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The Way We Were, The Way We Are

Their arrival was not auspicious. When 23 Jews came to New Amsterdam on an early September day in 1654, 350 years ago, two of their number were thrown into jail as security for money still owed for the group’s passage. Although those still at liberty were able to pay off the fare by auctioning their remaining goods, their prospects were by no means secure.

The official welcome was not exactly warm. The settlement’s Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, sent off a request to his superiors in Amsterdam for permission to expel immediately the “members of this deceitful race — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” The Dutch Reformed Stuyvesant recognized the threat posed by their presence. If the right to settle was granted to the Jews, he argued, then the colony “would be unable to deny it to the Lutherans and Papists.”

As anniversary commemorations begin this week, American Jews will seek to draw out the meaning of this story and of the 350 years of negotiations, challenges, contributions and triumphs that have followed. In doing so, they will join with earlier generations of American Jews who have turned to the past to make sense of the present. In the process, they will have to confront the complexities of what it means to be a Jew and an American in challenging times.

Not surprisingly, many generations have seen in the story of the Jews of New Amsterdam a grand metaphor for American Jewish experience and life. Within it, they have found the classic immigrant tale of coming to this new world with nothing, facing discrimination but making it big nonetheless. In this case, they became a community that has made momentous contributions, achieved notable prosperity and acceptance, and established itself as a vital part of the American scene.

More importantly, perhaps, by insisting upon and winning the right to stay in New Amsterdam and to enjoy the privileges accorded all other European settlers, these pioneering Jews were instrumental in securing rights not just for “Lutherans and Papists,” but for every American minority. By demanding liberty and religious freedom for themselves, Jews helped to establish the very principles of American pluralism and religious freedom.

No doubt these seemingly timeless lessons, illustrating the integral participation of Jews in the American story, will be repeated often in coming days, as they were 50 and 100 years ago. But lessons drawn from the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in North America will just as inevitably reflect the challenges of our own particular historical moment.

One hundred years ago, at a time of burgeoning Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia, American Jewish leaders used 250th anniversary celebrations to establish the antiquity and authenticity of their claims upon American identity. When the actual celebration coincided with renewed violent anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia, anniversary orators focused upon the contrasts between Russian and American Jewish experience, pushing for the American government to call the Russians to task.

In 1954, a broad and well-organized tercentenary celebration reflected Cold War insecurities. Organizers spent their energy praising the United States for the unprecedented opportunities it had offered to Jews. Their celebratory theme, “Man’s Opportunities and Responsibilities Under Freedom,” emphasized how America benefited by embracing a group that other nations had rejected, offering a lesson in freedom to all Americans and to the whole world. This emphasis on the promise of American liberty helped to obscure the presence, within the tercentenary narrative, of conflict, women’s contributions and the struggles of other minorities.

Hindsight reveals the demands imposed by the McCarthy era on the 1954 celebrations of American Jewish history. Today’s Jewish community would probably prefer to offer up a commemoration, uninflected by political commitments. It is thus not surprising that the central umbrella group overseeing 350th activities has chosen to identify itself with the title “Celebrate 350,” avoiding any particular spin or interpretation.

And yet, we cannot escape our parlous times. We live in a moment defined by the September 11 terrorist attacks, controversy over the invasion of Iraq and a viciously contested presidential campaign. American Jews, moreover, face numerous existential challenges of their own. Republican spokesmen argue that Jews should abandon their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party. Rising intermarriage rates are forcing individuals and religious movements to find new ways to sustain the Jewish community. An emerging story of intelligence leaks to Israel involving the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee raises troubling questions about dual loyalties. This is no simple time for defining and celebrating American Jewish identity.

Any meaningful commemoration will have to do more than just celebrate; it must offer opportunities to address the complexities of both past and present. Future observers will be able to judge how the American Jewish community of 2004 responded to this challenge. In the meantime, today’s American Jews should remember that in telling stories about their past, they will also be revealing who they have become.

Karla Goldman, historian in residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive, is author of “Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism” (Harvard University Press, 2000).

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