Jews - History and Cultural Relations

The immigration history of Jews to the U.S. and Canada differs as does the nature of cultural relations between Jews and other groups in those nations.

United States. The first Jews in North America—23 Sephardic Jews from South America—arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York City) in 1654. Since then Jews have continued to immigrate to North America, with the bulk arriving in three periods: 1830-1880, 1881-1924, and 1935-1941. Prior to 1830 most Jews in North America were Sephardic (see "Social Organization" below) and numbered about six thousand in 1830. From 1830 to 1880 the Jewish population increased to 250,000, most of whom were Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Germany, as part of a larger movement of Germans to North America. Not only did these immigrants, largely young, rural or small-town peoples escaping religious persecution, swell the Jewish population, but they also spread across the continent establishing Communities in dozens of cities. The second period of migration from 1880-1924 closed with a Jewish population of over 4 million in the United States, mostly urban and mostly on the East Coast. This time the immigrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from eastern and central European countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and especially western Russia. These Immigrants were the forebears of about 80 percent of Jews in North America today. Restrictive immigration laws in the United States and the depression slowed immigration, but beginning in the mid-1930s until the late 1940s, some 200,000 Jews fleeing Nazi-controlled Europe and extermination in concentration camps arrived in the United States. The 1900-1950 period was also a time of upward (socially and economically) and outward (from the cities to the suburbs) mobility for the eastern European Jews. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews have arrived in the United States mainly from the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and most recently from Israel. One key feature of Jewish immigration is that most of the immigrants stayed, with only one in fourteen returning to their homelands as compared to about one in three returns for most other ethnic groups.

Despite overt discrimination in education and employment in the past and organized anti-Semitism in some sectors of American society, laws have generally guaranteed Jews Religious freedom and relations with other ethnic and religious groups have been generally peaceful if not friendly. Political ties to the African-American community are no longer as strong as they once were. Current tensions with the African-Americans reflect, in part, Jewish concerns over African-American support for the Palestinians in the Middle East and African-American concerns over Jewish ties to South Africa and lack of Jewish support for affirmative action programs. Jews generally distinguish themselves from all non-Jews who are classified and referred to as goyim, commonly understood to mean "non-Jew." Some scholars suggest that Jews in the United States today are more apt to stress the secular aspects of Jewishness, such as the use of Yiddish words, as opposed to the religious aspects such as following Jewish law regarding dietary restrictions.

Canada. In contrast to the immigration history in the United States, the majority of Jewish immigrants to Canada arrived after 1945, with about 40 percent of the current Canadian Jewish population composed of recent arrivals as compared to about 20 percent for the United States. In 1900 there were 15,000 Jews in Canada, but by 1915 the population had grown to 100,000 through mass emigrations from eastern Europe. Few Jews immigrated to Canada in the years before World War II, and about 200,000 have arrived since then. These include Jews fleeing war-torn Europe, Hungarian Jews escaping from Hungary in 1956, French-speaking Jews coming from North Africa, and, most recently, about 22,000 arriving from Israel and 8,000 from the Soviet Union.

Largely because Canada is a bicultural nation with distinct French- and English-speaking populations and because of greater acceptance of cultural diversity, Jews in Canada, like other ethnic groups, are relatively less assimilated than their counterparts in the United States. While this has led to a more visible emphasis on religious elements of Jewishness and the survival of European customs, it has also placed Jews outside the two mainstream Canadian religious traditions of Catholicism and Protestantism. This position as a third Religion and other factors have sometimes subjected Jews to laws interfering with traditional religious practices. Laws introduced after World War II removed most of these restrictions. Today, Canadian Jews are slowly becoming more like U.S. Jews, with the use of European customs and languages disappearing.

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