A Civil Disagreement About Jews and War

Historian Jonathan Karp Talks About Exhibit

ajhs

By Adam Langer

Published July 25, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

On his second to last day as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, Jonathan Karp is patrolling the galleries of the Center for Jewish History. “Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War” is on exhibit here until August 11, at which point the majority of it will move to the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The exhibit is a collaboration between AJHS and the Yeshiva University Museum, but Karp was the driving force behind it. Soon he will be returning to SUNY Binghamton, where he is a professor of history; in the fall he will teach a course on the history of Jews and crime, from the Middle Ages to Bernard Madoff, and this may become the subject of a book. Another book is also in the works for Karp, this one about the relationship between blacks and Jews in the music industry. As Karp took one last stroll through these galleries, he talked with the Forward’s arts and culture editor, Adam Langer, about how the exhibit helped to undermine some of his own preconceptions about Jews in American history.

Talk of the Nation: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talks with Jonathan Karp at an event earlier this year at the Center for Jewish History.
Melanie Einzig
Talk of the Nation: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talks with Jonathan Karp at an event earlier this year at the Center for Jewish History.

Adam Langer: Had a great deal of attention been paid to the roles of Jews during the Civil War before this exhibit?

Jonathan Karp: There was an exhibition on this in 1961 by Bertram Korn, who was the leading historian on Jews and the Civil War. There has been a lot of scholarship on Southern Jews and the relationship between blacks and Jews, but on the Civil War per se, relatively little. Despite this neglect, the Civil War is kind of a crucible of American Jewish history. The Jewish population in 1840 was about 15,000, and in 1860 it was about 150,000, and there were probably about 10 or 11,000 Jews who fought in the Civil War — maybe about 7,000 on the northern side, 3,000 on the southern side. The war rapidly accelerated Americanization on both sides, and more than 50 Jews were commanders of regiments. The story we’re telling here is about rapid Americanization. In some way it’s a Jewish story, but it’s an American story in that it illustrates how America provided a framework for Jews to exercise their talents relatively unhindered by their Jewish identities.

But did the Americanization hold? Did Jews’ assimilation into the Civil War effort remain relevant once the war was over?

It does seem that it did remain relevant. Contacts were made during the war; there was the absorption of American English, of American manners and mores. And the war also created the groundwork for the creation of a kind of business elite. Part of that had to do with Jews’ involvement in clothing manufacture. Because of the needs of both militaries to supply uniforms, an unusually high number of Jews were able to plug into that, creating the groundwork for the establishment of the German Jewish elite. In that sense, the Civil War was a crucial step to the establishment of a kind of Jewish economic beachhead that had enormous consequences for generations to come.

Was there any friction between Jews who had served and those who hadn’t?

The underlying question in a lot of investigations of Jews in the military is often a defensiveness about accusations of Jews shirking military service. That was a stereotype that went back to the 18th century. Were Jews physically capable of serving? Were they religiously capable of it? There were accusations that Jewish troops, on the first appearance of a false messiah, would march off to Palestine instead of completing the battle. Or they would stop fighting on the Sabbath. There were serious debates about whether Jews were too poor, weak and malnourished and unable to fight.


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!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • 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.