In 1790, a Jewish congregation wrote to George Washington. He wrote an amazing response.

George Washington.

This guy, amiright? Portrait by William Matthew Prior/Wikimedia Commons.


The father of our country — and a complicated man.

On the one hand, he defeated a global superpower in war, helped usher the world's first modern federal democratic republic into existence, and single-handedly established a system of peaceful presidential succession. Total pro moves.

Dude was literally money. Photo by the U.S. government/Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, dude owned literally hundreds of slaves. Definite negative 1,000.

Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns/Virginia Museum of Art.

But on the issue of religious freedom, Washington was on point.

Jewish immigrants on their way to New York City in 1887. Image by Frank Leslie/Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

Witness this amazing letter he wrote in 1790 to the largest Jewish community in America at the time, the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. The Newport Jews had sent a message to Washington, basically congratulating him on being awesome.

A few days later, Washington responded (emphasis mine):

Gentlemen:

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on 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 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 were 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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington




Here was the president of the United States telling one of his country's most vulnerable religious minorities: You're safe here.

Photo by Bain News Service/Library of Congress.

Not only "tolerated," but endowed with rights — to live safely and worship freely — that can't be taken away by anyone.

For that reason, Washington's letter is read by many American Jews on Passover to this day.

These days, there are some loud voices who want to shut the doors that Washington wanted to keep open.

Thanks in no small part to President Washington's example, America's Jews are doing pretty OK these days. We do suffer a disproportionate number of religiously motivated hate crimes, but we're also pretty prosperous, educated, and integrated.

We've even got our own popular dating app.

However, with a massive refugee crisis rocking Europe and the Middle East, a leading presidential candidate...

Not naming names, not saying who. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

...has called for members of the world's second-largest faith — an impossibly diverse community of over a billion people — to be banned from entering the United States.

Over 30 governors have spoken out against resettling Syrians in their states.

Others have proposed admitting refugees, but only Christians.

These voices are, essentially, calling for a religious test in order to establish who can and cannot be American.

In times like these, we'd all do well to remember what President Washington said back in 1790:

"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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy."

More than anything, that's who we are.

On Passover, a day when Jews all over the world celebrate their liberation from tyranny, it's especially important to remember.

A Passover seder at the White House in 2011. Photo by The White House/Flickr.

Here's to making sure America remains a place where people of all nationalities and all faiths are welcome, safe, and free to sit "under their own vine and fig tree."

Happy Pesach.

More

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

RELATED: This fascinating comic explains why we shouldn't use some Native American designs.

Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

popular

Gerrymandering is a funny word, isn't it? Did you know that it's actually a mashup of the name "Gerry" and the word "salamander"? Apparently, in 1812, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry had a new voting district drawn that seemed to favor his party. On a map, the district looked like a salamander, and a Boston paper published it with the title The GerryMander.

That tidbit of absurdity seems rather tame compared to an entire alphabet made from redrawn voting districts a century later, and yet here we are. God bless America.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Facebook / Maverick Austin

Your first period is always a weird one. You know it's going to happen eventually, but you're not always expecting it. One day, everything is normal, then BAM. Puberty hits you in a way you can't ignore.

One dad is getting attention for the incredibly supportive way he handled his daughter's first period. "So today I got 'The Call,'" Maverick Austin started out a Facebook post that has now gone viral.

The only thing is, Austin didn't know he got "the call." His 13-year-old thought she pooped her pants. At that age, your body makes no sense whatsoever. It's a miracle every time you even think you know what's going on.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Wikipedia

Women in country music are fighting to be heard. Literally. A study found that between 2000 and 2018, the amount of country songs on the radio by women had fallen by 66%. In 2018, just 11.3% of country songs on the radio were by women. The statistics don't exist in a vacuum. There are misogynistic attitudes behind them. Anyone remember the time radio consultant Keith Hill compared country radio stations to a salad, saying male artists are the lettuce and women are "the tomatoes of our salad"...? Air play of female country artists fell from 19% of songs on the radio to 10.4% of songs on the radio in the three years after he said that.

Not everyone thinks that women are tomatoes. This year's CMA Awards celebrated women, and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles saw the opportunity to bring awareness to this issue and "inspire conversation about country music's need to play more women artists on radio and play listings," as Nettles put it on her Instagram. She did it in a uniquely feminine way – by making a fashion statement that also made a statement-statement.

Keep Reading Show less
popular