Saturday, May 26, 2012

American Exceptionalism: George Washington & the Deerskin Torah

There’s a lot of talk these days about American Exceptionalism. Tea Partiers jingoistically assert America is the greatest country in the world with a divinely inspired manifest destiny, while Progressives counter America cannot claim such a title when it does not lead in the world in educating or providing healthcare and social justice for it citizens. They are both wrong.

Many countries have surpassed America in the criteria used to measure “greatness”. Our disappointing education system has produced successive generations of Americans ignorant of: the world around them and the history that has brought it to the point it is at today; great works of art and literature; any sense of geography; and devoid of creative thought, and analytical and deductive reasoning. While the primary purpose of any government is to protect and promote the general welfare and well-being of its citizenry, America is one of the few industrialized nations that views healthcare, not as a fundamental right, but as a privilege of those who can afford it.

Yet, American Exceptionalism does exists. However, it does not reside in our present achievements or status; to find it, one must look to look to the past. In 1492, Queen Isabella declared all Jews within the territory of the Spanish Empire must convert to Catholicism. Those who refused, or only pretended to convert while secretly practicing their religion, were subject to torture and execution. The Spanish Inquisition extended beyond Spain to its territories and possessions, as Jews who had fled to Portugal and later Amsterdam discovered.

Many of these Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition arrived in America and some made their way to Newport, Rhode Island. In 1658, they founded a Jewish congregation and, in 1763, built Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest synagogue. Jews found a haven in America that was nonexistent in the rest of the world. They could live as Jews and worship freely in Colonial America. Yet, even in the religiously tolerant colony of Rhode Island, Jewish residents of Newport were denied the right to become naturalized citizens – they were not allowed to vote or hold public office.

After the Revolutionary War, George Washington was elected president of the United States of America. In 1790, President Washington, accompanied by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, visited Newport. He later wrote a letter to Newport’s Jewish congregation at Touro Synagogue. His words declared this new nation would be different from all others that had preceded it, in that certain rights – such as religious freedom – were fundamental rights men were born with, not privileges to be bestowed or taken away by a ruling class:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were 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 themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

America, its first president declared, would, from its inception, distinguish itself from every other nation on Earth, then or previous, by recognizing and protecting natural rights such as freedom of religion and speech, unlike other nations. This new nation would not tolerate bigotry or persecution. As I stood today, inches from the bench in Touro Synagogue that George Washington had sat on, gazing at a 500-year-old Torah handwritten on deerskin brought to Newport from Portugal, I realized the true nature of American Exceptionalism. 

(Photo: Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI)

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