Monument flap dredges up Jewish-slavery history

Lee Chottiner

Human Resources
Lee Chottiner

In this summer of racial justice, when Confederate monuments are toppled and the notorious battle flag is finally lowered in – wait for it – Mississippi, one might think that this national soul-searching surrounding America’s history with slavery and racism has little to do with the Jews.
One would be wrong.
Even though just 150,000 Jews lived in the United States by 1860 – an infinitesimal figure compared to the 6.9 million living here today, and the forebearers of most American Jews hadn’t even arrived here by the Civil War, some Jews who were here were indeed complicit.
Some (not many) owned slaves. Many more, though, supported the Southern status quo by fighting against the Union or simply by their silence.
Some even took leadership roles in the Confederacy, leaving a legacy that Jews are still debating. More on that later.
In an interview with me, Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said Jewish loyalty to the South cut across political and religious lines.
On the eve of the Civil War, Sarna said, three of Louisiana’s most powerful leaders – A U.S. senator, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the state House – were all Jews.
Then there were religious leaders.
“Southern rabbis were very much part of the Southern cause,” Sarna said. “We have prayers for the South.”
He also referred to the diary of a Southern Jewish woman during the war, “clearly quite active in the synagogue, and boy! You can see the hatred of Abraham Lincoln, the horror that the slaves are going to be freed.”
After the war, a cemetery for Jewish veterans of the Confederate army was established in Richmond, Virginia. “Jews wanted to prove we fought for the Confederacy.”
There was a reason why some Jews would fight for a cause that accommodated slavery: Their own standing in Southern society likely depended on it.
“Jews in a Southern society – that is, divided Black and White – could be accepted as white as long as they didn’t rock the boat, as long as they behaved,” Sarna said. “But they knew that if they were seen as dissenters for folks who didn’t quite accept the laws of white society, they could easily be stripped of that white status.”
In short, Sarna said, Southern Jews “were not quite white.”
By the 1950s, though, when rabbis and lay Jews began supporting the civil rights movement, he said synagogues were attacked and Jewish businesses were boycotted.
Not all Southern Jews supported slavery. Some moved north rather than live in such a society. Others were openly antislavery, like the family of Louisville native Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Brandeis’s uncle, Lewis Naphtali Dembitz, became a delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention, which nominated Abraham Lincoln for president.
But many Southern Jews simply remained silent. Some even assumed leadership roles.
The most famous among them was Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate secretary of state and the right-hand man to President Jefferson Davis, who 155 years since the war’s end, is back in the news.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, two synagogues, one of which now claims Rabbi Michael Wolk as its new spiritual leader, have been trying for years to remove a monument to Benjamin, which was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The governing boards of the synagogues initially approved the project in 1948, according to Rabbi Asher Knight of Charlotte’s Temple Beth El, but they quickly soured on the idea when anti-Semitism within the local chapter of United Daughters became apparent.
The engraved stone, not much bigger than a headstone, bearing the names of both congregations, was finally taken down in June amid the protests for racial justice. The mayor also appointed a task force, which includes members of the Jewish community, to address all Confederate monuments in the city.
But the story of the Benjamin monument is not finished.
For one thing, a North Carolina law requires the city to store the monument, which was spray-painted and damaged with a crowbar days before it was taken down, for 90 days while gauging public reaction. It could still be re-erected.
For another thing, many Southern Jews are not happy that it’s gone.
“I have been contacted by Jews in the South who were angry about it,” Knight said. “There are a lot of Jews who are proud of their Southern heritage. It hasn’t been universal support for removal of the monument.”
If nothing else, he hopes the monument will lead to a serious discussion by Southern Jews over their role in slavery.
“I think there’s a real discussion we have to have about that, what it means to be proud of our past,” Knight said, especially if that past “has included painful experiences for others.”
He added, “It is incumbent on us to focus on ways we were complicit in the perpetuation of racism and segregation.”
Sarna echoed that point. While noting that all Jews a are not responsible for the actions of a few, “on the other hand, Jews are very happy to take pride in the great deeds of earlier Jews, We’re proud of the Jews of Newport [Rhode Island], who sent a letter to George Washington. No one says, ‘but wait a minute, you weren’t here at that time.’ Most groups are like that. We learn and role model on the heroes, not on the villains.”

(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)

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