Friday, March 22, 2013

American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram Korn

This is an enduring classic.  The book reveals great personages and issues that affected the American Jewish community.  The reader is introduced to influential rabbinic figures, Isaac Meyer Wise, Isaac Leeser, and David Einhorn who shaped the Jewish community.  One sees the sympathetic attitude of Abraham Lincoln toward American Jewry, his friends Abraham Jonas and Isachar Zacharie and one is mystified by General Grant's sweeping order 11 to expel the Jewish people from his department.  The Northern side's chaplaincy controversy is reminiscent of the Medieval European oath of fealty to Christianity in that the government had a stubborn determination not to allow a Jewish chaplain because of a Christian requirement in the military code.  In the Confederate South, one recognizes that it is filled with antisemitism.

One learns that Isaac Meyer Wise was a Democrat, not truly identifying with Lincoln until he was assassinated and excoriates Abolitionism.  Isaac Leeser saw the need for Jewish education and pushed for the 'Maimonides' school; he rejected  David Einhorn's abolitionism and radical reform.  The Jewish approach toward slavery resembled regional attitudes.

Abraham Lincoln was close to two Jews, Abraham Jonas, a political associate and Isachar Zacharie, MD, his foot doctor.  One sees, however, Lincoln's real attitude when he rescinds Grant's order of expulsion immediately upon hearing from an anonymous shop keeper from Paducah,KY, one Caesar Kaskel.  Lincoln comes off as a real 'father Abraham'.

The infamous order of expulsion is the most antisemitic act of American history.  It probably is more a reflection of Grant's frustration with speculators than actual antisemitism.  Korn shows that Grant maintains friendships with Jews before the war and after the war.  Korn entertains the possibility that the order came from someone else in Washington that Grant refused to reveal.

The Union's stubborn refusal to appoint a Jewish chaplain because of a Christian clause smacks of the Medieval requirement of fealty to Christianity that prevented the Jewish people from fitting in to the feudal communal structure.  During this controversy we see a persistent demand of freedom and equality from an emerging organized Jewish community.  The Confederacy had no clause that would prevent a chaplain, however, there were simply more anti-Jewish attitudes that precluded appointed a Jewish chaplain!  The anti-Jewish attitudes were so vehement, for example, that the number 2 man in the Confederate government, Judah P. Benjamin suffered constant abuse because of his background, despite the fact he was completely unobservant in Jewish tradition and married a Christian.

The book is essential reading for one interested in American Jewish history.

No comments:

Post a Comment