Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern American

By Marc Dollinger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
“What Do We Owe to Peter Stuyvesant?”
The New Deal in the Jewish Community

SOON AFTER Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration, Cornell University economist Isaac Rubinow posed a rhetorical question to the National Conference of Jewish Social Service: “What do we owe to Peter Stuyvesant?” Rubinow's query recalled a well-known seventeenth-century squabble between Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, and his employer, the Dutch West Indies Company. When the colonial leader sought the expulsion of a small group of Brazilian Jewish immigrants in 1654, his European governors, intent on using the new arrivals to bolster the local economy, flinched. Their compromise, termed “the Stuyvesant Pledge,” allowed the Jews to remain in exchange for a promise that the settlers would take care of their own social welfare needs. American Jews could not, they all agreed, look to the government for relief. 1

While the Stuyvesant Pledge never actually defined Jewish nor even U.S. social welfare policy, it proved a powerful metaphor for a community struggling to maintain its traditional collectivist orientation in the midst of the nation's worst economic depression. Governor Stuyvesant's accommodation anticipated what Jews would learn in their American experience: that the social welfare system in the United States depended upon private and often times religious philanthropic institutions. While nearly three centuries separated Rubinow's speech from the “Stuyvesant Pledge,” the American Jewish impulse to “take care of its own” survived well into the twentieth century. Respecting the traditional American social welfare ethic of voluntarism, the Jewish community developed a sophisticated network of private philanthropic organizations. Jewish Federation Councils emerged in most major American cities and served as the umbrella organization for a variety of social service groups, while local synagogues solicited members for their own philanthropic appeals. As late as 1914, Jacob Schiff, the famed German-American banker and leader of the American Jewish Committee, remarked that “a Jew would rather cut his hand off than apply for relief from non-Jewish sources.” 2

The New Deal proved a critical turning point in American Jewish politics. Between FDR's first inauguration in March 1933 and U.S. entry into World War II in December 1941, American Jews blazed an unmistakable

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