Jews Mostly Supported Slavery — Or Kept Silent — During Civil War

Civil War Transformed Community in North and South

150 Years Later: Civil War re-enactors gather to honor the battle at Gettysburg.
Getty Images
150 Years Later: Civil War re-enactors gather to honor the battle at Gettysburg.

By Ken Yellis

Published July 01, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Whenever I told someone that I was working on an exhibition called “Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War,” I typically got two responses. Both reflect the need for the exhibit (now on display at Yeshiva University Museum in New York), which presents the widely forgotten story of the full participation of Jews in the nation’s great existential crisis.

My sister’s reaction was typical: There were Jews in the Civil War? Who knew?

The second most common response was in some ways more interesting: The Jews who fought in the Civil War were against slavery, right? The discomfiting answer: not so much.

As Jewish historian Dale Rosengarten expresses it, quoting a Talmudic precept: “The law of the land is the law of the Jews.” From a modern perspective, it seems anomalous that a people whose history hinged on an epic escape from servitude would not have been deeply troubled by America’s “peculiar institution” — but few were.

Some Jews owned slaves, a few traded them, and the livelihoods of many, North and South, were inextricably bound to the slave system. Most southern Jews defended slavery, and some went further, advocating its expansion.

Notable among these was Judah P. Benjamin, labeled by the abolitionist Ben Wade, who served with Benjamin in the U.S. Senate, as “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.” Even in the North, many sympathized with the South and only a very few were abolitionists. Almost all Jews sought peace above all else. Until the war was at hand, they remained silent on the subject.

For me, that silence is problematic.

As Arnie, in Nathan Englander’s short story “Camp Sundown,” puts it: “The turning away of the head is the same as turning the knife.” Yet the majority of American Jews were mute on the subject, perhaps because they dreaded its tremendous corrosive power. Prior to 1861, there are virtually no instances of rabbinical sermons on slavery, probably due to fear that the controversy would trigger a sectional conflict in which Jewish families would be arrayed on opposite sides. And that is exactly what happened.

Ironically, the silence was breached by an attempt to forestall the conflict. With Lincoln’s election and the gathering momentum of the secession movement, the celebrated New York Rabbi Morris Raphall attempted to make a case for reconciliation by defending slavery on biblical grounds. The speech had the opposite effect, triggering furious rebuttals from Rabbi David Einhorn and biblical scholar Michael Heilprin, among others, and widening the growing divide. Jews had at last engaged in numbers with the great issue of the age.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Yeshiva University's lawyer wanted to know why the dozens of former schoolboys now suing over a sexual abuse cover-up didn't sue decades ago. Read the judge's striking response here.
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.