History of the Jews in the United States

From Academic Kids


This article focuses on the history of Jews in the United States, which has the worldís largest Jewish population. For information on contemporary American Jewish culture, see Jewish American. For information on Jewish history in Latin America, please see History of the Jews in Latin America.


Jewish Immigration

The history of the Jews in the United States was shaped by waves of immigration. The primary reason for immigration was the periods of anti-Semitism and persecution that rippled through Europe. The history of Jewish immigration therefore parallels that of anti-Semitic repression in Europe.

First Wave: Spain and Portugal

Many of the early Jewish settlers in what would be the United States came from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South and Central America and Mexico, where Jews fled the Inquisition.

The earliest history of practicing Jews in the Colonies dates back to the fall of the Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil to the Portuguese on January 26, 1654. The Jewish community had benefited immensely from the liberal religious attitudes of the Dutch authorities, and approximately 1,500 Jews may have constituted as much as 50 percent of the Dutch colony's civilian population. Fearful of the reimposition of the Inquisition under the Portuguese, a group of 23 Jews sailed north, first to the Caribbean, then to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, expecting to receive the same level of toleration there. Due to existing tensions among the many ethnic groups of the city, the Jewish refugees from Recife were not regarded favorably by the colonial governor, Peter Stuyvesant.

Over the next ten years, till the British seized New Amsterdam, the Jews fought for and won the same civil rights as the other populations in the colony. Despite their fight for toleration, only one of the Jews remained in New Amsterdam ten years later. The poor economy of New Amsterdam, along with food shortages, encouraged most to return to Amsterdam once they had enough money for the passage. The only Recife Jew to remain was Asher Levy, a kosher butcher, who fought for the right to participate in the defense of the colony, despite Stuyvesant's opposition. After the British took the colony in 1664, the tiny Jewish community fared better.

Second Wave: Holland and Germany

The tolerance of Holland, or what was then the United Provinces, (practically the only Jewish refuge in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) was extended to her dominions in the New World, and resulted in laying the foundation of what has developed into the great New York community. By way of gratitude for the favors shown them, Jews effectively aided the Dutch in their resistance to foreign encroachment, especially in South America. From Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, then, came most of the first settlers; and though the large majority were of Sephardic stock, a few Germans are also to be found among them. England, where until the beginning of the eighteenth century Jews were forbidden by law, contributed but a small number to the effective settlements she was making on the seaboard of the mainland.

German Jewry contributed the bulk of the Jewish immigrants of the early to mid- 19th century. Generally educated and secular, they settled not only in the coast towns, but also in the growing industrial cities of the midwest. The movement of German Jews began during the Napoleonic wars and the distress which they wrought, especially upon the South German principalities. The Jews joined this migratory movement beginning toward the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and increased in numbers rapidly after the 1848 revolutions. From that time until 1870, when this phase of immigration lost its strength, they came in a steady stream, so that the Jewish population of the United States was quadrupled within the twenty years between 1850 and 1870.

Third Wave: Russia, Poland, and Eastern Europe

But none of the early migratory movements assumed the significance and volume of that from Russia and neighboring countries. This emigration, mainly from Russian Poland, began as far back as 1821, but did not become especially noteworthy until after the German immigration fell off in 1870. Though nearly 50,000 Russian, Polish, Galician, and Romanian Jews came to the United States during the succeeding decade, it was not until the pogroms, anti-Jewish uprisings in Russia, of the early eighties, that the emigration assumed extraordinary proportions. From Russia alone the emigration rose from an annual average of 4,100 in the decade 1871-80 to an annual average of 20,700 in the decade 1881-90. Additional measures of persecution in Russia in the early nineties and continuing to the present time have resulted in large increases in the emigration, England and the United States being the principal lands of refuge. The Romanian persecutions, beginning in 1900, also caused large numbers of Jews to seek refuge in the US.

By 1924, two million Jews had arrived, mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia. Growing anti-immigration feelings in the United States at this time, resulted in the National Origins Quota of 1924, which severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia after that time.

Later Immigration

The immigration restrictions of the late 1920s prevented many Jews from coming to the United States, yet some 100,000 German Jews did arrive in the 1930s, escaping Hitlerís persecution. During the Holocaust, less than 30,000 Jews a year reached the United States, and some were turned away due to immigration policies. Immediately after the Second World War, some Jewish refugees resettled in the United States, and another wave of Jewish refugees from Arab nations settled in the US after expulsion from their home countries. The last large wave of immigration came from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, where approximately 150,000 Jews emigrated from 1985-1992.

Colonial History

Main article: History of the Jews in Colonial America

During the Colonial period Jews enjoyed a relatively fair and even handed treatment at the hands of the English, culminating in the right to naturalization as English citizens, apparently the first case in which a colonial grant of naturalization was recognized as valid.

American Revolution

By 1776 and the War of Independence, around 2,000 Jews lived in America, with a significant role in the struggle for independence, including fighting against the British (the first revolutionary to be killed in Georgia was a Jew named Francis Salvador). Jews also played a key role in financing the Revolution, with the most important of the financiers being Haym Salomon.

President George Washington remembered the Jewish contribution when the first synagogue opened in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790 in a letter, dated August 17, 1790: "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

The 19th Century

During this period, Jewish immigration came primarily from Germany, bringing a liberal, educated population that had experience with the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. It was in the United States during the 1800s that two of the major branches of Judaism were established by these German immigrants, including Reform Judaism (which grew out of German Reform Judaism) and Conservative Judaism, in reaction to the perceived liberalness of Reform Judaism..

Jewish communities began to organize themselves in the early parts of the 19th century. A Jewish orphanage was set up in Charlestown, South Carolina in 1801, and the first Jewish school, Polonies Talmud Torah, was established in New York in 1806. In 1843, the first national secular Jewish organization in the United States, the B'nai B'rith was established. See also History of Jewish education in the United States (pre-20th century).

Civil War

Jews, like the United States itself, were divided on the slavery debate, although most appeared to be in favor of emancipation. They participated in the Civil War, with approximately 6,000-8,000 Jews (out of around 150,000 Jews in the United States, total) fighting on the Union side, and 1,200 on the Confederate side. Jews also played leadership roles on both sides, with 9 Jewish generals and 21 Jewish colonels participating in the War. Another Jew, Judah Benjamin served as Secretary of State and acting Secretary of War of the Confederacy.

Jews and the Government

The first Jewish Representative, Lewis Levine, and Senator, David Yulee, were elected in 1845. Official government anti-Semitism continued, however, with New Hampshire, the last state to do so, only offering equality to Jews in 1871. Jews also began to organize as a political group in the United States, especially in response to the United Stateís reaction to the 1840 Damascus Blood Libel, for more information, see Relationship of American Jews to the U.S. Federal Government (pre-20th century).

The 20th Century

The twentieth centuryís wave of immigration, followed by the Holocaust that destroyed most of the European Jewish community, made the United States the home of the largest Jewish population in the world during the 20th century. At the beginning of the century, there were around a million Jews in the United States, at the end of the century, around 6 million. Jewish growth slowed after the 1920s, when immigration fell due to new restrictions, and intermarriage and assimilation resulted in many Jews losing their identity. Currently, the intermarriage rate in the United States for Jews exceeds 50%.

Jews, Socialism, and Organized Labor

Many of the Jews who immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century came to New York City, and many worked in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, often under horrific conditions (see Triangle Factory fire). Having been exposed to the Bund in Eastern Europe, Jews played key roles in the socialist and labor movements in the United States during the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, helping improve conditions in sweatshops and leading to collective bargaining and other labor advancements. Despite this, relatively few American Jews were active in socialist or communist political movements. The bulk of Jews in the early part of the 20th century tended to vote Republican in national elections: the party of Lincoln, as well as the names on their immigration certificates, Roosevelt, Taft, and McKinley. By the Depression, however, many Jews had embraced liberalism, and became firm supporters of the Democratic party.

World War II and the Holocaust

The United Statesí tight immigration policies were not lifted during the Holocaust, news of which began to reach the United States in 1941 and 1942. Rescue of the European Jewish population was not a priority for the US during the war, and the American Jewish community did not realize the severity of the Holocaust until late in the conflict. Even after the Holocaust, the US did not change its immigration policies until 1948.

Over 550,000 American Jews served in the US armed forces during World War II, or about 50% of all American Jewish males between 18 and 40.

The Founding of Israel and American Zionism

American Jews were not particularly strong Zionists before the Second World War, believing that America, with its freedom for the Jewish people, was already what the Zionists hoped to create. This changed after the Holocaust and the destruction of over three quarters of the European Jewish community. Most American Jews became supporters of the creation of a Jewish state, and the United States was an early advocate for the founding of Israel. Few American Jews (less than 100,000) actually left to settle in the new state, but Jewish support for Israel grew steadily, especially after the 1967 Six Day War.

Recent Times

Main article: American Jew.

American Jews continued to prosper throughout the late 20th century, and, with their success, increasingly assimilated into American culture, with high intermarriage rates resulting in either a falling or steady population rate at a time when the country was booming. Jews also began to move to the suburbs, with major population shifts from New York and the Northeast to Florida and California. New Jewish organizations were founded to accomdoate an increasing range of Jewish worship and community activities, as well as geographic dispersal.

Politically, the Jewish population remained strongly liberal. Jews proved to be strong supporters of the American Civil Rights movement and have remained consistent backers of the Democratic party.

Anti-Semitism in the United States

Anti-Semitism has proven less destructive to the Jews in the United States than in any other country outside of Israel. Even so, Jews were often persecuted, and were not allowed to vote in some states until the late 19th Century. Anti-Jewish sentiment started around the time of the Civil War, when Jews were often blamed by each side for aiding the other, Ulysses Grant even expelled Jews from some areas that he occupied. Anti-Semitism continued to rise, and even to become normalized, through the late 1800s and early 1900s. Jews were excluded from clubs, organizations, and jobs throughout this period based on their religion.

Anti-Semitism in America reached its peak during the Depression and right before World War II. The anti-Semitic works of Henry Ford and the radio speeches of Father Coughlin were emblematic of the virulent attacks on the Jewish community, though there were little actual physical harm done to American Jews. Following the War and the civil rights movement, anti-Jewish sentiment waned, although there are worries about potential resurgence.

Jewish Contributions to the United States

Jews made major contributions to the cultural, scientific, political, and economic life of the United States. For example, 37% of all United States Nobel Prize winners in the 20th century were Jewish. For more information on famous Jews and their contribution to the United States, see List of Jewish Americans.

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