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Heritage Civilization and the Jews
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North America
1492 to 1789

Christopher Columbus's voyage to America in 1492 paved the way for Spanish colonization. By 1550, Spain had vanquished the indigenous Aztec and Incan empires of central and south America, respectively, and most of the western hemisphere's major population centers were in Spanish hands. The Spanish plundered the continent for silver and gold and imposed Catholicism on the local population. Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, who imported slaves from Africa to work in sugar plantations and mills.

North America remained largely unexplored by the Europeans until the early 17th century, when the English, French, and Dutch began to establish colonies there, eager to exploit the continent's natural resources. By 1623, Nova Scotia was settled by French; Virginia and Massachusetts Bay were colonized by English; and New Netherland (present-day New York) had been established by the Dutch.

The North American colonies drew thousands of Europeans in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom. In 1654, the first Jewish settlers arrived in North America, refugees from the Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil, which had just been conquered by the Portuguese. The Jews landed in the Dutch port of New Amsterdam, where they had to fight for the right to stay.

Over the next century, a few hundred more Jews came to North America -- most of them Sephardic merchants, who settled in the North American coastal cities of Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah.

By 1770, the Spanish had established a colony on San Diego Bay on the western coast of California, and the British controlled all of North America east of the Mississippi. Deeply in debt from wars fought to secure their colonial possessions, the British attempted to recoup their expenses by imposing heavy taxes on their colonial subjects. Resentment at this taxation grew among the colonists until, in 1775, it exploded into a war of independence. By war's end in 1783, the British had been defeated, and a new nation, the United States of America, had come into being.

The United States of America, originally a narrow strip of states along North America's Atlantic shore, had expanded from coast to coast by the mid-19th century This expansion was achieved, however, at great cost to the native peoples of North America, who were driven off their lands and sometimes massacred.

By the middle of the century slavery had become a divisive issue among Americans. An extensive mono-culture of cotton had developed in the southern states that depended upon the cheap labor of slaves. As new states entered the nation, their status as "free" or "slave" states caused heated debate in the U.S. Congress, and a deep rift developed over the question of how much sovereignty individual states possessed. When southern states chose to secede from the United States, northern states countered with military force. The Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1864, was bloody and costly, and it resulted in an overwhelming victory for the forces of the northern states. In 1863, in the midst of the war, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which officially abolished slavery in the U.S.

In the two decades before the Civil War, immigrants had begun to arrive in the United States by the tens of thousands, driven from Europe by poverty and political unrest, and drawn by the prospect of cheap land on the frontier. After the war, the rapid pace of urban industrialization in America attracted still more immigrants. Among the immigrants were many Jews. Until late in the century most of the Jewish immigrants were from German speaking lands in central Europe, but from 1881 onward, the majority of Jewish immigrants were Eastern European. To the north, Canada also drew Jewish immigrants, totaling more than 125,000 by 1920, most of whom settled in Quebec and Ontario.

Jewish immigrants became engaged in the economic development of North America as entrepreneurs, merchants, and skilled workers. They founded synagogues, schools, newspapers, and communal organizations in the communities where they settled.

Both Reform and Conservative Judaism, movements with roots in Germany in the early 19th century, took hold in North America, especially among those Jews who had become most Americanized. The mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe in 1881-1924, however, led to the revival of Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. and the establishment of New York as a new center of Yiddish culture.

Eastern European Jewish immigrants, including many women, also played a decisive role in developing the American and Canadian labor movements.

In 1924 the Congress of the United States passed discriminatory laws that severely restricted immigration, and the influx to America of Jewish immigrants all but came to a halt.

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