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Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
Thomas Jefferson is deservedly a hero to American Jewry. His was one of the few voices in the early republic fervently championing equal political rights for Jews. Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia is a classic American statement of religious toleration. Significantly, while Jefferson championed Jewish rights, he did not do so out of respect for Judaism but because he respected the right of every individual to hold whichever faith they wished.
Jefferson’s advocacy of civic equality for American Jewry began as early as 1776, when he co-sponsored a bill–one the Virginia legislature ultimately defeated–that would have allowed Jews, Catholics, and other non-Protestants to be naturalized as Virginia citizens. During the debate, Jefferson quoted John Locke’s argument that “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.”
Four decades later, in 1820, Jefferson wrote to the Charleston Jewish physician, Dr. Jacob De La Motta, “Religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension.” Jefferson told De La Motta that he was delighted to see American Jews assuming full social rights and hoped “they will be seen taking their seats on the benches of science as preparatory to their doing the same at the board of government.” Subsequently, referring to the reading of the King James version of the Bible in public schools, Jefferson expressed his belief that it was a “cruel addition to the wrongs” Jews had historically suffered “by imposing on them a course of theological reading which their consciences do not permit them to pursue.” To Joseph Marx of Richmond, Jefferson expressed “regret at seeing a sect [the Jews], the parent and basis of all those of Christendom, singled out for persecution and oppression.”
While Jefferson advocated for the rights of Jews, he held aspects of Judaism in relatively low regard. In fairness, Jefferson opposed all religions based on divine revelation. He believed that God’s existence could be proven by reason and common sense rather than faith. A detractor of all priests, he found those of the Hebrew Bible “a bloodthirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family of god of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.”
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