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!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • 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.