Judah Benjamin circa 1860. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
The Jewish historical narrative in America has, for the most part, been written and shaped by the great wave of Jewish immigrants that arrived in our nation around the turn of the 20th Century. That this wave has had a huge impact on American life and culture is undeniable. But it is not the entire history of Jews in America—far from it. Jews arrived on the heels of the earliest American settlers, primarily making their homes in Charleston, South Carolina, which was a religiously tolerant city, welcoming various Protestant sects, Catholics, and Jews alike. Today that seems common enough, but it certainly wasn't in the 1600's, especially in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where even many Protestants were not welcome, much less Catholics and Jews.
The Jews that settled in the South were primarily Sephardic, with roots going back to Spain and the Mediterranean area. They assimilated and became part of Southern society; some became landowners or became prosperous enough even to own slaves. We can indict those Jews for this sin as we can indict anyone and everyone who also owned slaves, but it was part of American society at that time.
Out of this culture rose a singular man: Judah Benjamin. His family were English and resided in the West Indies. They immigrated to South Carolina when he was still a child. He was a brilliant student and was accepted to Yale at the age of 14, although he did not graduate. Instead, he left Yale early and settled in New Orleans, where he was to make his mark as a man. A self-taught lawyer, he rose to great heights and became very wealthy. He founded the Illinois Central Railroad, served in the Louisiana legislature, and eventually was appointed to the U.S. Senate, representing Louisiana.
During the Civil War, Benjamin supported the Confederacy. He served in Jefferson Davis' cabinet, first as Attorney General, later as Secretary of War, and then as Secretary of State. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, many in the North accused Benjamin of being behind the plot. After all, he was the "brains of the Confederacy" and subject to libelous attacks from the North. Here antisemitism truly reared its ugly head. Trailed by these rumors, Benjamin would later escape to London, where he made a fresh start, becoming a highly successful barrister and author until his death in the 1880's.
Despite this impressive personal history, many historians over the years have reviled Judah Benjamin. Why? Partly because he was a slave owner, but mainly because he was a Confederate.
Writer Diane Cole, who reviewed James Traub's new book about Benjamin for the Wall Street Journal, is no exception — but she finds a unique reason to discredit this American statesman. Cole finds Benjamin unworthy of admiration because, as a Jew, he owned slaves. She claims it is a mark of hypocrisy for any Jew to defend slavery since the Jewish people themselves escaped slavery when Moses led them out of Egypt. Additionally, she argues that possessing slaves does not "jibe" with her understanding of Jewish tradition. Cole, however, fails to mention that possessing slaves also does not "jibe" with anyone's understanding of Christian tradition.
Cole's criticisms reveal a gross misunderstanding of Jewish history and amount to a crude slander against Benjamin or any Jewish Southerner. You can certainly condemn someone for owning slaves, but to single out Jews while disregarding the centuries of non-Jews who owned slaves is unfortunately antisemitic.
In the ancient world, virtually everyone owned slaves: Romans, Greeks, Persians, and yes, Jews. Slavery was as common to the ancient world as people waking up and going to work is today. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had slaves; they were nonetheless, in other respects, great men. We may not like it, we may find it morally repugnant, but it is fact, and it was a part of those societies and has continued for thousands of years, into the modern era.
Moses led the Jews out of bondage; he did not lead every slave in the world to freedom. That Moses and Jewish tradition were eventually to set an example for all people in all times is very true. But that was not what the Exodus, when it occurred, was about. The Torah does not call slavery an evil; in fact it instructs one on how to treat someone held in servitude: If you knock out the tooth of a slave, the slave must go free to compensate for the loss of the tooth. If you have only one cloak, you must give it to your slave. It provides a more humane template for slavery than many other ancient societies, but it is hardly an abolitionist tract. This is not to condemn anyone, certainly not these ancient Jewish texts written thousands of years ago. The Torah planted the seeds in Jewish tradition that would ultimately engender the call for all people to be free. Meanwhile, Jews, like everyone else on earth, lived in their own historical time and culture, one in which slavery was ubiquitous.
The Jews in the South lived as other Americans lived in the South in that time, "warts and all." Leaving aside their possession of slaves, the fact that Jews had assimilated into American society at the level that they did is a testament to the American tradition, even if some of that tradition is stained. Consider by contrast the lives of Jews in the Russian Empire in the mid-1800's, faced with the constant threat of pogroms and death by sweeping Cossack hordes. The ability of Jews like Benjamin to embody the American dream and gain prominence in the American South was a striking achievement.
For reviewer Diane Cole, Benjamin's assimilation into Southern society and particularly his leadership in the Confederacy is also an unforgivable sin. She slams Benjamin for his "appalling political loyalties," but again fails to consider his actions in the light of their historical context. Consider an issue that applies to not just Benjamin but any office holder, military officer or frankly anyone who served in the Confederacy: why do we fight in wars in the first place? One reason, at least at that time, was that we fought to defend our homes, our families and loved ones, our land and our community.
Prior to the Civil War, an American's loyalty to their home State was often paramount and superseded one's loyalty to the United State as a country. We may not like that, may find that ridiculous or even treasonous, but we are not living in the mid-1800s. General Robert E. Lee, much to the derision of many today, conservatives and liberals alike, turned President Lincoln down when he was made the offer to command the Union army. But how could Lee consider leading an army to march on his home, his family, and his home State? Is that really so difficult to understand?
Another slander thrown at Benjamin is the claim that he tried to hide his Jewishness. Critics note that he married a Christian woman from New Orleans and was not overly religious; many have criticized him because he did not keep the Sabbath and he apparently ate pork. While Benjamin may not have been overtly religious, the charge that he attempted to hide his Jewish heritage appears baseless. There are -- and were -- many Jews who may not attend synagogue or who may eat pork or shellfish but who nevertheless consider themselves Jewish, just as there are many Christians who may not attend church services but who nevertheless consider themselves Christian. He did not change his name to John Smith, and he never tried to deny his heritage. Benjamin was not the first U.S. Senator of Jewish heritage to serve in the Senate. David Levy Yulee of Florida was, but Levy Yulee had converted to Christianity; Judah Benjamin never converted.
The perception of the South today is one where Jim Crow, the KKK, cross burnings, and Jew-hatred feature prominently in the public imagination. For many decades, that perception was of course based on a reality, at least for segments of the South. That perception, however, was born out of the late 19th and early 20th Century. The South can also claim a tradition of religious tolerance dating back to before the Civil War that allowed a man such as Judah Benjamin to thrive. Indeed, the members of the "Lost Cause" in the South have not so much turned their backs on Judah Benjamin, as they have simply ignored him.
The pre-Civil war South was very different, and history, as anyone who studies it knows, is complicated. Antisemitism has always existed and certainly existed in America throughout its history. One could also argue that prior to the Civil War, antisemitism was more pronounced in the North than in the South. Diane Cole in her review gets this right, at least somewhat, when she cites General Ulysses S. Grant's infamous General Order No. 11, issued in 1862, to expel all Jews from his military district. This order came after there was a supply problem and Grant blamed Jewish merchants.
Despite whatever intolerance existed in that time, Benjamin was, not once, but twice nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, by Presidents Fillmore and Pearce in the 1850s. This occurred more than 60 years before Louis Brandeis would be sworn as the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice in 1916. Benjamin turn these appointments down to keep his position in the U.S. Senate, but that is the level of respect that he garnered at that time, not just in the South but nationwide. Pearce and Fillmore were both Northerners. Benjamin's success is a testament to America, and our ideals. That a Jewish man could rise to these heights of power at that time is something to be admired and celebrated. There are not many other examples from that era where Jews were able to advance to such heights of power. As the saying goes: only in America.
Benjamin's is a quintessentially American story, one in which all Americans, and especially American Jews, should take pride.
Michael Finch is the President of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the author of "Finding Home", a book of poems.