The myth of the “wandering Jew” began in the 13th century in Europe, but it characterizes much of Jewish history, even before the date of the legend. From the Maccabee revolt of 135 B.C.E. to Jewish expulsions from countries in the mid-20th century, the list of places where Jews were forced out is long, and the list of destruction, murder, and severe restrictions on housing, livelihood and worship are even longer.
Regardless of location, two common elements were present; a state government that is authoritarian and a state religion that all must follow The majority of these states were in Europe, including Russia.
The history of Jewish settlement in areas of the Middle East under what later became Muslim rule is somewhat different. Ancient Jewish communities existed under the Babylonians and continued through the Ottomans. Under the later Muslim rulers, Jews were considered “second-class citizens,” but were allowed certain rights and protections.
This is no longer true, however. Since the birth of Israel, Jews have been expelled and executed in countries under Islamic rule. Again, the common elements of authoritarian rulers and a specific state religion existed.
Although Jews only numbered about 2,500 by the time of the American Revolution and were subject to discriminatory legislation throughout the colonies, they were allowed to work and worship in peace and were considered to have “enjoyed far better conditions in the American colonies than in most other corners of the diaspora.” The discrimination included Sunday closing laws, church taxes, special oaths and no political rights.
When finally forced to choose sides, the majority sided with the American rebels. Once hostilities ceased, many felt they were entitled to equal rights by the new government.
The Founding Fathers were inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment, from such new writers and philosophers as Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Thomas Paine supported deistic or Unitarian principles, in that “all sound religion” was enough. As Thomas Paine said, “my own mind is my own church.”
Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia’s “Act for Religious Freedom,” written in 1785, formed the basis of the U.S. Constitution’s Article Six and First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. It stated, “all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”
Article 6 of the Constitution quite clearly denounces any attempt to impose a “Religious Test” on any official, whether elected, executive or judicial. It states quite clearly, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Furthermore, the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States, quite clearly articulates the prohibition on a “state religion”:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The importance of a secularly based, democratic government to Jewish well-being cannot be overstated.
The system of government as structured by our Founding Fathers is under attack by those who either are ignorant of its history or seek to rewrite it. Jews for a Secular Democracy defends and supports the ideals embodied in the constitution and the Bill of Rights and works to remind and inform those who believe otherwise.