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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.