In 1895, Simon Wolf (1836-1923) published The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen. To the left of the title page is a photo of the Statue of Religious Liberty in Fairmont Park, Philadelphia. The picture is worth a thousand words. The image is not a Jewish one but an American one that aligns Wolf’s message with the highest values that built the Republic. Wolf was a Jewish activist, a businessman and a diplomat. He enjoyed the friendship of four presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson. It’s not surprising that with his deep Washington connections, Wolf cared about Jews being outstanding citizens.
The editor of Wolf’s book, Louis Edward Levy, in his preface, explains why the book was necessary. It seems that Jewish involvement in politics was perceived as weak and their allegiance was called into question. In defense of the Jews, Wolf gathered letters of Jewish soldiers and officers and lists of Jewish soldiers from the revolutionary period, and those in the continental army, Jewish contributions to the colonial treasury, and their representation as soldiers in the war of 1812, the Mexican War and the Civil War.
With this book, Wolf, Levy contends, “shows us that the Jewish people of the New World, like their ancestors and brethren of the Old, have been unfailing in their devotion to their country’s cause; that they have performed an ample part on the conquest of our liberties and have fully shared in the struggles for the preservation of our institutions. He proves beyond cavil that from an early stage of our history down to the present day, men of the Hebrew race and faith have been counted in the van of the country’s progress and in the forefront of its defense…”
This commitment follows the strong recommendation of Jeremiah the prophet who adjured the Israelites in their Babylonian exile to build homes and plant vineyards, marry off their sons and daughters and “Seek the peace and prosperity of the place to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you, too, will prosper” (29:7). Pray for the foreign government and support it, if for no other reason than it will support you in turn. We don’t expect this of a prophet. We expect that life in exile would breed isolation and perhaps even paralysis. After all, the more you build in exile, the harder it will be to uproot oneself when the exiles ends. But this was not Jeremiah’s view. Wherever you are, build your life. Wherever you are, care about that place.
This brings us to voting. I understand how disenchanted people are with this election. Believe me. But what I find distressing is the number of people in casual conversation who have said recently, “I’m just not going to vote.” For more centuries than we can comfortably count, we were denied the most basic rights and privileges of citizenship. In those tense years, we were dependent on the kindness and mercy of the ruler, a relationship that did not always work in our favor. George Washington in his letter to the Touro Synagogue told its readers that they did not need to petition him – as they did – for his protection. Jew are protected and ensured civil liberties simply by virtue of their presence in the United States. Just like everyone else.
Too many people throughout our long history and America’s short history have been denied the right to vote. Make Simon Wolf proud of his tribe. Who are we to deny ourselves this basic right? We earned it.