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My American Thanksgiving – The Atlantic

My American Thanksgiving – The Atlantic


This Thanksgiving, three generations of my family will drink a champagne toast, eat the hors d’oeuvres that my mother used to make and my grandchildren now help produce, tackle the turkey that will succumb to my inexpert slicing, and then move on to the pecan and pumpkin pies.

But first, as we have for decades now, we will read George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. The letter includes his declaration that the U.S. government offers “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” It is often quoted, most recently by Deborah Lipstadt, the government’s special envoy to monitor and counter anti-Semitism, at the large pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C., on November 14.

We also read the initial letter of greeting to Washington from Moses Seixas, the warden of Newport’s Touro Synagogue (which we attended when I taught at the Naval War College). The occasion was the first president’s stately tour of the new country in the summer of 1790, when local dignitaries like Seixas would extend salutations and he would graciously reply.

Each time we read the letters, several qualities of this exchange stand out.

For one thing, it was Seixas who first used the famous phrase. It bears repeating in full:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship.

“To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” in other words, reflected the Jews of Newport’s delight in a new reality, not an announcement of a new or original policy by the president. They recognized that the bedrock of the new country lay in a fundamental equality of citizenship under liberty.

Washington liked the phrase so much, however, that he repeated it back in his response:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by 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.

That is the point: not religious toleration, but natural right. Eight years earlier, the enlightened Emperor Joseph II of Austria had issued his deservedly applauded Toleranzpatent, later expanded by a Toleranzedikt, that gave Jews all kinds of rights they had heretofore lacked. But the word was tolerance, and it was a gift from the government.

If one wishes to understand the fierce patriotism that has so often animated American Jews, look to this point of origin. In this nation, we did not have to earn our rights, or meekly receive them; they are, and always have been, ours by right. Jews have known, as Washington said, that rights imply obligations as citizens, which perhaps helps explain their pervasive and long-standing engagement in public affairs.

As long as the United States remains the United States, so it will be. It is unlike our history in any other state. Look closely and you will find in the Jewish history of other countries words like toleration and emancipation, permission and encouragement, not inherent natural rights. It is the big thing for which my family, at least, is profoundly thankful during this season.

But Washington’s warm response to Seixas contains another sentiment that will be more troubling this year.

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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

That quote, from the prophet Micah 4:4, rings hollow this year. The FBI director recently declared that fully 60 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes are directed at Jews, who number barely 2 percent of the population. On university campuses, Jewish students have been harassed, humiliated, and assaulted. And in response, too many university leaders have simpered and mumbled, or taken refuge in denouncing the anti-Semitism of a century gone by rather than accept accountability for assaults that were carried out on their watch today.

These events have sometimes occurred under the excusing banner of anti-Zionism. In some cases, the mask slips, and the deeper hatred shows itself. But even those who sincerely insist that they are merely “anti-Zionist” must note that the Zionist project was the creation of a Jewish state. To be anti-Zionist is presumably to believe that the project should be undone. In that case, you should know how such a dissolution would happen and what it would entail. Look at the videos and pictures from the pogrom of October 7, and note that the epithet that was shouted exultantly by the murderers was not “Israeli,” but “Jew.” And this is also why today, American Jews know fear.

Worse than the fact that my synagogue has to have an armed police officer on guard during services, worse even than the hate spewed on the extremes of right and left—including by swaggering billionaires and prominent politicians—is the silence from those of whom many Jews expected better. It is the silence of feminists about the rape of women; it is the silence of civil-rights activists about the murder of babies; it is the silence of human-rights advocates about torture and burning people alive.

And so, that hope—not a promise, to be sure—offered by George Washington seems far from reality. That is what we will have to work through this Thanksgiving.

The way to do so begins with the words of a contemporary of Seixas and Washington, from a world away. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was a Hasidic master, a mystic, a troubled and tormented soul, who died of tuberculosis while yet a young man in Uman, Ukraine, where tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews still make a pilgrimage to his grave every year. One of his sayings, abbreviated and edited into a popular religious song, is relevant: “Know that Man has to cross a very, very narrow bridge, and that the guiding principle and the essential thing is not to make oneself afraid.”

It is a subtle point: Fear is natural and will come, but that does not mean we have to yield to it. Jewish history and Jewish thriving are about crossing that narrow bridge, often to the amazement of friends as well as foes. Indeed, often to our own astonishment.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited Newport in 1852 and brooded about the Jewish cemetery there. He saw a synagogue that was closed and, admiring though he was of Jewish civilization, saw in those graves a finality about their meaning:

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!

      The groaning earth in travail and in pain

Brings forth its races, but does not restore,

      And the dead nations never rise again.

But one such nation did rise again. It survived far more terrible things than the poet could ever have imagined. Moses Seixas’s Touro Synagogue—the oldest in the United States, predating the American founding by more than a century—continues to conduct services to this day. When we named our youngest daughter there, the sanctuary was full. For the resilience and courage that history and that knowledge gives on this Thanksgiving, we should be, and we will be, deeply grateful.



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