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

(page 2 of 2)

The exhibit also questions some of the assumptions we have — for example, about Jews being involved in slavery.

Yes. People are still surprised and upset to learn that in this regard, Jews were really no different from other whites, that Jews in the South owned slaves in almost exactly the same proportion as the general white population — about a quarter. And even in the North, there were relatively few Jews who were part of any kind of abolition movement. Abolitionism did have some anti-Semitic overtones and missionary overtones, and that may have dissuaded some Jews from joining. But on the whole I think what’s more likely is that Jews avoided thinking too much about the question or took it for granted that this was a natural feature of life here.

During the course of the war, how much of a factor was anti-Semitism?

There’s no doubt that there was an intensification of anti-Semitism — a lot of caricatures in newspapers, denunciations of Jews, that sort of thing. But what’s interesting is that the anti-Semitism was mostly of a rhetorical nature, and surprisingly it doesn’t seem to have hindered the prospects of individual Jews.

Is there an overall theme here? An overall story you’re telling, or a message you hope will be conveyed?

One recurrent motif here is how we find Jews against stereotypes — in unexpected places, doing unexpected things. There’s Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a Sephardic Jew from Charleston, [S.C.,] who was a pioneering inventor, photographer and painter. There’s Isachar Zacharie, who was Lincoln’s podiatrist. And he was close to Lincoln, at least according to his own accounts. In fact, Lincoln sent him on a secret peace mission in 1863 to the South to see if he could negotiate an early end to the war, and the reason that Lincoln thought that Zacharie might have some success was that he was a Jew and might be able to talk with his co-religionist Judah P. Benjamin in the Jefferson Davis Cabinet. And as far as Jews being found in surprising places, everything I’ve said is multiplied and magnified manifold by the case of Benjamin, who was arguably the most successful Jewish politician of the 19th century.

When you were putting together the exhibit, was there anything that surprised you?

Absolutely. When you’re doing an exhibition or writing a book about these topics, you’re always asking yourself, “What’s the Jewish story here?” And I think what we found was that there are Jewish stories here, stories that are distinctive to Jews, but Jews often don’t stand out. That’s important because they always had stood out. They had been segregated and separated in many important ways. But Jews were enabled to serve as commanders over non-Jews, over Christians. That’s actually shocking to me that that happened, and in such large numbers. I don’t think in a grand episode Jews had ever previously had the opportunity to play their lives out as individuals to the degree they did here.

When you look at the famous histories of the Civil War — the documentaries by Ken Burns, the books by Eric Foner and James McPherson — how many of the stories here have actually been told before?

This material has not really made it into the mainstream histories. James McPherson doesn’t even mention, or mentions only in passing, the episode where General Grant expelled the Jews. We had Ken Burns here to do a program, and I pressed him on this question — that he doesn’t talk about ethnicity very much, about Irish or Italians or Jews. And his response was that this is not an ethnic story. I disagreed. I said that was an important element, that people came from different backgrounds and were forced into this conflict.

And what did Burns say?

He said if he does another documentary on the Civil War, maybe he’ll reconsider it.


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!
  • "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
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • 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.