A Tale of Two Presidents

Samuel J. Aronson
6 min readAug 22, 2019
President George Washington’s 1790 letter emancipating the Jews of the United States.

Throughout 1789 and 1790 George Washington was traveling across the nascent United States “to acquire knowledge of the face of the Country, the growth and Agriculture thereof, and the temper and disposition of the Inhabitants towards the new government.” In 1789 he skipped Rhode Island because they had yet to ratify the new Constitution, but by August of 1790 they had done so, and President Washington came to pay them a special visit. Among the prominent citizens he met with in Newport was Moses Seixas, one of the officials of Yeshuat Israel, the first Jewish congregation in Newport. This meeting was no accident. Seixas and his fellow coreligionists across the new country had one question on their minds: what was to be the status of Jews in America? This question may seem bizarre by modern standards, but in the 18th century it was vital.

Throughout the known world, restrictions of one kind or another were placed on Jewish existence; no country with Jews was without some type of formal or informal prohibition on full Jewish participation in society. From the middle ages onward, Jews were subjected to restrictions which included everything from having to conform to certain dress codes, prohibitions on owning land or immovable property, joining most professions, serving in the military or professional civil service, obtaining an education, and enjoying the franchise. These restrictions were part of the continent-wide antisemitic system which resulted in the massive expropriation of Jewish property and a litany of pogroms culminating in the murders of countless millions of Jews throughout the millennia.

In response to their query, President Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, where he stated “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.”

With those sweeping words the United States of America became the first country in the history of the modern world to fully emancipate its Jews. Obviously the words of our first President, who was also a slave-owner, came with an asterisk with respect to people of color, women, and other minorities, but for the first time Jews in the western world could point to one government, one country, and know they were able to be full citizens, not merely subjects of the state.

Medieval laws prohibited Jews from entering most professions.

The antisemitic laws endemic throughout Europe which prohibited Jews from enjoying the rights of full citizenship were based on ancient religious hatreds and bigoted irrational prejudices. Many of these prejudices were grounded in one trope: disoyalty. In many countries, Jews were prohibited from serving in the military or the professional civil service because they were viewed as disloyal. If any proof of that disloyalty was required, you could point to their non-existent ranks in the military or other forms of national service. The Catch-22 of bigotry. Medieval princes, hoping to skirt the biblical prohibition against usury, forced Jews into the profession of money lenders and precluded christians from entering banking. When times were tight and the state couldn’t pay its debts to the Jewish moneylenders, these bankers were branded as disloyal for fleecing the people, and pogroms usually followed.

When President Trump on Tuesday said Jews who did not vote for him or his political party were “disloyal,” he was invoking this same ancient hatred. President Trump’s language could not be further from the magnanimous, if not fully inclusive, language of Washington, his Presidential progenitor. Were it to exist in isolation it would be appalling, but as part of the liturgy of bigotry preached by the White House and its acolytes it is nothing short of dangerous incitement.

The shooter who murdered 22 people in El Paso, Texas earlier this month filled his online manifesto with the exact language of the President. He warned against a foreign invasion from Mexico, the nation President Trump said in his opening announcement as a candidate, was sending rapists, murders, and drug dealers to the United States. The antisemitic terrorist who murdered 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year said the Synagogue, which supported a Jewish organization that aided refugees, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” The shooter in Parkland, Florida said he wished “all the Jews were dead.”

Jews are a small minority of people across the globe, including in the United States of America. It could be argued those who support antiracist work should instead focus on the other bigotries spewing forth from the White House on a regular basis such as the kidnapping of children from asylum seekers at our southern border and the deaths of some of those very asylees, or the transphobic policies being enacted at the Department of Defense. However, antisemitism is essential to understand and combat if we are to dismantle the oppressive power structures which are underpinning the white nationalism fueling the current administration. As Eric Ward argued in his essay Skin in the Game, “Antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism.” In other words, antisemitism isn’t only the canary in the bigotry coal mine, alerting us to the presence of poison in the air, antisemitism is that poison.

White supremacists have a near monopoly on deadly violence in the United States

Antisemitism sits at the confluence of economic, racial, and religious hate, the main drivers of division and slaughter. Often referred to as the worlds oldest hatred, antisemitism flourishes when those feelings are brought into the mainstreem. Recent studies have shown a nearly 60% increase in antisemitic attacks in the United States. These attacks are not carried out by “lone wolves” (a term coined by the white nationalist movement to confuse the public and law enforcement and mask their network of hate). The shooters in the kosher supermarket in Paris, Parkland, Pittsburgh, El Paso, Charleston, Christchurch, and Norway were all motivated by the same irrational hatred, all underpinned by antisemitism. The threat is real and upon us; white supremacists have been responsible for more murders recently than any other terrorist group.

To stem this rash of violence, all voices from all quarters must roundly condemn, and not propagate, not only these actions, but also these statements. For the President of the United States to openly spout classically antisemitic messages moves from the dog whistle to the starters pistol. As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum reminded us in 2016 “the Holocaust did not begin with killing; the Holocaust began with words.” In Hitler’s Germany those words came from the political elite. In Rwanda those words came from the political elite. In Pol Pot’s Cambodia those words came from the political elite. In Stalin’s Soviet Union those words came from the political elite. In Pinochet’s Chile those words came from the political elite.

It might seem milquetoast, but it is incumbent upon all of us to denounce hatred whenever, and wherever we hear it… on Twitter, on TV, and around our own dinner tables. We must, in the words of President Washington, “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

German Lutheran pastor, and Nazi victim, Martin Niemöller

Thinking his own christianity and whiteness would save him from the Third Reich, the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote of his willingness to ignore Nazi brutality:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Will our own generation write:

First they came for the Mexicans, and then they came for the Muslims, and then they came for the trans soldiers, and then they came for the Jews, and then they came for…

Samuel J. Aronson is an Assistant Dean in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He studies the role of science and technology in the Holocaust.



Samuel J. Aronson

Holocaust Historian and Georgetown University Associate Dean