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.