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“Most Important Document in American Jewish History” at Philadelphia’s Jewish Museum CORRECTED

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Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Those of you who follow @CultureGrrl on Twitter know that I took a busman’s holiday to museums in both Philadelphia and Washington last weekend.

In Philadelphia, during this 10-day period of the Jewish high holidays, I paid a long overdue first visit to the two-year-old James Polshek-designed National Museum of American Jewish History, which is featuring an exhibition devoted to George Washington‘s praiseworthy relationship with Jews in the nascent nation.

One of the great strengths of this museum is its elucidation of the history of the first Jewish Americans, including the assertion by Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam (precursor of New York), that Jews were “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” Nevertheless, we were “permitted to stay,” thanks to our “mercantile skills” and “trade connections.” But Jews in the Dutch colony were forbidden to worship publicly.

This historical context makes all the more remarkable the document that is the centerpiece of the NMAJH’s current exhibition, To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington & Religious Freedom (to Sept. 30). It spotlights “the historic 1790 correspondence” between the first President and the
Jewish community of Newport, RI, exhibited for the first time
in decades.”

Here are the two sides of that letter, which Washington composed in response to correspondence from Moses Seixas of Newport’s Hebrew Congregation, which expressed the congregation’s gratitude for “a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience and immunities of Citizenship.” (Click on each page for a larger image.):

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Letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI, August 1790
Courtesy of the Morris Morgenstern Foundation

As described by the museum, “this courageous statement by the first American President affirmed
rights and privileges generally unknown to Jews for millennia and
underscored the new nation’s commitment to religious liberty and
equality for people of all faiths.”

In the key passage (bottom of the first page to top of the second), Washington declared:

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 [i.e., "comport"] themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

You can see both letters and read their transcriptions on the museum’s website, here.

This temporary exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection galleries are well stocked with such revelatory documents and artifacts, including an infelicitously named but otherwise laudible document, the “Jew Bill,” which gave equal politcal rights to Jewish citizens in Maryland. (In 1790, nine of the 13 states required that public officials be Christian.)

While the other Jewish-related museums that I’ve visited spend a great deal of time focusing on Jews in Europe, the Philly museum has a strictly American focus—even in its Holocaust-related section, which includes one of the most powerful eye-witness testimonies I’ve ever seen: In a film created in 2010 by David Grubin for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, Lester Stricoff narrates footage from General Eisenhower‘s famous liberation visit in 1945 to the Dachau concentration camp.

[CORRECTION: A previous version of this post erroneously said that the film was created in 1999. It was Stricoff's account that was recorded about a decade earlier than the 2010 film. It was part of an oral history project at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. The additional film clips, news
reel footage, etc. were edited into the interviews by the Grubin for the new Philadelphia museum.]

While I was aware that Eisenhower had visited the camp and was photographed there (to make it impossible for anyone to plausibly deny that these atrocities actually happened), I didn’t know, until listening to Stricoff, that Eisenhower had “sent out an all-points bulletin” saying that “any division that’s within a 25-mile radius must be trucked in to see this.”

Some of what the American soldiers saw is shown in horrifying film footage from that visit, harrowingly narrated by Stricoff:

There were three buildings. Opened up this first building. It was all full of hair. The hair was to be used for something, for ammunition. I don’t know what it was, but it was usable.

The second building held teeth, with people in there, looking for gold. [The film shows hands sifting through the enormous pile of teeth.]

The third building, suitcases, with the names of the people and towns they came from. You opened it up, and there was nothing there. That’s when I started to cry.”

It was a good half hour before I could describe, without my voice breaking, what I had seen and heard to my husband (who was with me in the museum but hadn’t seen this film clip). I’m tearing up again as I type this.

Tonight and tomorrow, as at every year’s Yom Kippur religious services, we will remember them…

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