Jewish communities in the Americas followed in the wake of European contact with the western hemisphere at the end of the 15th century, and were a byproduct of the process of European colonization. Early Jewish settlements relied on a combination of economic investment, political negotiation, social networking, and subterfuge to establish the means of communal survival. While the Jewish experience in the Americas continued to operate within the sphere of European attitudes and modalities of behavior brought over to the western hemisphere by the colonizers, the remoteness of these New World communities and the friction caused by competing inter-imperial goals eventually allowed Jews to take advantage of new economic opportunities and expand their social and political range beyond what was feasible for Jewish communities in Europe in the same period. New World colonization shifted the ways that Jews were seen within European cultures, as contact with Indigenous peoples of the Americas and the importation of Africans as slaves allowed Europeans to see Jews as comparatively less alien than they had previously been defined. While Jews, as individuals and as communities, continued to face discriminatory treatment (such as extraordinary taxation, prohibitions on voting and officeholding, scapegoating, and social exclusion), they were able to exercise many of the status privileges accorded to those with European Christian identities. These privileges included the capacity to freely pursue economic activities in trade and agriculture and to exploit enslaved peoples for their labor and for other purposes. With this elevated status came tension within the Jewish community over assimilation to European Christian norms, and an ongoing struggle to preserve Jewish identity and communal distinctiveness.
Jews and Jewish Communal Identity in Early America
The field of Atlantic history analyzes the Atlantic Ocean and its four adjoining continents as a single unit of historical analysis. The field is a style of inquiry as much as it is a study of a geographic region. It is an approach that emphasizes connections and circulations, and its practitioners tend to de-emphasize political borders in their interest in exploring the experiences of people whose lives were transformed by their location within this large region. The field’s focus is the period from c. 1450 to 1900, but important debates about periodization reflect the challenges of writing a history that has no single geographic vantage point yet strives to be as inclusive as possible. The history of the United States intersects with Atlantic history in multiple ways, although the fields are neither parallel nor coterminous. Assessing the topics of slavery and citizenship, as they developed in the United States and around the Atlantic, demonstrate the potential advantages of this broader perspective on US history. Although the field emphasizes the early modern era, legacies of Atlantic history pervade the modern world, and individuals and institutions continue to struggle to understand all of the ways these legacies shape legal, social, economic, cultural, and political practices in the first decades of the 21st century.