The yearlong celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Jews coming to America must be much more than the predictable self-congratulation for the achievements of individuals and institutions. Reinterpreting the American Jewish story is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to commemorate and reinvigorate the American Jewish narrative through the lens of all that has happened in our nation — and make it a time of renewal, a period of reflection and self-examination, and a moment of resolve for the future of the most free and successful Jewish community in history.
In a post-9/11 world, Jews understand that America’s primary answer to a troubled world is religious freedom and its mirror image, religious tolerance.
The celebration must face outward to a troubled world community — to Europe and the Middle East and Latin America — and echo the rights of minorities and ethnic groups that are guaranteed in our Constitution, and by the core beliefs of our founding fathers.
It must proclaim what is true — that Jews and other minorities are not guests in this country but blood-and-bones part of its history, its culture, its hopes and its dreams.
Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University has pointed out that, unlike Europe, “persecution, expulsion, tragedy, and mass murder are not the central themes of American Jewish life and never have been. Instead, American Jewish history offers us the opportunity to explore how Jews have flourished in a free and pluralistic society where church and state are separated and where religion is entirely voluntary.”
And as Robert Rifkind, the chair of the 350 celebration, declared: “the values that have been precious for us, have also been the safeguard of all other minorities of which the nation is comprised.”
American Jews are fortunate to have two special precedents to guide us: the records of the 250th anniversary at the turn of the 20th century and the 300th anniversary in mid-century.
In the first, in 1904, the leaders were in the midst of the great wave of immigration that brought more than 2 million Jews to America. The second celebration, in 1954, was almost a decade after the end of the World War II victory over Nazi brutality; it also occurred in the somber memory of the Holocaust, and in the optimism embodied in the creation of the state of Israel.
Each celebration occurred within the stream of history and was influenced by its perceptions of the present conditions of the community and its future prospects.
The next celebration of the American Jewish story will be our 400th anniversary in 2054 and we must ask ourselves how we want to be remembered.
Consider this answer: As 21st century American Jews, this celebration will occur in the aftermath of the collapse of communism and in the shadow of worldwide terrorism that invaded our land and will engage this generation of Americans and all civilized people for years to come.
This celebration must not just be an insular conversation among ourselves but, with the strength of a mature and confident community, must speak to and engage all Americans in proclaiming the lessons in the American Jewish story to the world.
After all, it is American values, not just military might, that stand against the onslaught of religious fanaticism.
What a timely message for all Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere to hear — that freedom to worship, that bedrock value that shaped our nation by proclaiming that no one faith is more true than another — can shape a national purpose and that pluralism, which provides the fertile ground for tolerance, is necessary to build a safer and more secure world.
(Eli N. Evans, author of “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South” and “Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate,” is president emeritus of the Charles H. Revson Foundation.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.