How do present concerns shape understanding of the past? We don't need to look far to see how the lessons we draw from history can starkly illuminate contemporary hopes and fears. Our own tumultuous moment too easily illustrates this point. But in pondering how American Jews have thought about freedom, I found myself revisiting a subject of my earlier research: the American Jewish Tercentennial Committee's 1954 commemoration of the three hundredth anniversary of the arrival of a group of twenty-three bedraggled Jews to New Amsterdam. By invoking American "freedom," their celebration offered the American Jewish experience as a prooftext for a celebration of America itself.
As the tercentenary organizers began planning in the early 1950s, they encountered a complicated moment for making sense of the past. They would have been well aware that the script for the US Jewish experience was being rewritten, by a variety of factors: the recent revelations of the horrors of the Holocaust; the creation of the State of Israel; the emerging public repudiation of antisemitism and an accompanying diminution of long-standing restrictions against Jews when it came to educational, residential, and professional opportunities; and the upward mobility of the children and grandchildren of eastern European immigrants. Not insignificantly, the overlapping Cold War contexts of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case and the specter of McCarthyism with its antisemitic tendencies added complications to the narrative goal of presenting American Jews as model loyal citizens.
Organizers were frank about their desire to use the anniversary to "bring . . . home to the Christians of this country the deep and centuried stake which Jews have in the United States" without being "over-assertive" in the matter of "Jewish contributions." They feared emphasizing both struggle (for fear of seeming too critical of the American enterprise) and achievement (for fear of overreach). Their timidity, however, threatened to leave them with the sort of uninspired observance suggested by historian Salo Baron's proposed theme: "We have completed our first three hundred years, let us start building for the next three hundred."
The key to a more robust celebration emerged via a theme proposed by NBC president David Sarnoff: "Man's Opportunities and Responsibilities under Freedom." With this framework they could subsume their story of Jewish achievement into a narrative of what American democratic values made possible. They could turn their celebration into an essential lesson for the Cold War–divided world about the "true meaning of freedom" and "just how a so-called minority group can thrive in a climate of freedom and democracy."
Organizers thus set out "not [to] boast about what American Jews have achieved in these three centuries. Rather we boast about America herself." They hoped others might take on the role of praising American Jewish contributions. For instance, a draft speech proposed to President Eisenhower for his address at a New York tercentenary gala would have given him the role of invoking Jewish contributions to "American well-being, culture, knowledge and enjoyment." Sadly, for the committee, Ike's actual speech focused on foreign policy.
The need to qualify every reference to Jewish contributions with the acknowledgement that "others have done as much and others even more" seems like it would have made for a rather milquetoast celebration. Yet this qualification conveyed the essential tercentenary message that a country where Jews could be just like other (white, unmarked, middle-class) Americans was itself an extraordinary country—stronger and more vibrant than its counterparts. Only a country offering freedom rather than persecution could truly benefit from the contributions of all its citizens. The contrast to Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain was detailed explicitly—the lessons of World War II, though unnamed, would also have been self-evident.
In this context, Emma Lazarus emerged as an evocative symbol of the tercentenary. One of the rare women to find a place in the "man's opportunities and responsibilities under freedom" narrative, Lazarus embodied the theme perfectly. As portrayed in "Under Freedom," a historical pageant performed in Richmond, Virginia, the young Emma took "freedom for granted." Only when she began to understand the challenges facing her immigrant coreligionists did she become attuned to her responsibilities and invested with an "inner fire" that "opened her eyes and her heart." She became a true poet, whose words in the "The New Colossus" ultimately spoke for America. The key dynamic represented by Lazarus was the interplay of her universal (American) and particular (Jewish) identities. She could only become America's voice when she was finally able to hear and respond to the cries of her own group.
As it balanced American and Jewish identities and fought the Cold War, the tercentenary's "dignified, carefully planned celebration" allowed little room for deviation. Thus an "Under Freedom" exhibit at New York's Jewish Museum acknowledged that in order to reach the broadest possible audience, the exhibit would highlight positive shared experiences rather than minor differences and controversies. This, then, was a celebration of minority rights, where references to antisemitism, Jewish labor activism, African American rights, civil rights issues, and even Nazi persecutions were off limits.
From today's vantage point, the three hundredth anniversary commemoration's compromised narrative of freedom alerts us to the continued fragility of a community navigating the complicated postwar societal landscape. The shortcomings of their efforts should point to the pitfalls of celebrating America's realization of "man's rights and responsibilities under freedom" as a finished product. The tercentenary events, however, did offer at least one insightful and powerful rendition of the possibilities of freedom that still resonates in 2016.
Speaking at the tercentenary's closing ceremony in June 1955, the once and future presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was able both to fully celebrate Jewish contributions and to take on the acute challenges of the moment. Stevenson spoke of an America where Jews constituted one strand in the multithreaded "fabric of American life" and "to a special degree . . . have been in the forefront of the everlasting struggle for the freedom of the mind and dignity of the individual." Stevenson took on the credo of "man's opportunities and responsibilities" as an inspiring call to action in dark times. His invocation of the theme was one that demanded redress for a "misguided" immigration policy that "strangled the flow of new talent and energy." He noted that when "free men . . . lived up to the full responsibilities of freedom" both totalitarianism and "discrimination on grounds of race or creed" would be defeated." "If we were living up rigorously to these responsibilities," he averred, "we would sternly resist all those trying to stir mistrust and suspicion." Instead, he concluded, "we would present America to the world, not as an armed camp, not as an irritable, erratic giant, but as a calm magnanimous people facing other peoples with an abiding sense of respect and good will, based on a common hope and common humanity."
No doubt, American Jews and the American Jewish community still manifest a sense of vulnerability as American identity and loyalty continue to be hotly contested. In this often grim context, it is heartening to recall Stevenson's vision both of what Jews had already contributed to create this "fresh, free United States," and what a continued commitment to freedom, informed by a "devotion undimmed by prejudice and persecution," would contribute to its future.