A Century Later, A Jewish Pioneer Gets His Due

By Glenn C. Altschuler

Published September 01, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.
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Moses Levy of Florida: Jewish Utopian and Antebellum Reformer By C. S. Monaco Louisiana State University Press, 264 pages, $44.95.

Moses Levy has waited more than100 years for his biographer. Levy died in 1854, virtually unnoticed. Pilgrimage, his utopian colony in Florida and the first Jewish communitarian settlement in the United States, was long gone and forgotten. His anti-slavery pamphlet, “A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, Consistently With the Interest of All Parties Concerned,” the earliest anti-slavery document written by an American Jew, was published anonymously and had disappeared without a trace. And Levy’s pro-slavery son, whom he disinherited, dismissed his father as impractical, irascible and insane. The son would later become the first person of Jewish descent to serve in the United States Congress, but not before changing his name to David Yulee.

Now, independent scholar and documentary filmmaker C.S. Monaco seeks to rescue Levy from an undeserved obscurity. Long before “transnationalism” got its name, Monaco suggests, Levy was a pre-eminent citizen of the Atlantic world. Born in Morocco in 1782, the son of a courtier to Sultan Sidi Muhammad, Levy prospered as a provisions merchant, residing at one time or another in Gibraltar, the Danish West Indies, Puerto Rico, Curacao, Cuba, England and the United States. He was also a pondering Jew, a peripatetic public intellectual with an unorthodox global agenda. Seeking nothing less than an end to both the persecution of his own people and the enslavement of blacks, Levy denounced patriotism, individualism, assimilation, the Talmud, rituals and rabbis, and he endorsed universal education (for both sexes), interfaith dialogue and the formation of international reform organizations. An outsider, cosmopolitan, rationalist, millennialist, abolitionist and slave owner, advocate of the proto-Reform Judaism of the Haskalah and Bible fundamentalist, Levy defies categorization. But he was, Monaco claims, the foremost Jewish social activist in the United States in the first half of the 19th century.

In his zeal to document Levy’s substantial contributions to the Atlantic world, Monaco downplays his deficiencies. A man of many “firsts,” Levy organized the first development corporation in Florida, helped establish the state’s first public school, and served as its first commissioner of education. But his accomplishments were meager. Pilgrimage was a dismal failure. Even after the notorious ukase of Tsar Nicholas I, the sweeping 1825 anti-Jewish proclamation that inaugurated a century of official persecution, Levy was unable to raise funds for the enterprise from his network of co-religionists in Europe and the Americas. Envisioning a community of 500 families, each assigned five acres, Levy proclaimed, “We have only to plant fields of simple flowers and sweet herbs” to get emigrants to “flock” to Florida. But fewer than two dozen Jews made their way to the land of sunshine. We do not know whether they raised their children communally, as Levy prescribed, or replaced prayers and rituals with contemplative worship. While the colony foundered, Levy moved to England.

Levy’s provocative ideas constitute his most interesting legacy to the modern world. Like many Jews today, he vacillated between a conclusion that assimilation was impossible and a conviction that it was undesirable. Without a Jewish nation, he argued in the 1820s, Jews would “drag the chain of servitude” wherever they went. A few years later, he opposed legislation giving Jews the right to vote and hold office, fearing it would lead to a loss of Jewish identity. For the same reason, he opposed interfaith marriage. Since a return to Israel seemed impossible, Levy encouraged Jews to seek self-contained “asylums” on the frontier of the United States.

Especially stimulating is Levy’s aforementioned anti-slavery pamphlet, which Monaco discovered in a British library. Advocating a global solution to a global problem, Levy urged benevolent organizations to develop agricultural technologies that did not depend on slave labor; to deploy a fleet of ships, manned by Africans, to patrol the coast and halt the slave trade, and to take slave children from their parents (who had been irreparably damaged by their “abject state”), provide instruction in religion and “useful knowledge” and free them at age 21.

Convinced that legislation could not eradicate prejudice, Levy opted, in this case, for assimilation, in the form of arranged (or coerced) marriages between white convicts and black slaves. This “transitional” approach would have to suffice until “the love of God became the spring of action in all the circumstances of life.”

Although Levy spoke frequently at anti-slavery meetings in London, his plan received no endorsements. He was, as always, more interesting than influential. But he was eminently worthy of our attention. Courageous and creative, Levy may well deserve the title that Monaco bestows on him: “spiritual progenitor” of modern-day Jewish social and political activists.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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