 expelling Jews from the military, which Lincoln immediately cancelled.

Later as President, Grant appointed more Jews to high offices than any of his predecessors, including governor of the Washington Territory.

Grant openly condemn the persecution of Jews, specifically the anti-Jewish pogroms in Romania. He even sent a Jewish consul-general from America to Bucharest to "work for the benefit of the people who are laboring under severe oppression."

Just as the first Catholic U.S. Army chaplain was appointed during the Mexican-American War, the first Jewish chaplain was appointed by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

His name was Rev. Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia's Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

On March 1, 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated and a pogrom began against Jews, leading to over 2 million fleeing to America.

This was memorialized in the play Fiddler on the Roof.

By 1916, the United States population was 100 million, of which 3 million were Jewish.

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson wrote:

"Whereas in countries engaged in war there are 9 million Jews, the majority of whom are destitute of food, shelter, and clothing; driven from their homes without warning ... causing starvation, disease and untold suffering ..."

Wilson added:

"The people of the U.S. have learned with sorrow of this terrible plight ... I proclaim JANUARY 27, 1916, a day to make contributions for the aid of the stricken Jewish people to the American Red Cross."

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