The Jewish “Yentile” Governor of Utah

Simon Bamberger was one of the most successful Jewish "Gentiles" in the early history of Utah.

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In 1916, Simon Bamberger ran for the office of governor of the state of Utah. Bamberger was the first non-Mormon, the first Democrat, and the only Jew ever to seek that office. During the campaign, Bamberger visited a remote community in Southern Utah that had been settled by immigrant Norwegian converts to Mormonism. According to historian Leon Watters, the community’s leader, a towering Norwegian, met Bamberger at the train and told him menacingly, “You might yust as vell go right back vere you come from. If you tink ve let any damn Yentile speak in our meeting house, yure mistaken.” Bamberger is said to have replied, “As a Jew, I have been called many a bad name, but this is first time in my life I have been called a damned Gentile!” The Norwegian threw his arm around Bamberger and proclaimed, “You a Yew, an Israelite. Hear him men, he’s not a Yentile, he’s a Yew, an Israelite. Velcome my friend; velcome, our next governor.” The Norwegian was correct; Bamberger won the election.

From the founding of their religion in 1830, Mormons (or Latter-Day Saints, as they are named) have respected Judaism as a religion. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, proclaimed that “Lehi, a prophet of the tribe of Manasseh . . . led his tribe out of Jerusalem in the year 600 BC to the coast of America.” The tenth “Article of Faith” of Mormonism proclaims, “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion will be built upon this (the American) continent.” In Mormon metaphor, the Utah desert was a latter-day Zion, and the Great Salt Lake a latter-day Dead Sea. The Mormons who settled there under Brigham Young’s leadership were, in their own minds, direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews. Accordingly, the early Mormons referred to all non-Mormons–regardless of their religion–as “Gentiles.” Watters observes, “Utah is the only place in the world where Jews are Gentiles.”

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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