Throughout our nation’s long history we have resided in countless countries and lived under numerous governmental regimes. For the most part, our existence in the diaspora has been difficult at best, intolerable at worst.
During better times, Jewish populations were allowed to exist within their host societies with limited rights. They were permitted to pursue a livelihood and seek shelter and protection so long as they understood their place and accepted their second-class status.
During times of persecution, our people were forced to endure financial limitations and extortion, social isolation and humiliation, religious-based allegations and mistrials, inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions and cruel death at the hands of their oppressors, to the tune of millions of innocent victims.
Of course, our people have also experienced periods of tranquility and hospitality within their host nations. Ancient Persia, the Golden Age of Spain, Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire and post-Napoleonic Western Europe all come readily to mind.
And God saved the very best for last. It is pretty safe to suggest that no host nation has been kinder and more welcoming to its Jewish citizens than the United States – certainly not for an extensive duration equal to the three hundred and fifty year-period we have called this country home.
America has really lived up to its moniker as a “medinah shel chesed,” providing sustained respite and opportunity to Jews who sought refuge, peace and prosperity here after enduring atrocities in their respective homelands.
Despite the general positivity of our experience as American Jews, there have been some challenging moments, times where indigenous bigotry and prejudice brought fear and concern to our people. The first wave occurred in the 17th century, when Peter Stuyvesant governed the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Only a pointed directive from his supervisors back home stymied the governor’s wish to prevent Jews from joining the colony.
Subsequent anti-Semitism came in the form of General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11 in 1862, which temporarily expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi based on unsubstantiated and clearly prejudicial allegations of marketeering.
But there was no more trying time for Jews in this country than during the first few decades of the 20th century, when racist, eugenicist theories abounded throughout the land, much as they did across the Atlantic.
Hate groups targeted Jews as well as other minorities. In 1922, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell instituted a quota limiting the number of Jews who could attend the university (a precedent soon followed by many other Ivy League schools). Two years later, the Reed-Johnson Act put into law legislation that sought to restore an “American” ethnic character by setting immigration quotas designed to maintain a predominantly white, western European composition similar to what had existed at the time of the 1890 census. This greatly limited Jewish immigration to the United States during the interwar period and well into the time of the Second World War, when refuge was desperately needed by those seeking to escape the Nazis.
In the early 1930s, Father Charles E. Coughlin, leader of the Christian Front, became an influential radio voice and used his platform to spew hateful venom against the Jewish people. And we are all aware of the anti-Semitism that raged within FDR’s State Department. The president’s unwillingness to do more to save the Jews of Europe is also well documented.
The collective suffering that our nation has endured at the hands of our enemies, even here in this benevolent country, should naturally instill within us a particular sensitivity regarding how we view other peoples.
In fact, the Torah is replete with admonitions to be sensitive to converts and others because we were “strangers in the land of Egypt.” Certainly we recognize and take pride in our special character and destiny. We relish our role as a “light unto the nations” that was chosen to lead by example and teach the nations of the world a better way. Still, it seems at the least to be a bit out of character that we would ask for special divine clemency due to our distinct lineage and heritage, even when our actions over the past year would indicate we don’t particularly deserve it.
Yet that is exactly what we seem to do when we stand before God during this auspicious time.