Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
In 1790 the head of the Jewish Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, approached George Washington, the first president of the new United States, leading to an exchange of letters between Moses Seixas (1744–1809), warden of the Newport Community, and Washington. This essay begins with an analysis of the biblical context of the exchange between the two, which provided the background for Washington’s beautiful statement on the freedoms that an exilic minority people could hope for. In his reply to Seixas, Washington invoked the powerful biblical image of the vine and the fig tree in his words of assurance to the Jewish community. Reconstructing this context helps to clarify questions regarding the boundaries within which such a people can operate as a distinct group. I show that the original context within which the phrase about a vine and fig tree is expressed was in effect a contract between the sovereign and the ruled.
Later in this essay, I turn to an instance of a new sovereign breaking his promise right after assuming power. Having received assurances of religious tolerance from Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, King Boabdil, the last sultan of the kingdom of Granada, surrendered to the Reyes Católicos. This understanding, however, did not last.
Against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition that ensued, I discuss the theme of book burning through history. Such events, I argue, present the exact opposite of what Washington argued for in his letter: they highlight the connection between religious intolerance and violence. Reflecting on book burnings gives us an opportunity to explore the processes of the destruction of one culture and the creation of a new one on its ruins.