A Controversial Subject: Jews and Slavery, Sermon for July 3, 2015

What a wonderful tradition this is as our two congregations perpetuate what is an almost one hundred year old custom of holding summer services together.  I still regret that Baltimore Hebrew and Temple Emanuel are no longer part of this venerable practice.  In any case, I am delighted to be sharing the pulpit with Cantor Gerber of Har Sinai.  It is also a pleasure to have Wally Ford back once again as our accompanist.

It is my habit to give sermons of a historical note on significant American holidays such as Memorial Day and Independence Day.  Given the recent tragedy in Charleston and the renewed emphasis on the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and oppression, I thought it appropriate to shed some light on a rather controversial subject- the role of American Jews and slavery.  I do this because almost twenty five years, the Nation of Islam published a notorious tomb called The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews in which the anonymous author made outrageous claims that Jews dominated the both the transatlantic and ante-bellum slave trade in this country.  Both claims have been proved to be patently false, but the suspicion still lingers that our American ancestors had an outsized role in maintaining and perpetuating slavery.  In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Allow to me take the next few minutes to explain.

Prior to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was no such entity as American Jewry.  There were individual Jews and separate Jewish communities.  There were no national organizations or spokesmen for the Jews.  There was no Jewish hierarchy.  The vast majority of Jews in this country before the Civil War, and we estimate between 200,000 and 250,000 of us were here, the majority in the Northern states, were recent immigrants from Germany who were just trying to make a living and assimilate into American life.  We took on the cultural colorings of the regions in which we lived.  We became Midwestern or Southern Jews, New England or Mid-Atlantic Jews.  We adopted the life styles, loyalties, and traditions of the areas in which we settled.  Some Jews owned slaves, most of whom were urban Jews who owned one or two house slaves as did most home owners in Southern cities, including Baltimore.  There were hardly any Jewish plantation owners anywhere in the South.  In fact, statistic tell us that free blacks owned many more slaves than did Jews.

Virginia and Maryland were the epicenter of the American slave trade.  When it was legal to import slaves, most came through Charleston. After 1808, when importing slaves was made a crime, these two states sent 300,000 slaves to the Deep South, most to work on cotton plantations.  Of the thirty-four companies in Richmond that sold slaves, only one was owned by Jews.  There were three Jews among seventy-four slave traders.  There was little room for Jews in the highly controlled power structure of these colonies and then states.   In an 1830 census, there were fifty two known Jewish families in the entire State of Virginia who owned 121 slaves between them, just 1.6% of the entire slave population of Virginia.

Maryland did not welcome Jews and few were here before the middle of the 18th century.  By 1790, there were no more than fifty Jews in all of Maryland, most residing in Baltimore.  These Jews owned a total of three slaves between them. In 1820, seven of Baltimore’s twenty-one Jewish households owned a grand total of eleven slaves.  On the eve of the Civil War, approximately 7,000 Jews lived in Maryland, 5,000 in Baltimore.  Many of them, among whom were the founders of our congregations, were clothiers and merchants.  By this time, given the increased sentiment for emancipation, only five Jewish households owned slaves among more than six hundred Baltimore slave owners. [1] Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai, who preached in German, reviled slavery and denounced the institution in the most loathsome of terms.  His congregants had to escort him out of Baltimore for his own safety in April, 1861, because of his fiery rhetoric.  He was the only rabbi who had the courage to say that slavery was morally wrong and an abomination which should be abolished.  It seemed that most Jews agreed with him.

The most well-known Southern Jews were Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, and David Yulee, the senator from Florida.  Both of them married Christian women and raised their children in that faith.  Neither of them wanted to be identified as Jews.  David Yulee was original David Levy and changed it to be more Southern and less Jewish.  Judah Benjamin castigated his parents for giving him such a recognizably Jewish name.  While there were several thousands of Jews who fought for the Confederacy, some of whom were well regarded officers, is was very hard to be a Jew in the South as anti-Semitism was rampant.  Jews were just grateful to be white. Many openly spoke of how difficult it would be for them as relative outsiders in the closed Southern society without blacks acting as lightning rods for White Southern hatred.  Blacks acted as an escape valve in Southern society. Jews had no collective power anywhere in the Confederacy.  “The choice for Jews in the South was either to emigrate or assimilate and accept the institutions of this society.”[2]  The noted author Eli Evans wrote, “No one crossed the Southerner in his native land.  The Jew was conditioned to fear authority from the boot of the tsar and the emperor; he knew his place- the perpetual visitor, tentative and unaccepted, his primary concern to remain and survive.  Subconsciously, the South would stake a claim to a corner of his soul, for he too was white and would become like them in many ways.  Yet he was conscious of the differences, of the permissible boundaries of attitude and act, of just how far was too far, and protective enough of his own body and time to take on whatever colors were necessary to get through the day.”[3]

In conclusion, a few Jews owned slaves.  Where ever statistics are available, in the major cities of Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, and New Orleans, Jews owned less than 2% of all slaves in the community.  My first senior rabbi, Bertram Korn, the great American Jewish historian and first rabbi to be an Admiral in the Navy, wrote, “The history of slavery would not have differed one whit from historic reality if no single Jew had been resident in the South. Other whites would have owned slaves; other traders and auctioneers would have bought and sold them.”[4]  Thus closes a shameful chapter in American history, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. The Confederate flag, which is a symbol of slavery and degradation, should not be displayed on public property anywhere in the United States of America.  Today, we know better than to flaunt the racism of our past.

Amen and Shabbat shalom.

[1] Friedman, Saul, Jews in the American Slave Trade, page 140.

[2] Ibid, page 216.

[3] Ibid, page 217.

[4] Korn, Bertram, W., Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, page 68.

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