Free «The History of the Jewish Diaspora in the United States» Essay

The History of the Jewish Diaspora in the United States


Over the previous four centuries, tens of millions of immigrants have been shaping the modern United States. They came to the US to start a new life and create the New World through their hard work, which benefited both their new home and themselves. Millions of women and men from around the world have decided to immigrate to the United States. This fact is one of the pillars of the country’s development, and the origin of the process, which has a fundamental importance for the nation, lies in its formation as a new and independent state, and the subsequent transformation into a world superpower. Like many other immigrant societies, the United States has relied on the flow of people coming from the other countries, which has resulted in the formation of several ethnic minorities on its territory. In particular, currently, there are Chinese, African, Muslim, and many other diasporas in the country. However, out of these diasporas, the Jewish one rouses the utmost interest. It can be called unique in every respect as it has been able to survive and grow for more than two thousand years in spite of fierce persecution. The following paper focuses on the analysis of the process of the formation of the Jewish diaspora in the United States throughout the previous centuries.

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The first mentioning of Jews in North America dates back to 1621 taking place in the British colony of Virginia. In the 1640s, Jewish merchants repeatedly visited the colony of New Netherland, which was under the control of the Dutch West India Company, primarily its administrative center of New Amsterdam (later New York) (Dimont 12). Moreover, in 1654, a group of Jews came to North America from the Dutch colonies in the north-east of Brazil (Pernambuco captaincy) after the region has been conquered by Portugal. The newcomers were extremely poor so that they were not even able to pay the fee to the master of the ship, which forced them to seek help from a Christian priest. However, the governor of New Netherlands recommended the Board of Directors of the West India Company to send the Jews away. The issue was resolved through the intervention of the Jewish merchants that lived in the Netherlands (Sachar 15). In 1655, the Jewish migrants were allowed to permanently reside in New Amsterdam (Dimont 18).

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The British colonies in North America have also seen the inflow of immigrants coming from the Netherlands and France, as well as the islands of Barbados, Jamaica, and Curacao. In 1670s, the first Ashkenazi Jews, the immigrants from Poland, have also settled in these lands (Ben-Ur 66). At the time, the Jewish migrants living on the territory of the future United States were mostly artisans including tailors, distillers, soap-boiler, bakers, and silversmiths. There also were small and medium businessmen, some of which led barter with the Indians. In some colonies (e.g. in Georgia) there were Jewish farmers and ranchers. The wealthiest of them were engaged in the export-import operations (including the wholesale supply of bellows to the British market and the slave trade) and entrepreneurship owning plantations. The most privileged Jewish merchants were the military providers that supplied the British troops stationed in North America (Sachar 22).

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In the British colonies in North America, Jews enjoyed the freedom of religion and economic activity. At the same time, they had to comply with the limitations that were common for all of the citizens of the British Empire. In particular, they could not trade with any country other than the United Kingdom. In some colonies, the Jews were granted the right to elect and be elected to local legislatures and the municipal authorities. There were no restrictions regarding their admission to secondary and higher education institutions. At the same time, the Jews together with representatives of other religious minorities such as Catholics were actually not allowed to occupy official posts, excluding the most burdensome, such as the position of constable (Sachar 18). Still, in comparison to other diasporas (e.g. African, especially in the conditions of segregation) (Zeleza 13) they were relatively free.

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The primary reason for the low amount of restrictions and limitations imposed on the Jews was the absence of compact Jewish settlements, as well as the insignificant cultural differences between the Jews and Christians. It should be noted that such state of affairs was quite common for North America of the 18th-19th centuries (Sachar 113). However, this fact is associated with several cultural and religious problems for the Jewish diaspora. In particular, there were frequent cases of mixed marriage, especially in those regions where there were no Jewish communities, the transition to Christianity, and failure to comply with the traditions, especially kosher. In other words, Jews started being subjected to assimilation, thus losing their primary national identity partially or completely. Being a group of national, ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority, they were assimilated into their living environment (Sachar 114). This process occurred through their identification with the culture, religion, and political ideals of the Americans.

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Addressing the described issues, the Jews have chosen the course of actions similar to that of the Chinese migrants, namely they have created Jewish communities to preserve their customs and traditions. In this regard, it is possible to compare the Jewish communities to Chinatowns created by the Chinese workers, although these were less isolated. Throughout the 18th century, such communities having synagogues have appeared in Savannah, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Newport. In all of these cities, as well as New York, there also were Jewish cemeteries. Each community was governed by the elected councils (mahamad or junta) and followed the Sephardic liturgy (Ben-Ur 78).

The Constitution of the independent U.S. recognized the equality of all of the country’s citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation. However, since the establishment of the specific rules was the responsibility of particular cities and states, it took a long time to bring about real equality. Only in the 1820s, the restrictions on Jews were cancelled in almost all states (Sachar 151). At the same time, the anti-Semitism movement, at least in its usual form, was not observed in the country during that period. As a result, the stream of Jewish immigration, mainly from Germany and Western Europe, has intensified. Since 1826, there was a rapid growth of the Jewish population in the U.S. In 1880, there were no less than 230,000 Jews in the country (Dimont 126). The Jewish diaspora in the U.S. has become the fourth largest in the world after Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany. Most of the new arrivals came from German-speaking countries of Central Europe. Jews settled all over the country; there were dozens of new religious communities with synagogues. The largest community remained in New York and equaled to about 60,000 people. Jews were well integrated into the economy of the country, but not into its political system (Dimont 130). During the given period, the assimilation and, therefore, the cultural and religious issues described above, have become relevant again.

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After the Civil War, the rapid industrial growth has opened up the new economic opportunities for the Jews and generated the growth of immigration. Postwar reconstruction had the same effect. Jews have progressed economically launching more and more large companies and banks. The Jewish population was eluted from the small settlements and concentrated in the large urban communities. In turn, such changes have provoked the growth of anti-Semitism, resulting in the open restrictions for Jews that have attained the level of prosperity and education allowing them to enter into the higher layers of the society (Sachar 142). At the same time, in the 1870s, the structure of Jewish immigration started changing, with more Jews coming from Eastern Europe. As a result, the friction between the German Jews of the previous waves of immigration and the newly arrived ones has become quite perceptible (Sachar 223). Cultural and religious differences between them have led to the formation of separate communities.

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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the growth rate of the Jewish population across the United States, which already was quite high, has increased dramatically. By 1900, it had reached a million people, amounting to about three million by 1915 (Sachar 240). Since 1881, the vast majority of Jews that immigrated to the United States were from Eastern and Central Europe, especially from the Russian Empire and Poland. People were leaving their homelands to escape from a wave of pogroms, anti-Semitism, and wars (Cohen 34). After the First World War, the Jewish immigration resumed because of the civil war and genocide of the Jews in Eastern Europe. Jewish migrants were also coming from other countries, but in much smaller quantities.

Because of the cultural and social differences, the newcomers, similarly to the previous periods, did not pour into a mass of the old-time Jewish migrants, creating their own social and community structures and mutual aid societies. As for the religious issues, there was also a conflict since the new immigrants were mostly orthodox or leftist atheists and poorly fit into the local community, which was mostly reformist or conservative (Dimont 153). In this regard, the Jewish diaspora was quite different from the others that have been formed on the territory of the US, namely the Chinese one, which was rather monolithic. As a result, in the 1930s, the Jewish community councils were formed in a number of the American cities, which united the majority of local organizations: the synagogues, the Zionist associations, B'nai B'rith lodges, and even the socialist groups, which usually refused to cooperate with the bourgeoisie (Dimont 155). The community councils were also coordinating charitable activities including assistance to Jews in other countries and the work of educational institutions. Additionally, they settled the conflict between different Jewish organizations (orthodox, conservative and reformist ones), monitored the compliance with the civil rights of Jews, and took measures to overcome anti-Semitism. In the 1940s, these councils were universally recognized as the bodies representing all Jews in their cities, regardless of their political and religious affiliation. However, the Jewish community in the US as a whole remained decentralized (Dimont 156), which means that none of the associations operating across the country was able to assume the functions of a single representative body of the Jews.

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After the Holocaust, the Jewish diaspora in the United States has acquired a unique status. Being comprised of about five million people, it accounted for nearly a half of the world’s Jewry. At the same time, it was far from being unified. The sharp differences in the demographic processes and the degree of religious consciousness in various branches of Judaism resulted in the weakening of the influence of the conservatives, making orthodoxies, including haredim, occupy the leading positions (Belcove-Shalin 208). They weakened the differences between the individual groups and created a movement for the revival of the traditional European Jewish community. The frictions between the different social groups were also strengthened due to further refusal to adhere to the conservative rules of Judaism. In particular, there were female rabbis, and the children from mixed families were recognized as Jews. The conservative wing of the Jewish diaspora did not accept these innovations (Belcove-Shalin 137). The acuteness of the problem was supported by the fact that in Israel, the unorthodox streams of Judaism had no official status. Religious differences prevented the unification of efforts of various communities, thus making it difficult to solve common problems.











At the same time, the integration of Jews into the American life has resulted in the declining influence of Orthodox Judaism that prevailed after the mass immigration from Eastern Europe. Synagogues of all directions (orthodox, conservative or reformist) were built, and the educational and cultural institutions were created. The influence of Jewish organizations at the regional and national levels has began to grow. In turn, they were united in the Jewish Federation (Sheffer 7), meaning that the groups of Jews were defined by their geographical location rather than religious and cultural background. By dealing with all the affairs of the local Jewish community, these organizations have become the representative bodies of the diaspora.

As a result, the problem of decentralization faced by the Jewish diaspora has been almost completely solved, ensuring its more organized development. According to the surveys of the National Center for the Study of the Jewish population, in 2001, there were more than five million people that considered themselves Jewish by ethnicity or religion in the US including those who have converted to Judaism. According to a study of the American Jewish Year Book conducted in 2005, approximately 6.4 million Americans were Jews (Dimont 258). This means that the Jewish diaspora continues to grow and develop, becoming an integral part of the American society. At the same time, the issue of assimilation remains relevant even today. One of the biggest problems of the American Jewish community is the refusal of a large number of Jews to follow Judaism, lead the inherently Jewish way of life, and express solidarity with Israel, which is an important indicator of the Jewish identity. The development of assimilation trends was affected by a large-scale immigration of Jews to the United States from the former Soviet Union, with many of them being engaged in mixed marriages with non-Jewish families and demonstrating the indifference to Judaism and Jewish education (Cohen 110). Therefore, the Jewish diaspora may lose its national identity, a feature that has made the Chinese diaspora a model minority in the eyes of the Americans. However, this problem is far from being solved.

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In conclusion, it is possible to say that the history of the Jewish diaspora in the US is quite different from that of other migrants. First of all, its representatives have arrived in the country quite early, being the merchants rather than laborers. Moreover, the cultural and religious challenges faced by the Jews were primarily of the inner nature. In other words, these challenges were not caused by the American society but rather originated within the Jewish diaspora in the US, namely among its representatives that supported different branches of Judaism (orthodox, conservative or reformist).There is no doubt that there were signs of anti-Semitism, as well as certain restrictions, but they were milder in comparison to those imposed on the Chinese or African migrants. However, the internal issues have contributed to the decentralization of diaspora and assimilation of its members. It took no less than two centuries to centralize the activity of the Jewish community organizations. At the same time, despite the successful and rather painless integration in the American society, the religious and cultural problems of the Jewish diaspora, namely the ones dealing with the preservation of its identity, are still to be addressed.

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