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What the Civil War Meant for American Jews

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is upon us. April 12 is the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the war’s opening shot. From then, through the sesquicentennial anniversary on April 9, 2015 of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and five days later of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, every major event in the “ordeal of the union” seems likely to be recounted, re-enacted, reanalyzed and, likely as not, verbally re-fought.

The American Jewish community, meanwhile, has expressed little interest in these commemorations. A few books, a play, a film and a forthcoming scholarly conference form the totality of the Jewish contribution to the sesquicentennial. When I suggested a talk on the Civil War and the Jews in one setting, the organizers questioned the relevance of the whole topic. Only a small minority of Jews, they observed, boast ancestors who participated in the Civil War. By the time most Jewish immigrants to America arrived, the war was but a distant memory.

Fifty years ago, for the Civil War centennial, the level of interest within the Jewish community seemed noticeably higher. New York’s Jewish Museum mounted a grand exhibit titled “The American Jew in the Civil War.” Fully 260 photographs, documents and objects appeared in the multi-gallery show. It was the largest display of Jewish Civil War memorabilia ever assembled.

In the exhibit’s catalog, the late Bertram Korn, the foremost expert on American Jewry and the Civil War, examined “the major meaning of the Civil War for American Jews.” He listed five key themes:

1) The opportunity accorded Jews to fight as equal citizens and to rise through the ranks, something not granted them by most of the world’s great armies at that time.

2) Jews’ “total identification with their neighbors” — Northern Jews with the North and Southern Jews with the South. Jews demonstrated their loyalty and patriotism during the Civil War, and then boasted of it for many years afterward.

3) Jews’ tenaciousness in courageously fighting for their rights. Soon after the war began, they organized to correct legislation restricting the military chaplaincy to “regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination.” In December 1862, they rushed to the White House to fight Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious General Orders #11 expelling “Jews as a class” from his war zone. In both cases, they won empowering victories.

4) The forthright repudiation of anti-Semitism by Abraham Lincoln, who overturned Grant’s order (“to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad,” Lincoln declared. “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”). In the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis likewise repudiated anti-Semitism and worked closely with Judah Benjamin, his Jewish and much-maligned secretary of state.

5) The acceptance by the president and Congress of the principle of Jewish equality. Notwithstanding considerable wartime anti-Semitism, Jews achieved equal status on the battlefield, and Jewish chaplains won the right to serve alongside their Christian counterparts.

A sixth and somewhat uglier theme, largely overlooked in the catalog, should now be added to this list: complicity with slavery. Korn, a pioneering historian who elsewhere penned an essay on the topic of “Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South,” demonstrated that Jews were in no way exceptional when it came to the peculiar institution. “Any Jew who could afford to own slaves and had need for their services,” he wrote, “would do so.”

In the North, meanwhile, Jews divided over the question of slavery: Some advocated abolition, others sought peace above all else, even if that meant acquiescing to Southern slavery. Many Jews simply remained silent.

To be sure, Jews formed far less than 1% of the national population, and their contribution to the overall institution of slavery was negligible. Still, notwithstanding their ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and their own celebration of freedom on Passover, Jews basically followed in the ways of their neighbors when it came to slavery. As a group they did not oppose it.

All of this is worth recalling as sesquicentennial commemorations of the Civil War multiply. Far from being irrelevant to contemporary Jews, the anniversary provides a welcome opportunity to learn from our past, to recall the evolving relationship of Jews to America and to remember that following in the ways of our neighbors can sometimes lead us astray.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He is the co-editor, with Adam Mendelsohn, of “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader” (NYU Press, 2010).

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