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Where Jews Stood on Slavery

The Civil War divded more than just North and South

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Rabbi David Einhorn.(Wikipedia)

Next month will see the 150th anniversary of the bombing of Fort Sumter, and the following four years will have many commemorations besides. As part of its DISUNION series, which essentially blogs the Civil War 150 years to the days afters its events occur, the New York Times‘s Opinionator blog published a fascinating entry on Jewish response to secession.

Many American Jews found themselves between a rock and several hard places: In the north, they were Unionist; the Torah arguably sanctions slavery; southern Jews such as future Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin were staunch members of the slave-holding elite; and, to top it all off, northern abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison were mainly evangelical Christians who regularly trafficked in standard anti-Semitism. Take, for example, one anti-slavery Ohio senator, who called Benjamin “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.”

And yet, didn’t the Jew-baiting Ohioan also have a point?

Among Jews then, the most influential voice was Rabbi Morris J. Raphall of lower Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun (the ancestor of the modern-day non-denominational synagogue on the Upper West Side), who argued that the story of Noah’s son Ham provided license for slavery, but that Southern slavery—which treated the slaves not as humans but as things, he argued—was, shall we say, unkosher. Jewish scholar Michael Heilprin countered by arguing that the crucial word in Ham’s story is properly translated not as “slave” but as “servant,” which would make all slavery, Southern or otherwise, verboten.

The true hero, however, is the Bavaria-born Reform Baltimore rabbi David Einhorn. “Jews for thousands of years consciously or unconsciously were fighting for freedom of conscience,” he wrote. Raphall’s arguments were “deplorable;” slavery was “immoral and must be abolished.”

Incidentally, Jonathan Sarna is at work on a Nextbook Press book about then-General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous expulsion of the Jews from the war zone.

The Rabbi and the Rebellion [NYT]
Related: When Grant Expelled the Jews [Nextbook Press]

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But, Benjamin WAS “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.”

How is that Jew-baiting? If any people should be hostile to slavery, it should be Jews – we were slaves once, in the land of Egypt. I don’t find this to be anti-Semitic or jew-baiting in the least.

Dan Klein says:

@DG, because why make it about his ethnicity?

Because the contrast is so striking – a Jew should know better than to support slavery.

Jordan says:

DK – You seem to miss DG’s point. The critic made it about Benjamin’s ethnicity because Benjamin, as a member of a people liberated from slavery in Egypt, should have been particularly sensitive to the cruelty of slavery.

Marc Tracy says:

@all it is one thing if Jews, generally, tend, through no external coercion, to have a certain worldview based on a communal history of suffering. it is another thing to demand that any individual Jew accept any given worldview based on that suffering. in other words, Norman Podhoretz was correct forensically, incorrect normatively.

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Where Jews Stood on Slavery

The Civil War divded more than just North and South

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