The 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United States — Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment in late January 1865 — comes at an fraught moment in the history of race relations. Considering that black men are being killed by police at the same rate as they were lynched in the era of Jim Crow, it can be depressing to reflect on how many promises of 1865, not to mention 1776, have not yet been fulfilled. But it can also be edifying to probe into some of the lesser-known aspects of the story of how the emancipation of slaves was finally accomplished. The history of the abolitionist movement is of more than antiquarian interest: it should serve to inspire us to finish the job today.
Nobody can argue that the balance of the Jewish record on the question of American slavery and the Civil War is anything but regrettable. If the career of Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin were not enough, the overwhelming complacency of the antebellum Jewish community, even in the North, provides a record sufficiently embarrassing to warrant official acknowledgement — even, perhaps, reparation.
But there were American Jews before the war who risked everything to fight the South’s “peculiar institution.” Familiar with the story of Exodus, they knew it was not actually all that peculiar. Now, 150 years after the end of slavery, when the unfinished work of emancipation and Reconstruction is announced daily in the headlines, it is worth lighting a yahrtzeit candle to those Jews who found in Judaism the imperative to line up, every time, with the oppressed. Before Selma, before socialism, the Jewish abolitionists were the first to map that once-fertile, now neglected terrain: the intersection of the identities of radical, American and Jew.
By the middle of December, 1860, the Union was disintegrating. Abraham Lincoln had won every state in the North and none in the South. South Carolina had just elected delegates to a secession convention and the other Southern states seemed poised to follow. The lame-duck president, James Buchanan, issued a desperate proclamation, “in view of the present distracted and dangerous condition of our country,” declaring January 4th, 1861, a national day of prayer. He asked that “the People assemble on that day, according to their several forms of worship, to keep it as a solemn Fast.”
On the appointed day, the congregation of B’nei Jeshurun in New York saw Morris Jacob Raphall, a Swedish-born rabbi, rise to the bima. “How dare you, in the face of the sanction and protection afforded to slave property in the Ten Commandments–how dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin?” Raphall asked of Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Considering that the Patriarchs themselves owned slaves, Raphall continued, “Does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?
Raphall’s sermon divided American Jews. “I felt exceedingly humbled, I may say outraged, by the sacrilegious words of the Rabbi,” Michael Heilprin, a veteran of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, wrote in the New York Tribune. “Must the stigma of Egyptian principles be fastened on the people of Israel by Israelitish lips themselves?”
In the decades before the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe, there was no organized Jewish community, and thus no identifiably Jewish position on the most burning political question of the day. Surveying the views on slavery of American religious groups in 1853, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society had reported that Jews “deem it their policy to have every one choose whichever side he may deem best to promote his own interest and the welfare of his country…They do not interfere in any discussion which is not material to their religion.”
Yet the report concluded with a sly taunt, implying that the question of slavery was perhaps not as immaterial to Judaism as many of its American adherents preferred to admit. “The objects of so much mean prejudice and unrighteous oppression as the Jews have been for ages,” the report lamented, “surely they, it would seem, more than any other denomination, ought to be the enemies of caste and the friends of universal freedom.”
Jews in the New World participated in slavery at least as fully and profitably as their Gentile neighbors. Jews in New Amsterdam owned slaves within a decade of their 1654 arrival, and their brethren in Newport, Rhode Island, were involved in the slave trade right up until the War of Independence, in which several slaves of the city’s Jews were forced to fight. In the South, being rich enough to own slaves and not owning any “carried it with it social and business disadvantages,” the historian Max Kohler wrote in 1897, while in the North outright abolitionism was discouraged by “business and trade policy,” which “rendered such avowals inexpedient.”
American Jewish leaders of the mid-19th century were concerned, above all, with expediency. The most prominent Jew in the United States, Mordecai Manuel Noah — a former consul to the Kingdom of Tunis and the mercurial incubator of the “Ararat” scheme to resettle world Jewry on an island in the Niagara River–began his career as an opponent of the expansion of slavery. “How can Americans be engaged in this traffic,” he once asked, regarding the slave trade, “men whose birthright is liberty, whose eminent peculiarity is freedom?” But with age Noah became such an outspoken opponent of emancipation that the first-ever black newspaper in America, Freedom’s Journal, was specifically founded to counter Noah’s venom, and William Lloyd Garrison was moved to describe him as a “Shylock” and a “lineal descendant of the monsters who nailed Jesus to the cross.” When Noah died in 1851, Morris Jacob Raphall delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
The views of Noah’s successors as leaders of the fledgling Jewish community were less demagogic, but just as wishy-washy on the question of slavery. Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, the first translator of the Tanakh into English and a man whom the Library of Congress has dubbed “the architect of American Jewish life,” agreed with Raphall that slavery was legal according to Jewish law, but cautioned that “our synagogues…are no places for political discussions.” Isaac Mayer Wise, the guiding spirit of Reform Judaism in the United States, refused to condemn slavery as a moral or religious wrong, and when war broke out, Wise wrote an editorial for his influential newspaper, The Israelite, titled, “Silence Our Policy.”
Among those Jews not content with such a policy was Ernestine Rose, a dazzling orator, utopian and freethinker born in Poland — “I was a rebel at the age of five,” she said — who traveled throughout the United States condemning slavery and agitating for women’s rights. Once, in the South, a slaveholder told Rose he would have had her tarred and feathered if she were a man.
During the mini-Civil-War known as “Bleeding Kansas” in the mid-1850s, three Jews accompanied John Brown on his raids against pro-slavery settlers. The archives of the American Jewish Historical Society contain a 1903 letter in which one of them, the Viennese-born August Bondi (another veteran of the 1848 revolution), recalled an exchange between himself and Theodore Wiener during one of the posse’s first attacks. As they followed Brown up a hill to assault a Border Ruffian camp, Bondi wrote, “Wiener puffed like a steamboat, hurrying behind me. I called out to him, ‘Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt.’ [‘Now, what do you think of this?’] His answer, ‘Was soll ich meinen, sof odom muves.’ [‘What shall I think of it? The end of man is death.’]”
Many specifically invoked the Jewish experience itself to argue against slavery. “If anyone, it is the Jew, above all others who should have the most burning and irreconcilable hatred for the ‘peculiar institution’ of the South,” said Bernard Felsenthal of Chicago, later one of the first Zionists in America, who once rejected a job as rabbi in Mobile, Alabama, because it would have required acquiescence to slavery. Gustav Gottheil, another early Zionist, was still in England at the time of Raphall’s remarks, but responded with two sermons quickly published as Moses Versus Slavery. “How can we be silent,” Gottheil asked, when the Torah is invoked to condone an institution of which it is, in fact, “one grand consistent utterance of condemnation”?
One of the most eloquent Jewish denunciations of slavery was delivered rather elliptically: in 1859, an aspiring scholar named Moses Mielziner earned his Ph.D. from the University of Giessen with a dissertation on “Slavery Among the Ancient Hebrews,” which attempted to show that the Israelites had treated their slaves with some degree of decency. The contrast with slavery as brutally practiced in the United States was only implied, but in April of 1861, the month the Civil War began, the American Presbyterian Review published his essay in translation, presumably in response to the debate Raphall had provoked. “No religion and no legislation of ancient times could in its inmost spirit be so decidedly opposed to slavery as was the Mosaic,” Mielziner wrote, “and no people, looking at its own origin, would feel itself more strongly called to the removal of slavery than the people of Israel.” Judaism, in his view, “sharply emphasized the high dignity of man” and “insisted not only upon the highest justice, but also upon the tenderest pity and forbearance, especially towards the necessitous and the unfortunate.” Surely the Jewish people, who had themselves “smarted under the yoke of slavery, and had become a nation only by emancipation,” would be stalwart opponents of “the unnatural state of slavery, by which human nature is degraded.”
The most courageous Jewish response to Raphall’s sermon came neither from Europe nor the North, but from the dais of a synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland, a slave state. Rabbi David Einhorn, born in Bavaria, had fled to the United States in 1851 after the Emperor Franz-Josef closed Einhorn’s shul, fearing the growing Reform movement’s ties to the late revolutionary upheaval. Once in Baltimore, Einhorn quickly rose to prominence, and in deference to his congregation, largely avoided the slavery issue.
But by January, 1861, after Raphall’s inflammatory sermon in New York, Einhorn felt he could no longer keep silent. “The Jew has special cause to be conservative,” Einhorn allowed, noting his audience’s distaste for politics in the pulpit, “and he is doubly and triply so in a country which grants him all the spiritual and material privileges he can wish for.” While sharing the congregation’s “patriotic sentiments” for America, Einhorn said that to allow Jewish law to be “disgraced….and in the holy place!” would be to jeopardize the soul of Judaism itself:
“The spotless morality of the Mosaic principles is our pride and our fame, and our weapon since thousands of years. This weapon we cannot forfeit without pressing a mighty sword into the hands of our foes. This pride and renown, the only one which we possess, we will not and dare not allow ourselves to be robbed of. This would be unscrupulous, prove the greatest triumph of our adversaries and our own destruction, and would be paying too dearly for the fleeting, wavering favor of the moment. Would it not then be justly said, as in fact it has already been done, in consequence of [the Raphall sermon]: Such are the Jews! Where they are oppressed, they boast of the humanity of their religion; but where they are free, their Rabbis declare slavery to have been sanctioned by God.”
For such provocations and others Einhorn was, like Rose, threatened with tarring and feathering. A week after the war began, he and his family exiled themselves to Philadelphia.
Einhorn — a man with much to lose — saw an American Jewish community looking after its own short-term interests, willing to be silent about the oppression of others, frightened into political quiescence. He believed in a morality beyond mere self-preservation: influenced by Haskalah, the German-Jewish enlightenment, Einhorn thought that Jews were a people only insofar as they were united by common ethical beliefs. A Jewish community preserved at the cost of its commitment to what Mielziner had called “the highest justice” was, for Einhorn, no Jewish community at all.
One hundred fifty years after the end of American slavery, many American Jews, comfortably ensconced in mainstream white society, are again mindful, above all, of promoting their own interests. If the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society were around today, it would be as surprised as it was in 1853: surely a people so experienced in “mean prejudice and unrighteous oppression”–so much more so now than then–ought to be, in Ferguson, “the enemies of caste,” and, in Palestine, “the friends of universal freedom.” A resurrected Michael Heilprin might gently remind American Jews that they have never had a higher duty than to denounce Egyptian principles emitted from Israelitish lips themselves.
Richard Kreitner is special assistant to the publisher of The Nation and editor of its archives blogs, “The Almanac” and “Back Issues.”.