NEW YORK — Why do more than half the American states have cities or towns named Jerusalem or its derivative, Salem?
Answers to this question are part of a contest sponsored by Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization.
The contest's aim is for Hadassah chapters in places with biblical monikers such as Bethlehem and Hebron to create study circles investigating why town founders chose that name, said Carol Diament, director for Hebrew Education at Hadassah.
By studying the link between Christian America and biblical Israel, Hadassah hopes to explore the history of Jews' treatment in this country.
Diament wrote recently in the organization's newsletter Textures that those who founded this country clearly likened it to Zion and themselves to the Children of Israel.
"What is unclear," Diament said, "is how [early Americans] viewed authentic Jews" in their midst, and whether relations were "harmonious or hostile."
There are two schools of thought on interactions between Jews and Christians in this country.
Moshe Davis, founder of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offers a positive interpretation of American Jewish history, asserting that the founding fathers adopted the biblical story of Jewish slavery in Egypt — comparing Britain to Egypt and King George III to Pharaoh — and therefore welcomed Jews to America.
"America recognized [religious and] cultural diversity as compatible with its ideas of civil liberty," Davis wrote in Textures.
Taking a less benign approach to the original settlers is the historian Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who wrote in the newsletter, "The Puritans of New England were obsessed by the Jewish Bible, but they were not hospitable to the Jews or Judaism."
According to the U.S. census bureau, more than 1,000 places bear names mentioned in the Bible. At least 384 have been authenticated as stemming from biblical sources.