America's First Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk




On this Rosh Hashanah we remember the year 1654 or 5414. It is without doubt the most important year in American Jewish history, for in September of that year, 23 Jews arrived in Nieuw Amsterdam after leaving Recife, Brazil.

Recife is located in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. It is on the Atlantic coast and therefore a good deal east of North America. The Jews who had lived in Recife came there because the colony was in Dutch hands and the Dutch were Protestants. Therefore the Inquisition was not known in Recife. However, on August 3, 1645, the Portuguese won the battle of Taboca and thereafter succeeded in pushing the Dutch out of Brazil entirely. Nine years later, in January of 1654, the last Dutch left Brazil and sailed for the nearest Dutch town in New Netherlands.

Included in that Dutch exodus were the 23 Jews fleeing from the Catholic Inquisition, as the Portuguese were Catholics. Having arrived in Nieuw Amsterdam they found that the governor, Peter Stuyvesant, did not welcome them. On the contrary. He thought Jews should not be allowed in his colony. However, he asked the Dutch West India Company, who owned Nieuw Amsterdam, whether or not Jews could remain. The company told him that the Jews should remain and that led to the establishment of the Chosen People in America. Nothing more fortunate ever happened to this country. Surely, all of history shows that whoever treats the Children of Israel with dignity, honor and respect is rewarded as have been the people of the United States. Conversely, those who persecute Jews design their own destruction, as can be seen by the examples of Spain, Germany, Russia and, next, the Arab Jew haters. They cannot survive.

Once the Jews had settled in the Dutch city they opened retail shops or practiced crafts. As usual, the government would not let Jews serve in the military but taxed them for not serving in the military.

Stuyvesant would not allow Jews to build a synagogue, so that all services had to be conducted at home.

Now, as we know, those who persecute or mistreat Jews do not last long. Therefore, the British, under the Duke of York and Albany, attacked the Dutch and occupied Nieuw Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York. The Duke also founded Albany. Thereupon, Stuyvesant fled to the Netherlands but soon returned and lived in New York until his death in 1672. He is buried in a small churchyard in downtown Manhattan near his farm, which was bordered by the Bowery, a Dutch name for border or edge.

In the course of 350 years Jews have given and received so much from America that it takes volumes to recite it all. Today, of course, we are in decline here. Until recently, we were the largest Jewish community in the world. Now, however, Israel has more Jews than the United States. Our population is shrinking. While we were 5.8 million at one time, we are probably less than 5 million today. The number depends on who is counting.

Since 48% of those called Jews by politicians do not belong to a synagogue and 35% are agnostics and 15% consider themselves somewhere between the secular and the religious community, it is unlikely that more than 4.5 million Americans can still be called Jews.

Our birthrate is quite low. While the American birthrate is about 1.9 per woman aged 15 to 35, Jewish women have only 1.4 children. This means we do not replace ourselves in the next generation. Since our intermarriage rate is already at 53% and rising, it is unlikely that there will be more than a negligible number of Jews in America in 2050. As our numbers decline, we will mean less and less politically, so that support for Israel will not come from the Jewish but the Christian community in the future. There are at least 55 million Christian Zionists in this country and George W. Bush is one of them.

Today, many American near-Jews do not support Israel. They instead side with the Arab terrorists.  A good example is Sen. John Kerry. The grandson of two Jewish immigrants, he, like so many with such a background, supports the Palestinians in their attack on the Jewish holocaust survivors in Israel. He demands Israel destroy its security barrier and he “kisses up” to the American-Arab League by denouncing Israel in front of them.

The Arabs, here and abroad, stir up as much anti-Jewish hate as possible. In general, however, they have not succeeded here. Few Americans still subscribe to Mel Gibson’s Christ killer stories, so that the haters are fairly well neutralized here after so many years.

Therefore we celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year with special emphasis on all that has been done for us in this great country. In gratitude we also make a New Year’s resolution.

It is, that we will not attack other Jews. We will never again call Torah true orthodox Jews “nothing but gastronomical Jews.” We will never again say that Jews devoted to the Reform movement are no Jews at all. We will never again denounce the Conservative movement as “worse than Reform because they pretend to be Jews.” On the contrary. We will, so help us Shem Yisborach, say only positive things about all our Jewish brethren. May we together go from strength to strength and do all we can to foster Jewish life in America in this New Year. Bimhayro, veyomaynoo.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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