Jews have been present in the Thirteen Colonies since the mid-17th century. However, they were small in number, with at most 200 to 300 having arrived by 1700. Those early arrivers were mainly Sephardic Jewish immigrants, of Western Sephardic (also known as Spanish and Portuguese Jewish) ancestry,  but by 1720 Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe predominated.
The English Plantation Act 1740 for the first time permitted Jews to become British citizens and emigrate to the colonies. Despite some being denied the ability to vote or hold office in local jurisdictions, Sephardic Jews became active in community affairs in the 1790s, after achieving political equality in the five states where they were most numerous. Until about 1830, Charleston, South Carolina had more Jews than anywhere else in North America. Large-scale Jewish immigration commenced in the 19th century, when, by mid-century, many German Jews had arrived, migrating to the United States in large numbers due to antisemitic laws and restrictions in their countries of birth. They primarily became merchants and shop-owners. Gradually early Jewish arrivals from the east coast would travel westward, and in the fall of 1819 the first Jewish religious services west of the Appalachian Range were conducted during the High Holidays in Cincinnati, the oldest Jewish community in the Midwest. Gradually the Cincinnati Jewish community would adopt novel practices under the leadership Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, the father of Reform Judaism in the United States, such as the inclusion of women in minyan. A large community grew in the region with the arrival of German and Lithuanian Jews in the latter half of the 1800s, leading to the establishment of Manischewitz, one of the largest producers of American Kosher products now based in New Jersey, and the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the United States, and second-oldest continuous published in the world, The American Israelite, established in 1854 and still extant in Cincinnati. By 1880 there were approximately 250,000 Jews in the United States, many of them being the educated, and largely secular, German Jews, although a minority population of the older Sephardic Jewish families remained influential.
Jewish migration to the United States increased dramatically in the early 1880s, as a result of persecution and economic difficulties in parts of Eastern Europe. Most of these new immigrants were Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, most of whom arrived from poor diaspora communities of the Russian Empire and the Pale of Settlement, located in modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. During the same period, great numbers of Ashkenazi Jews also arrived from Galicia, at that time the most impoverished region of the Austro-Hungarian empire with a heavy Jewish urban population, driven out mainly by economic reasons. Many Jews also emigrated from Romania. Over 2,000,000 Jews landed between the late 19th century and 1924, when the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration. Most settled in the New York metropolitan area, establishing the world's major concentrations of Jewish population. In 1915 the circulation of the daily Yiddish newspapers was half a million in New York City alone, and 600,000 nationally. In addition thousands more subscribed to the numerous weekly papers and the many magazines.
At the beginning of the 20th century, these newly arrived Jews built support networks consisting of many small synagogues and Landsmanshaften (German and Yiddish for "Countryman Associations") for Jews from the same town or village. American Jewish writers of the time urged assimilation and integration into the wider American culture, and Jews quickly became part of American life. 500,000 American Jews (or half of all Jewish males between 18 and 50) fought in World War II, and after the war younger families joined the new trend of suburbanization. There, Jews became increasingly assimilated and demonstrated rising intermarriage. The suburbs facilitated the formation of new centers, as Jewish school enrollment more than doubled between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s, while synagogue affiliation jumped from 20% in 1930 to 60% in 1960; the fastest growth came in Reform and, especially, Conservative congregations. More recent waves of Jewish emigration from Russia and other regions have largely joined the mainstream American Jewish community.
Americans of Jewish descent have been disproportionately successful in many fields and aspects over the years. The Jewish community in America has gone from a lower class minority, with most studies putting upwards of 80% as manual factory laborers prior to World War I and with the majority of fields barred to them, to the consistent richest or second richest ethnicity in America for the past 40 years in terms of average annual salary, with extremely high concentrations in academia and other fields, and today have the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the United States, at around double the average income of non-Jewish Americans. In 2016, Modern Orthodox Jews had a median household income of $158,000, while Open Orthodox Jews had a median household income at $185,000 (compared to the American median household income of $59,000 in 2016).
Scholars debate whether the favorable historical experience for Jews in the United States has been such a unique experience as to validate American exceptionalism.
Korelitz (1996) shows how American Jews during the late 19th and early 20th centuries abandoned a racial definition of Jewishness in favor of one that embraced ethnicity. The key to understanding this transition from a racial self-definition to a cultural or ethnic one can be found in the Menorah Journal between 1915 and 1925. During this time contributors to the Menorah promoted a cultural, rather than a racial, religious, or other view of Jewishness as a means to define Jews in a world that threatened to overwhelm and absorb Jewish uniqueness. The journal represented the ideals of the menorah movement established by Horace M. Kallen and others to promote a revival in Jewish cultural identity and combat the idea of race as a means to define or identify peoples.
Siporin (1990) uses the family folklore of ethnic Jews to their collective history and its transformation into an historical art form. They tell us how Jews have survived being uprooted and transformed. Many immigrant narratives bear a theme of the arbitrary nature of fate and the reduced state of immigrants in a new culture. By contrast, ethnic family narratives tend to show the ethnic more in charge of his life, and perhaps in danger of losing his Jewishness altogether. Some stories show how a family member successfully negotiated the conflict between ethnic and American identities.
After 1960, memories of the Holocaust, together with the Six-Day War in 1967 had major impacts on fashioning Jewish ethnic identity. Some have argued that the Holocaust provided Jews with a rationale for their ethnic distinction at a time when other minorities were asserting their own.
In New York City, while the German Jewish community was well established 'uptown', the more numerous Jews who migrated from Eastern Europe faced tension 'downtown' with Irish and German Catholic neighbors, especially the Irish Catholics who controlled Democratic Party Politics at the time. Jews successfully established themselves in the garment trades and in the needle unions in New York. By the 1930s they were a major political factor in New York, with strong support for the most liberal programs of the New Deal. They continued as a major element of the New Deal Coalition, giving special support to the Civil Rights Movement. By the mid-1960s, however, the Black Power movement caused a growing separation between blacks and Jews, though both groups remained solidly in the Democratic camp.
While earlier Jewish immigrants from Germany tended to be politically conservative, the wave of Jews from Eastern Europe starting in the early 1880s, were generally more liberal or left wing and became the political majority. Many came to America with experience in the socialist, anarchist and communist movements as well as the Labor Bund, emanating from Eastern Europe. Many Jews rose to leadership positions in the early 20th century American labor movement and helped to found unions that played a major role in left wing politics and, after 1936, in Democratic Party politics.
Although American Jews generally leaned Republican in the second half of the 19th century, the majority has voted Democratic since at least 1916, when they voted 55% for Woodrow Wilson.
With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Jews voted more solidly Democratic. They voted 90% for Roosevelt in the elections of 1940, and 1944, representing the highest of support, equaled only once since. In the election of 1948, Jewish support for Democrat Harry S. Truman dropped to 75%, with 15% supporting the new Progressive Party. As a result of lobbying, and hoping to better compete for the Jewish vote, both major party platforms had included a pro-Zionist plank since 1944, and supported the creation of a Jewish state; it had little apparent effect however, with 90% still voting other-than Republican. In every election since, except for 1980, no Democratic presidential candidate has won with less than 67% of the Jewish vote. (In 1980, Carter won 45% of the Jewish vote. See below.)
During the 1952 and 1956 elections, they voted 60% or more for Democrat Adlai Stevenson, while General Eisenhower garnered 40% for his reelection; the best showing to date for the Republicans since Harding's 43% in 1920. In 1960, 83% voted for Democrat John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon, and in 1964, 90% of American Jews voted for Lyndon Johnson, over his Republican opponent, arch-conservative Barry Goldwater. Hubert Humphrey garnered 81% of the Jewish vote in the 1968 elections, in his losing bid for president against Richard Nixon.
During the Nixon re-election campaign of 1972, Jewish voters were apprehensive about George McGovern and only favored the Democrat by 65%, while Nixon more than doubled Republican Jewish support to 35%. In the election of 1976, Jewish voters supported Democrat Jimmy Carter by 71% over incumbent president Gerald Ford's 27%, but during the Carter re-election campaign of 1980, Jewish voters greatly abandoned the Democrat, with only 45% support, while Republican winner, Ronald Reagan, garnered 39%, and 14% went to independent (former Republican) John Anderson. Many American Jews disagreed with the Middle East policies of the Carter administration.
During the Reagan re-election campaign of 1984, the Republican retained 31% of the Jewish vote, while 67% voted for Democrat Walter Mondale. The 1988 election saw Jewish voters favor Democrat Michael Dukakis by 64%, while George H. W. Bush polled a respectable 35%, but during Bush's re-election attempt in 1992, his Jewish support dropped to just 11%, with 80% voting for Bill Clinton and 9% going to independent Ross Perot. Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996 maintained high Jewish support at 78%, with 16% supporting Bob Dole and 3% for Perot.
In the 2000 presidential election, Joe Lieberman was the first American Jew to run for national office on a major party ticket when he was chosen as Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's vice-presidential nominee. The elections of 2000 and 2004 saw continued Jewish support for Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, a Catholic, remain in the high- to mid-70% range, while Republican George W. Bush's re-election in 2004 saw Jewish support rise from 19% to 24%.
In the 2008 presidential election, 78% of Jews voted for Barack Obama, who became the first African-American to be elected president. Additionally, 83% of Jews voted for Obama compared to just 34% of white Protestants and 47% of white Catholics, though 67% of those identifying with another religion and 71% identifying with no religion also voted Obama.
In the February 2016 New Hampshire Democratic Primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate to win a state's Presidential primary election.
As American Jews have progressed economically over time, some commentators
have wondered why Jews remain so firmly Democratic and have not shifted political allegiances to the center or right in the way other groups who have advanced economically, such as Hispanics and Arab-Americans, have.
For congressional and senate races, since 1968, American Jews have voted about 70–80% for Democrats; this support increased to 87% for Democratic House candidates during the 2006 elections.
The first American Jew to serve in the Senate was David Levy Yulee, who was Florida's first Senator, serving 1845–1851 and again 1855–1861.
In the 114th Congress, there are 10 Jews among 100 U.S. Senators: nine Democrats (Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal, Barbara Boxer, Benjamin Cardin, Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, Carl Levin, Charles Schumer, Ron Wyden), and Bernie Sanders, who became a Democrat to run for President but returned to the Senate as an Independent.
In the 114th Congress, there are 19 Jewish U.S. Representatives. There were 27 Jews among the 435 U.S. Representatives at the start of the 112th Congress; 26 Democrats and one (Eric Cantor) Republican. While many of these Members represented coastal cities and suburbs with significant Jewish populations, others did not (for instance, Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson, Arizona; John Yarmuth of Louisville, Kentucky; Jared Polis of Boulder, Colorado; and Steve Cohen of Memphis, Tennessee). The total number of Jews serving in the House of Representatives declined from 31 in the 111th Congress. John Adler of New Jersey, Steve Kagan of Wisconsin, Alan Grayson of Florida, and Ron Klein of Florida all lost their re-election bids, Rahm Emanuel resigned to become the President's Chief of Staff; and Paul Hodes of New Hampshire did not run for re-election but instead (unsuccessfully) sought his state's open Senate seat. David Cicilline of Rhode Island was the only Jewish American who was newly elected to the 112th Congress; he had been the Mayor of Providence. The number declined when Jane Harman, Anthony Weiner, and Gabrielle Giffords resigned during the 112th Congress.
As of January 2014Jared Polis of Colorado and David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
, there are five openly gay men serving in Congress and two are Jewish:
In November 2008, Cantor was elected as the House Minority Whip, the first Jewish Republican to be selected for the position. In 2011, he became the first Jewish House Majority Leader. He served as Majority Leader until 2014, when he resigned shortly after his loss in the Republican primary election for his House seat.
In 2013, Pew found that 70% of American Jews identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, with just 22% identifying with or leaning toward the Republican Party.
Participation in civil rights movements
Members of the American Jewish community have included prominent participants in civil rights movements. In the mid-20th century, there were American Jews who were among the most active participants in the Civil Rights Movement and feminist movements. A number of American Jews have also been active figures in the struggle for gay rights in America.
Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, stated the following when he spoke from the podium at the Lincoln Memorial during the famous March on Washington on August 28, 1963: "As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a twofold experience—one of the spirit and one of our history. ... From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. ... It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is, above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions, a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience."
During the World War II period, the American Jewish community was bitterly and deeply divided and was unable to form a common front. Most Jews from Eastern Europe favored Zionism, which saw a return to their ancestral homeland as the only solution; this had the effect of diverting attention from the persecution of Jews in Germany. German Jews were alarmed at the Nazis but were disdainful of Zionism. Proponents of a Jewish state and Jewish army agitated, but many leaders were so fearful of an antisemitic backlash inside the U.S. that they demanded that all Jews keep a low public profile. One important development was the sudden conversion of most (but not all) Jewish leaders to Zionism late in the war. The Holocaust was largely ignored by American media as it was happening. Reporters and editors largely did not believe the atrocity stories coming out of Europe.
The Holocaust had a profound impact on the community in the United States, especially after 1960, as Jews tried to comprehend what had happened, and especially to commemorate and grapple with it when looking to the future. Abraham Joshua Heschel summarized this dilemma when he attempted to understand Auschwitz: "To try to answer is to commit a supreme blasphemy. Israel enables us to bear the agony of Auschwitz without radical despair, to sense a ray [of] God's radiance in the jungles of history."
Zionism became a well-organized movement in the U.S. with the involvement of leaders such as Louis Brandeis and the British promise of a reconstituted homeland in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Jewish Americans organized large-scale boycotts of German merchandise during the 1930s to protest Nazi Germany. Franklin D. Roosevelt's leftist domestic policies received strong Jewish support in the 1930s and 1940s, as did his anti-Nazi foreign policy and his promotion of the United Nations. Support for political Zionism in this period, although growing in influence, remained a distinctly minority opinion among Jews in Germany until about 1944–45, when the early rumors and reports of the systematic mass murder of the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries became publicly known with the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps. The founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948 and recognition thereof by the American government (following objections by American isolationists) was an indication of both its intrinsic support and its influence.
This attention initially was based on a natural affinity toward and support for Israel in the Jewish community. The attention is also because of the ensuing and unresolved conflicts regarding the founding of Israel and Zionism itself. A lively internal debate commenced, following the Six-Day War. The American Jewish community was divided over whether or not they agreed with the Israeli response; the great majority came to accept the war as necessary. A tension existed especially for some Jews on the left who saw Israel as too anti-Soviet and anti-Palestinian. Similar tensions were aroused by the 1977 election of Menachem Begin and the rise of Revisionist policies, the 1982 Lebanon War and the continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Disagreement over Israel's 1993 acceptance of the Oslo Accords caused a further split among American Jews; this mirrored a similar split among Israelis and led to a parallel rift within the pro-Israel lobby, and even ultimately to the United States for its "blind" support of Israel. Abandoning any pretense of unity, both segments began to develop separate advocacy and lobbying organizations. The liberal supporters of the Oslo Accord worked through Americans for Peace Now (APN), Israel Policy Forum (IPF) and other groups friendly to the Labour government in Israel. They tried to assure Congress that American Jewry was behind the Accord and defended the efforts of the administration to help the fledgling Palestinian Authority (PA), including promises of financial aid. In a battle for public opinion, IPF commissioned a number of polls showing widespread support for Oslo among the community.
In opposition to Oslo, an alliance of conservative groups, such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA),
Americans For a Safe Israel (AFSI), and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) tried to counterbalance the power of the liberal Jews. On October 10, 1993, the opponents of the Palestinian-Israeli accord organized at the
American Leadership Conference for a Safe Israel, where they warned that Israel was prostrating itself before "an armed thug", and predicted and that the "thirteenth of September is a date that will live in infamy". Some Zionists also criticized, often in harsh language, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, his foreign minister and chief architect of the peace accord. With the community so strongly divided, AIPAC and the Presidents Conference, which was tasked with representing the national Jewish consensus, struggled to keep the increasingly antagonistic discourse civil. Reflecting these tensions, Abraham Foxman from the Anti-Defamation League was asked by the conference to apologize for bad mouthing ZOA's Morton Klein. The conference, which under its organizational guidelines was in charge of moderating communal discourse, reluctantly censured some Orthodox spokespeople for attacking Colette Avital, the Labor-appointed Israeli Consul General in New York and an ardent supporter of that version of a peace process.