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Mythos and Blood

April 23, 2014

Borat aka Sacha Baron Cohen

As the years roll on through the Obama Era and the evidence accumulates that the failure of blacks to catch up has less and less to do with white racism, the American media has become increasingly obsessed with pounding the drums over the sins of white people’s forefathers in the ever more distant past.

As I pointed out a few months back, the hereditary guilt of white Southerners is a topic of growing appeal. For example, in a much discussed New York magazine article this month, “€œThe Color of His Presidency,”€ pundit Jonathan Chait argues that you can still see the taint of slavery on Southern Republicans today: “€œThe more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents,”€ due to “€œracially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.”€

In contrast, you might imagine that’s because Southern counties that had more blacks in 1860 tend to have more blacks today. And that means the local white voters need more political solidarity to avoid having their municipalities turned into warmer versions of Detroit. But you only suspect that because you inherited America’s original sin of racism.

One group of whites, however, has been immune from the blame game. Everybody knows there were no Jews in the South in 1860, and if there had been any, they no doubt would have all been fierce abolitionists standing up fearlessly for the ancient Jewish value of universalism.

Except …

I was struck by a posting on the New York Times“€™ blog devoted to the Civil War, “€œPassover in the Confederacy,”€ that takes a rare critical rather than kitschy approach to Jewish history.

“€œEverybody knows there were no Jews in the South in 1860, and if there had been any, they no doubt would have all been fierce abolitionists standing up fearlessly for the ancient Jewish value of universalism.”€

Sue Eisenfeld writes:

For many American Jews today, particularly those descended from immigrants coming through Northeast corridors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea that Confederate Jews fought on the side of slavery offends their entire worldview, rooted so deeply in social justice. Even the idea of there being so many Jews in the American South, decades before Ellis Island opened its gates, is a strange idea.

And yet, the more Eisenfeld digs into her subject, the more she discovers that the assumptions that come so naturally to 21st-century commentators are largely historical myths invented for their ancestors”€™ political purposes. The reality turns out to be richly ironic.

She turns to Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, a visiting professor of Jewish history at Princeton. Surely Jews, with their ancient regard for the rights of mankind, led the way in protesting black slavery? No, Rabbi Sussman tells her: “€œSouthern Jews and many Northern Jews had no issue with slavery.”€

For example, the most prestigious Northern rabbi of the period, Morris Raphall of New York, whose father had been banker to the King of Sweden, defended property rights in slaves as “€œexpressly placed under the protection of the Ten Commandments.”€

Indeed, the one pan-Jewish political protest of the Civil War era was their successful appeal against the anti-slavery Union general Ulysses S. Grant for cracking down on Jewish merchants who were undermining the Northern blockade on Confederate cotton exports.

What about Passover as an allegory for the fight against the enslavement of blacks? Surely 19th-century Jews viewed African-Americans much as 21st-century Jews do: as surrogate Jews, oppressed by white gentile power. Sussman gently explains:

The Passover narrative, he adds, didn”€™t become an abolitionist-related story until after World War II and the Civil Rights era. … “€œThe text says that God frees the Hebrew slaves because God loves the Hebrews. God doesn”€™t free all slaves for all of humanity or send Moses out to become the William Lloyd Garrison of the ancient free world.”€

Weren”€™t Jews in the South more victimized by all the bigoted Southern anti-Semites? No. Actually, the slaveholding states were far ahead of the northern states in electing Jews to high office, such as Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin.

In general, Jews were more welcomed by Southern elites. Much as in medieval Poland, where the nobles invited in Jewish merchants to provide them the financial services that their own people were too innumerate to undertake, rich Southern Protestants generally saw themselves as an agrarian warrior class. So Jewish commercial facilitators, such as the slave-owning Lehman Brothers, who founded the future investment bank in Alabama in 1855, tended to be welcomed as complementary to the landowners.

In contrast, rich Northern Protestants, who were generally descendants of literate Puritans, were more likely than their Southern counterparts to be in commerce rather than plantations. So WASP firms competed with Jewish firms on Wall Street. Relations between Jews and Protestants tended to be relatively cordial in both the North and the South, but there was more rivalry in the North, where the Yankees of New England had similar commercial and intellectual skills.

In many Southern small towns, however, where the general tenor of life was less enterprising, the Jewish dry goods merchant, cotton broker, or banker was a valued part of the local establishment. For example, when the Augusta National Golf Club (home of the Masters) opened in 1932 in rural Georgia, local Jewish commercial leaders were invited to join. But as the membership became more dominated by Northern corporate titans while President Eisenhower was a member, several decades went by before any more Jews were let in.

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