There are a number of folks I know who, for various reasons, do not like to celebrate Thanksgiving. To each their own, and I do not say a word against them. But my younger brother has a tradition (just exercised again) of reading George Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, RI. I reproduce it below, with my own reasons for celebrating Thanksgiving.
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by 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.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
At the time George Washington wrote these words, Jews were nowhere else citizens. Even in England, where Jews had been re-admitted by Oliver Cromwell, they labored under legal limitations. It was not until “emancipation” spread through Europe in the 19th Century that Jews were permitted to hold office, vote, or exercise other rights of citizenship. As Washington described, the genius and beauty of the United States lies in the ideal of an assumed equality of all. That rights and privileges are not a matter of “toleration,” a gift or an indulgence from a class of superiors to those who would not otherwise deserve such treatment. But, as pledged in the Declaration of Independence, the new nation would be built on an ideal that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Of course, we often fall far short of these ideals. I am not blind to the irony that the man who wrote such stirring words kept slaves and regarded these human beings as property. Nor do I forget that it was “men” not “men & women” that were created equal. I do not ignore the lengthy history of injustices, of laws that favor one economic class or disadvantage another, and of the endless parade of hypocrisy under which words of equality and justice mask the objectives of tyranny and oppression.
NEVERTHELESS, without the ideal that was created by the American Revolution, without the birth of the dream of a land that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” and “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support” — we should not even have the capacity to appreciate the injustices and oppressions. For in England, in Holland, in Islamic lands, where Jews labored under disabilities and legal oppressions and knew no better, they were grateful when those burdens fell lightly upon them. For they lived in the world of “toleration,” where it was and remained the natural state of things that one class of people should have power over another.
Is this, then, not a thing to be thankful for?
And so I say to my co-religionists that spurn Thanksgiving as a “goyish holiday,” to the secularists who deride Thanksgiving as a recognition of a false “higher power,” to those for whom the real injustices and oppressions that they have suffered — and in many cases continue to suffer — make the expression of Thanksgiving seem a bitter irony, and to those who see in a recreation of the “First Thanksgiving” a celebration of the prelude to genocide, I beg you to consider this. Is it not worthy to take one moment to reflect on the creation — whether by accident or Design — of the dream and ideal of George Washington spoke? Fear not that recognition of this good renders injustice more palatable or forgives the unforgivable. Rather, I shall argue, if we refuse to recognize even this bit of good, if we refuse to acknowledge that nobility of spirit and ideals to inspire can arise in all places out of the complexity of the human spirit, then it is we who have proven the hypocrite.
Stay tuned . . . . and Happy Thanksgiving.