History Musings June 23, 2015: The Confederacy hostile to African Americans safe haven for American Jews

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

Note: The following includes an extensive excerpt from the author’s unpublished thesis entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Anti-Semitism, 1860-1913” for the MA in Judaic Studies program at Concordia University.

After the shooting attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 where Dylann Roof, 21 shot and killed nine African Americans, in what is being deemed a racist attack, the debate over South Carolina‘s official usage of the Confederate flag is again heating up. On Saturday, June 20, protesters gathered objecting to the flag remaining at the capital, thousands signed a petition on moveon.org. There are now calls for the flag to be removed from its official spot in South Carolina’s state capitol of Columbia.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP Presidential nominee set the bar high calling for the flag’s removal in a tweet on Saturday, June 20, 2015, where he called it a “symbol of racial hatred.” Romney shares the same views as President Barack Obama, who has long called for the flag’s removal. One by one, the Republican presidential candidates weighed in on the issue, many called an issue for the state to decide, a few called for its downright removal including front runner Jeb Bush. In the wake of the movement to remove the flag, SC governor Nikki Haley, Charleston’s mayor, and a group of bipartisan legislators agreed on Monday, June 22, the flag has to go. The state started the process by removing the flag from the Citadel just a day later on Tuesday, June 23.

South Carolina is not the only state to look to end the Confederate flag’s continued life; Virginia will no longer allow the flag to appear on any license plates. The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, June 18 that it was not a violation of the first amendment for the government deny certain images or words be placed on specialty license plates. The case revolved around the Texas Motor Vehicles Board refusing the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) a license plate design with the Confederate flag on it. Retailers including Walmart, Etsy, Sears and Amazon.com will no longer sell any items with the Confederate flag on them. The calls are not just to remove Confederate flags, but statues and monuments relating to the Confederacy trying wipe away a major part of American history.

In a long held tradition sacred for the state, South Carolina flies in addition to the American flag the Confederate flag. South Carolina has fought to keep flying the flag, which they deem an important part of “their heritage.” For many others it is a symbol of the Civil War and slavery, a “dark” time in American history. After the Charleston church shooting, and the perpetrator’s racist motives and plans becoming clearer, many are calling for the flag to be removed from the state capitol grounds in Columbia. In 2000, after a similar fight, civil rights activists had a minor victory when the flag was removed from inside the statehouse and capitol dome, however, it remained flying on the grounds.

For Southerners the flag has historical significance for other especially after the shooting it is considered even more so a symbol of racial hatred and a reminder of slavery. The Confederate south was not racially hostile to every racial group that did not fit the mold of a white Christian, in fact American Jews found an oasis in the antebellum and Civil War south, free of the anti-Jewish prejudice that was prevalent in the North at that time. Part of the reason was that American Jews joined and found common ground with Southern White Christians and partook in every aspect of Southern life, the good, the bad, slavery, racism, participating in every aspect of the Civil War on the side of the South and the Confederacy.

Even from Colonial times, life in America for Jews offered more freedom than they could hope for in Europe.  In North America, the division of society was based less on religion, as had been the case in Europe, but on skin color. The first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, even before the arrival of the first Jews in 1654, and although slavery was not the system that it would become, by the time Jews began arriving, the distinction between black and white was set in colonial society.  Slavery spread throughout the American colonies with Rhode Island acting as an exemption.  There are two primary reasons that motivated a slavery system in America; slave labor was a driving force behind economic development, as well as the main method in determining class status.

Whiteness equaled to freedom, while slave ownership, and the number of slaves owned indicated wealth and social status; it allowed the poorest of whites to remain always above blacks in the social ladder. In a society were race was more important than religion, Jews believed they could escape religious persecution because they were white, and they could exploit this fact to gain freedom and social acceptance. Fifty years after their entrance into America, Jews had already integrated and assimilated themselves through the practice of owning slaves; Jewish involvement in the slave trade and slavery was another way to integrate with America’s Christian population. The South’s peculiar institution of slavery touched every Jew that chose to live in the South in the antebellum period, and in the antebellum period, this was a large portion of America’s Jewish population.

The population of Jewish in the southern colonies and then states was practically old as their founding. Robert Rosen writing in The Jewish Confederates points out, Southern Jews were an integral part of the Confederate States of America and had been breathing the free air of Dixie for 200 years” by the time the Civil War ended.[i] The historian Steven Hertzberg recounts in Strangers within the Gate City: The Jews of Atlanta, 1845-1915, “Jews had resided in the South since the seventeenth century, and a party of 42 Jews landed at Savannah in July 1733, just five months after the arrival of Georgia’s first colonists.  At the time of the first federal census in 1790, nearly half of the approximately 1,300 to 1,500 Jews in the United States lived below the Mason-Dixon Line, and Charleston, with an estimated 200 Jewish inhabitants, sheltered the second largest Jewish community in the country.” [ii]

By 1820, Charleston would surpass New York as the most populous Jewish city in the new nation with a total 700 Jews living there. Although during this period, a good portion of America’s Jews made their home in the South their numbers were small in comparison to the Southern white majority. Clive Webb argues in Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, “Jews never constituted more than a tiny percentage of the southern population. Their desire for social acceptance ensured their compliance with the laws and customs of their adopted homeland.  In particular this involved their acceptance of slavery and then racial segregation.” [iii]

Jews thoroughly accepted slavery; its practices and rules, and ingrained it into the fabric and day to day living of their lives. Whichever economic pursuit Southern Jews were involved in, or their economic status in Southern society; they were fervent advocates of slavery. Jews participated in the plantation lifestyle; adhered to Southern norms in their treatment of their slaves, and were even involved in slave trading. On Jewish owned plantations, slaves would work as either field hands, or house servants, while urban dwelling Jews would own slaves that worked in their homes and businesses or hired them out, while a smaller number of Jews even participated in the slave trade.

Jews participated in these practices because they wanted to feel they belonged to the chivalry and elite Southern society.  Participating in the slave system was the primary method for Southern Jews to belong to white Southern society, but also partaking in the South’s code of honor, and duels were another, historian “Mark I. Greenberg points out that Jews adopted the Southern way of life, including the code of honor, dueling, slavery and Southern notions about race and states’ rights.”[iv]

Adhering to the majority allowed Jews to be as “white” as Southern Christians, and they also could contrast sharply with the slave population, move up in American society, and take part equally in the American democratic dream; a position of equality continually denied to Jews in their European countries of origin. Historians Marvin Perry and Frederick Schweitzer write in Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present, “The views of southern Jews on race and slavery differed little from other white southerners who regarded slavery as the natural condition of blacks. An insecure minority eager to be accepted as equals by the society which they dwelled, southern Jews, like other southerners, did not challenge the slave system.” [v]

Many Jews were recent immigrants who did not want to instigate the segregationist anti-Semitism they experienced in Europe by their opposition. As Webb argues “Confronted with such a hostile political climate, Jews had little choice but to accept slavery. Those who did harbor doubts about the ethics of the slave system kept such thoughts to themselves for fear of provoking an anti-Semitic backlash. Gary Zola has indeed suggested that at times this determination to avoid conflict caused southern Jews to support slavery even more aggressively than other whites.”[vi]

This whiteness allowed many Southern Jews to shared similar experiences and beliefs about slavery as their Christian counterparts did, and were devoted to the cause. America’s Jews as Jacob Rader Marcus writes had “a readiness, if not an eagerness, to adapt themselves to the life and culture about them”[vii]  In fact Southern Jewry’s participation in the South cultural and societal norms such as slavery and the honor code did serve as Jews’ acceptance into the Christian society as white Southerners.  As Lauren Winner claims, “Recent scholarship has attempted to argue that Jews were accepted fully into the society of the Old South. One recent enterprising scholar claimed that Jews in antebellum South Carolina, because they dueled, sported hoop skirts, and owned slaves, were full participants in Southern society.”[viii]

Southern Jews did enjoy a relative prejudice free life in the antebellum South, “Nowhere else in the United States had Jews been as fully accepted into the mainstream of society. Nowhere else in the United States had Jews become as fully integrated into the political and economic fabric of everyday life.”[ix] In their opinion, it was a privilege they held dear, and supported the South’s peculiar institutions to hold on to this acceptance.

There was still one aspect however; Southern Jews differed from the rest of the Southern white population: religion.  Jews could not participate in Christian evangelism that was so prevalent in the South during that period.  As Lauren Winner points out in her article “Taking up the Cross: Conversion among black and white Jews in the Civil War South”, “That Jews could not engage in that essential feature of the South’s social landscape-evangelicalism-is, in this scholar’s estimation, inconsequential at best.” [x]  That was why is was so essential in Southern Jewry’s opinion to integrate and participate in the South’s other customs to ensure they would be considered white, and avoid any religious animosity, and anti-Jewish prejudice was more prevalent in the North.

In nineteenth century, America slavery became probably the most divisive issue both politically and socially, and one of the main causes leading to the Civil War (1861-1865). As the doyen of history of Jews during the Civil War Bertram Korn indicates, “had Negro slavery not been an integral aspect of the life of the Old South, there would have been no conflict, no secession, no war.  Differences there might have been, but not violence and bloodshed.  Slavery was the single indigestible element in the life of the American people which fostered disunion, strife, and carnage, just as the concomitant race problem has continued to an important degree to be a divisive force in American life to this day.”[xi]

Its effects were not unnoticed on America’s small but ever growing Jewish population. Slavery was predominately a Southern issue although its moral and political ramifications affected the entire American population. Americans took positions on the issue, while many remained indifferent. There was however, a small minority of northern reformers who believed that slavery should be abolished in the South, and they worked towards this goal much to the resentment of Americans both in the North and much more vehemently in the South.

As relative newcomers to America, the majority of the Jewish population did not speak out against slavery; essentially all of the South’s small Jewish population supported slavery, since it was their entrée into acceptance by the Christian majority. Korn, notes “No Jewish political figure of the Old South ever expressed reservations about the justice of slavery or the rightness of the Southern position.”[xii]

Even when slavery was becoming more controversial, and Civil War loomed Southern Jews still continued their support of slavery. As Arthur Hertzberg writes in The Jews of America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter : A History, “In the 1850s most people in America hoped that the issue of slavery could be avoided; so did most Jews. In the Southern states Jews almost unanimously supported the proslavery interests.”[xiii] Hasia Diner concurs explaining in The Jews of the United States, “Nothing demonstrated this fact better than the Civil War and the issue of slavery. Southern Jews regarded the matter no differently than did their neighbors. Three thousand Jewish men fought in gray uniforms, and Jewish women aided the cause with volunteer work.”[xiv]

Jews were loyal to slavery, the Southern way of life, and the Confederate cause. As Abolitionist Rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal observed “Israelites residing in New Orleans are man by man—with very few exceptions—ardently in favor of secession, and many among them are intense fanatics.” [xv] Most Southern Jews supported the South’s secession from the Union and the newly established Confederacy, whether they were citizens of the South for many years or recently arrived immigrants. The South had been good to its Jewish population they flourished economically, politically and socially in a Christian society, essentially without anti-Semitism.

Most Jews however, believed their support for the Confederacy; states’ rights, and slavery were the key to maintaining acceptance as a part of the white majority. As Oscar R. Williams in “Historical Impressions of Black Jewish Relations Prior to World War II” writes, “During the Civil War Jews defended the system which insured them acceptance and success in the South.” [xvi] While Webb writes that “Through their loyal support for secession, southern Jews therefore hoped to reinforce their social acceptance.”[xvii] As Robert Rosen describes in Confederate Charleston, “The Charleston Jewish community gave its enthusiastic support to the Confederacy. Having found in South Carolina from colonial times a haven from religious persecution, a freedom to practice their religion, and the freedom to engage in all forms of commerce, the Jews of Charleston showed great devotion to the Confederate cause.”[xviii]

All over the South, Jews heeded the call to support the Confederate cause. The obvious choice for most men was to join a company in the Confederate army, many Southern Jews could not physically give their support, they used the other means they had in the powers to help in the Confederacy, for some it was political and most often monetary contributions. Southern Jewry’s devotion to the Confederacy translated into the actions in support of the Southern cause approximately two to three thousand Jewish men fought for the gray, while on the home front the women worked as loyal volunteers, as nurses resisting Northern, Yankee troops’ growing occupation of their beloved South. Rosen claims, “Thus, overwhelmingly, and almost unanimously, some with fear and trepidation, others with courage and enthusiasm, some with reservations, others with a firm unflinching resolve, Southern Jewry cast its lot with the Confederate States of America.”[xix]

So fierce was Jewish devotion to Southern ideals that when as Rosen writes “in April 1861 the Jewish messenger of New York City called upon American Jewry to “rally as one man for the Union and Constitution,” the Jews of Shreveport responded with a resolution denouncing the newspaper and its editor
“We, the Hebrew congregation of Shreveport,” the resolution began, “scorn and repel your advice, although we might be called Southern rebels; still, as law-abiding citizens, we solemnly pledge ourselves to stand by, protect, and honor the flag, with its stars and stripes, the Union and Constitution of the Southern Confederacy, with our lives, liberty, and all that is dear to us.”[xx] Southern rabbis agreed with the congregations’ support of the war and preached and prayed for the Confederacy in their services: “This once happy country is enflamed by the fury of war; a menacing enemy is arrayed against the rights, and liberties and freedom of this, our Confederacy;…Here I stand now with many thousands of the sons of the sunny South, to face the foe, to drive him back, and to defend our natural rights, O Lord…Be unto the Army of the Confederacy as though were of the old, unto us, thy chosen people-Inspire them with patriotism!”[xxi]

Southern Jewish men that remained on the home front during the war also made tremendous contributions in support of the war. Many men continued their mercantile businesses, or as peddlers or in their stores, supplying the troops as well as those that remained on the home front. They also worked as innkeepers, tanners, apothecaries, doctors or teachers.[xxii] Many who unable to literally go off to fight in the war would join the home guard or militia to protect the city or town where they lived. The Jewish men who remained on the home front were also involved in philanthropic efforts.

The most common form of philanthropy was the creation of benevolent societies to help the poor affected the war, donate money to hospitals, and bury dead Confederate Jewish soldiers in Jewish cemeteries. Southern rabbis remained fervent advocates of the South and the Confederacy throughout the war, as were their Christian counterparts; they prayed for and praised the Confederacy in their services. Rabbi James Gutheim of Montgomery, AL, had recently arrived in the South 1843, prayed for it at the onset of the war, asking for divine intervention for “our beloved country, the Confederate States of America. May our young Republic increase in strength, prosperity and renown.”[xxiii]

Southern Jews supported the Confederacy because they believed they had a haven from the anti-Semitism that hounded them in Europe this was especially true for new and recent immigrants from Central Europe, whom compromised a majority of Southern Jews serving in the Confederate Army. Rosen continues, “Many like “Ike” Hermann, had found the land of Canaan. Others, like Gustavus Poznanski, had found their Jerusalem, their Palestine. Still others, like Marcus Baum, Jacob Samuels, Adolph Proskauer and Herschell Kempner, had finally found their Fatherland.”[xxiv]  Leopold Weil a Jewish cotton merchant wrote at the time “This land has been good to all of us…I shall fight to my last breath and to the full extent of my fortune to defend that in which I believe.”[xxv] Weil did he enlisted in the Confederate Army as a lieutenant.

Southern Jewry was motivated to support the Confederacy as Webb explains, “there were a number of reasons why Jews championed the Confederate cause. Like many southern Jews, Leopold Weil attained privilege and prosperity through the exploitation of slave labor. The South also offered safe haven to thousands of Jews who fled persecution in Europe. Although Weil recognized that slavery was immoral, he was not prepared to abandon a land that “has been good to all of us.”[xxvi] Even many years after the war Southern Jews could declaring how good the South was for immigrant Jews  Isaac “Ike” Hermann, a private 1st Georgia Infantry proclaimed  “I found in [the South] an ideal and harmonious people; they treated me as one of their own; in fact for me, it was the land of Canaan where milk and honey flowed.” [xxvii] Testifying that Southern Jewry in the antebellum period had found in the South the haven from prejudice they had been looking for.

When Civil War erupted after the Southern states seceded from the Union, women in the South faced an upheaval as their way of life was threatened to be changed forever.  For Southern Jewish women were fiercely attached to the Southern way of life, and this manifested itself into a deep loyalty for the Confederacy and support that it would win the war.  As historians Hasia Diner and Beryl Lieff Benderly indicate in Her Works Prise Her: A History of Jewish Women in America from Colonial Times to the Present, “When the Civil War split America, Jews, as Americans, supported both sides, either as passionate proponents of the Union or devoted sons and daughters of the Confederacy.” [xxviii]  Jacob Rader Marcus, the doyen of American Jewish history concurs in Memoirs of American Jews, 1775-1865, “The apogee of patriotism was reached by the Southern women, including Jewesses.”[xxix]  While Marli F. Weiner explains in Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-80, “In the antebellum South gender and race were the two most significant shapers of individual experiences.  Other factors such as class, region, religion, family skill, personality even appearance, were also important, of course but being born free or enslaved, male or female determined the possibilities and limitations for each individual.” [xxx]

The majority of these Jewish women were not recent immigrants, but American born and shared the lifestyle and values of their Christian counterparts. As Diner and Benderly recount, “Rosana [Osterman], the Levy sisters, and the Natchez M[a]yer daughters were not, of course, recent immigrants but rather the American-born descendants of earlier migrant generations.  But they, like Jews throughout the country, both newly arrived and long established, saw themselves as wholehearted Americans and fashioned their lives and identities in response to an American reality quite unlike anything Jews had ever experienced elsewhere.”[xxxi]  These women were Jewish southern belles and lived their lives accordingly.

These Southern Jewish women were integrated in Southern society, and were attached to lifestyle they had become accustomed to, and as the war, demonstrated Southerners and the Confederacy were more tolerant of Jews than the Union army that ravaged the South, Southern Jewish recognized this and devotedly aligned themselves with their beloved South at all costs.  Marcus writes, “The Southern Jewesses were fanatically, almost hysterically, passionate in their sympathies for their new regime.  Were they trying to prove that they were more ardent than their neighbors? Why?”[xxxii]

Like many other Christian women in the South, Southern women contributed on many levels through volunteer work, as war supply collectors, sewing circles, and nursing, but the far more committed chose to rebel against the Union officials. Jewish women especially took advantage of this new politicizing position the war granted women by demonstrating their loyalty to the South, through fiercer methods, often through illegal means including, smuggling, espionage, and belligerency.  Practicing slavery and being perceived as white, and generally adhering to the South’s social norms helped Southern Jewry escape Anti-Semitism.\

When Civil War erupted the North was threatening the Southern oasis Jews had created, virtually free of old prejudices.  The North in contrast, was more anti-Semitic and welcomed less its Jewish population into the Christian majority. Although the majority of Southerners Jews tried to defend the Confederacy and the land that had been so good to them, Southern women left on the home front were supporters that were even more ardent. As Catherine Clinton explains, “The Civil War, many Southern Jews felt, would change all this. Not unlike African Americans, who have believed throughout U.S. history that military service would guarantee them rights of full citizenship, Southern Jews expected that if they embraced the Confederate cause wholeheartedly, they would in turn be embraced by the Confederacy and accorded a new role in the society of the new nation.”[xxxiii]

Southern Jewish women adhered to the similar place other Southern women took in society, but also in supporting the Confederacy, Southern Jewish women took on added role defending Southern Jewry whiteness and place in Southern Christian society with their war efforts.  To the end, Southern Jews were even more enthusiastic towards their allegiance to all Southern practices, especially Jewish women.

Southern Jewish women knew that the Southern way of life was integral to maintaining the racial equilibrium for Jews and for avoiding anti-Semitism.  As Steven Hertzberg writes in Strangers Within The Gate City: The Jews Of Atlanta, 1845- 1915, “While suspicion engendered by their foreign birth and alien religion may have induced some Jews to conform outwardly to regional values as a means of protective coloration, most willingly embraced Southern attitudes because they had a consuming desire to succeed in their new home.”[xxxiv]  These women would go to great lengths to support the Confederacy in the manner they best knew how, and within the limits of the white womanhood, they wished to maintain.  They felt if they would defend the Confederacy on the home front, after the war they would keep being defined as white Southerners, and find a sense of belonging in the land they were living in.

The Jews’ harmony living in a Southern Christian society however was not without anti-Semitism. Seth Forman explain in his article “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Jewish: Desegregation in the South and the Crisis of Jewish Liberalism,” “All of this does not mean that the position of Southern Jews was not in any way precarious. Living in a region characterized largely by an overpowering caste system and fierce racial bigotry, Southern Jews treaded lightly and made their way in a place that was largely ambivalent about their presence.” [xxxv] Webb concurs, “Southern Jews did not succeed entirely in eroding anti-Semitism.” [xxxvi]

Even with all Southern Jewry’s efforts and support for Southern institutions, they could not entirely escape anti-Jewish prejudice in the South, since it essentially began with their arrival in 1733, as Hertzberg claims “even in the colonies which were hospitable to Jews.”[xxxvii]  Winner explains, “The new nation did not come to fruition, and neither did Southern Jews’ expectations of their support of the Confederacy. To the contrary, they found that during wartime, their support was not welcomed but, rather, received warily. Protestant Confederates blamed Southern Jews when any aspect of the war effort went wrong, accusing them of espionage, racketeering, and conspiracy.”[xxxviii]

With trying times, and the increase of the Jewish population in 1850 caused an increase in anti-Semitism. A general dislike of all aliens and foreigners increased during the Civil War. Korn describes, “Additional social factors peculiar to life in the South tended to strengthen and heighten the reaction to Jews: a general dislike of all aliens and foreigners which, during the War, created the legend that the Union Army was a band of German and Irish hirelings and mercenaries, while the Confederate Army was said to be exclusively native; a wide-spread suspicion of the merchant and storekeeper, typical of a society dominated by the plantation owner and farmer.”[xxxix]

Jews however, hoped that their strict adherence to Southern norms, with either keep anti-Semitism to a minimum or restrict any further occurrence of anti-Jewish activity. As the Civil War was becoming a reality, Jewish support for the Confederacy, states’ rights, and ultimately slavery was the key according to the Southern Jewish population to acceptance as a part of the white majority. Forman writes, “For the most part, however, these kinds of actions were mitigated by countervailing Southern ideas concerning the equality of all white men, the overriding concern with the subordination of black Americans, and the usefulness of the Jews as merchants and artisans. Spread thinly throughout the vast region, the Jews in the South tended to avoid taking public stands on controversial issues. When the issue of slavery tore the country in two during the Civil War, for example, Southern Jews largely accepted slavery and supported the South.[xl]

The rise in anti-Semitism commenced as the war turned towards the worse for the South, defeat was imminent, and the economy worsened with food and supplies difficult to acquire as the war raged on. Jews were blamed because their religion differed, clashing with the Christian Fundamentalism of the Confederate South, Jews roles as merchants and Judah P. Benjamin prominent political role in the Confederate government as attorney general, secretary of state and secretary of war. This only magnified after the South lost the war, the blame shifted over to the Southern population, despite the fact that very few Jews had any political or economic power.

Leonard Dinnerstein explains in Antisemitism in America, that Southern Jews despite living among evangelical Christian only sporadically experienced Anti-Semitism, and this was usually just in the most trying economic times. “Thus Jews as a group, despite their opportunities in the United States, never quite relaxed, and always kept a watchful eye open for Christian bias. Such prejudice was not uniformly exhibited and it often depended on historical circumstances and the strengths or trials of distinct Christian groups at different times in history as to how the beliefs would be exercised. Sometimes numbers made a difference; when Jews were strong in number they often felt more secure and comfortable. Other times local values dictated their reception and demeanor.”[xli]

Although the South had always been a Christian and religious area, the war was only reinforced this, and brought religion to the forefront. As the war raged on Southerners began invoking Christian religious language in relation to the Southern cause, and the Confederacy, which separated Jews from the pre-war unified white majority; classifying them as foreigners both religiously, and with the implications that Jews were Yankees, Northerners. Myron Berman states, “public demonstrations of piety and the use of Christian concepts became more pronounced in the course of the war.”[xlii]

This was because of the fundamentalist style that Southerners were invoking in their religious practices. Diane Ashton explains in her article “Shifting Veils: Religion, Politics and Womanhood Among Jewish Women During the Civil War,” “First in the North and later in the South, the belief that America played a pivotal role in bringing the second coming of Christ reached an apogee just before and during the Civil War. Southern anti-Semitism was fueled in part by a more fundamentalist style reading the New Testament than was common in most Northern Churches. The Confederacy went so far as to define itself as a Christian nation in its constitution. Southern clergy mounted frequent revivals among the troops, both to obtain God’s favor and to enable soldiers to fight without fear of death. Historian Harry Stout explained that the Confederacy declared many fast days, a practice previously more common in the North, to bind the civilians troops alike to display their patriotism and piety-then defined as the same thing.”[xliii]

As the situation in the Civil War was becoming increasingly worse for the Confederacy, Southerner’s anti-Semitism arose, when before the before the war these sentiments had publicly been kept to a minimum, and Jews were for the most part tolerated in Southern society. Korn explains, “Granted an original suspicion and dislike of the Jew before the War, the four-year-long travail of the Confederacy was certain to emphasize it.”[xliv] Southern Christians began to blame to the Jewish leaders of the Confederacy for the South’s loses. Diane Ashton writes that “Denunciations of Jews became more commonplace during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Southerners explained their defeat as God’s chastisement for widespread sinfulness.”[xlv] The Confederate anti-Jewish feelings however, were mostly reserved for Judah Benjamin and Jewish merchants. Southern newspapers and magazines would refer to Jews as “Yankees among us” or as shylocks.[xlvi]

Judah Benjamin was the Secretary of War and then State for the Confederate government, and he took the blame for many of the South’s defeats and problems. The fact that he was a Jew led a citizen of North Carolina, John Beauchamp Jones to swear that “all the distresses of the people were owing to a Nero-like despotism, originating in the brain of Benjamin, the Jew.”[xlvii] Henry L.
also reiterates that Benjamin was blamed for war loses because of his religion as opposed to his actually polices and military decisions. As Feingold writes in Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present, “In 1862 Judah Benjamin, who had suffered much calumny because of his being Jewish, was censured by the Confederate Congress for failing to send war supplies to Roanoke and thus causing its loss to the Union Army. He did not reveal that if he had complied with Roanoke’s request, Norfolk would have been left vulnerable.”[xlviii] Winner states, “Benjamin was only one of the many Confederate Jews whom Confederate Christians plugged into age-old stereotypes of the Jew qua extortionist, thief, shylock, of Jews driven by, in the words of historian John Higham, “cunning” and “avarice.”[xlix]

This anti-Jewish prejudice also was seen in the Confederate military. Jewish Confederate’s in the military were faced with prejudice and ridicule, and were often prevented from receiving promotions that were due to them or they were reluctantly given to them. Winner writes, “Captain R. E. Park recounted that his colonel attempted to block the promotion of Mobile’s Captain Proskauer because the Colonel was suspicious of Jews’ loyalty to the Confederacy. A Jewish Colonel assigned to a Texas regiment experienced such ridicule and antagonism that within forty-eight hours of joining up with his new regiment, he left.”[l]

On the home front, the situation was not quite different; Southern Jews faced anti-Jewish prejudice in their daily lives. In the United States at the time is not uncharacteristic for Jews to be scapegoats blamed for an economic situation, which was out of their control, and a product of the war rather than anything else. In these desperate times Christian Southerners were looking for scapegoats and the rising prices for living essential made the Jew and particularly the Jewish merchant the ideal scapegoat, and the fact that most Jews were merchants, an important component of the Confederate economy did not help the increase of anti-Jewish prejudice. Ashton claims this economic blame was widespread writing “Across the South, both small merchants and public figures like Benjamin were blamed for the region’s economic woes and its military defeat. Although Richmond‘s major industries were not in Jewish hands, Jews were among those blamed for the South‘s economic ills as the war dragged on.”[li]

Southerners often saw the high prices merchants charged as extortion, and they viewed the Jewish merchants as “extortionists.” George Rable notes in The Confederate Republic: A Revolution against Politics, “Many Confederates looked for scapegoats and discovered an ancient one: foreign-born Jewish merchants. Henry S. Foote denounced “shylocks,” Examiner editorials deplored “synagogue” influences, and Texas vigilance committees harassed Jewish businessmen.” [lii] While Winner explains, “Confederate Christians, as Gary L. Bunker and John Appel have shown, portrayed Jews as vultures hoping to gain from wartime shortages.”[liii] The majority of anti-Jewish sentiment experienced in America was in direct relation to economics. As Leonard Rogoff clarifies in his article “Is the Jew White?: The Racial Place of the Southern Jew,” “The Jewish racial question was not a social or political issue in the antebellum South: whatever anti-Semitism Southern Jews encountered was primarily economic or religious.” [liv]

Southern women had additional responsibilities resulting from the men being away at war, and dealing with the desperation in the South’s situation at home. The women were faced with providing for their families while the war that kept dragging on, without the men to provide for them many women had little to go on to survive, even the wealthier ones dealt with these issues. This also contributed to the image of the image of the Jewish merchant as a profiteer of the poor. As Feingold notes, “Jewish merchants in the Southland felt the sting of anti-Semitic slander as civilian goods became scarce.”[lv]

These women actively and most time violently attacked the Jewish merchants for raising the cost of food and supplies. The most violent occurrence was in Georgia, where Jewish merchants were accused repeatedly as Winner explains of “unpatriotic conduct.” Fear and suspicion of Jewish merchants was only exacerbated by the extreme shortages that became frequent as the war progressed.”[lvi] In desperation, these women blamed their unfortunate situation on the merchants particularly Jewish buying into the anti-Semitic rhetoric about Jewish merchants. The women went in at gunpoint, justifying their criminal activity by as Winner writes accusing “the owner of speculating and making a fortune while their husbands died in defense of their country;”[lvii] they then proceeded to steal all the supplies and goods they possibly could from the store. Korn claims, “These examples indicate a trend which was characteristic of many sections of the Confederacy — the Jews being held responsible for the inflation of prices and the shortages of goods a pattern which bears a remarkable likeness to the background of the Grant Order.”[lviii]

Southerners seemed to believe that Jews controlled on its commerce and trade. A leader in this anti-Jewish opinion was Congressman Hilton of Florida. To illustrate his point Hilton would recount the story of a blockade-runner, who although was found out by the authorities, but before they could confiscate his goods. Winner writes “Florida Jews, however, had somehow learned the whereabouts of the blockade runner, and “at least one hundred” Jews, flocked there, led even to this remote point of the scent of gain, and they had to be driven actually at point of bayonet.”[lix]

In Richmond, Virginia, the Christian population had a similar opinion of its Jewish merchants; that they had the ability to acquire goods and luxury items that were impossible for anybody else in the South to acquire when a blockade was enforced. Winner writes, “they called one store, one by a German Jew, “Noah’s Ark” because it “seemed capable of producing anything from a needle to firearms.”[lx] Although this opinion of Jewish merchants as profiteers was prevalent in South, by those who were suffering from the war, this opinion was common with outsiders as well. As Miller explains “One Englishman described how Jews stood by the Confederacy only in hopes of turning a profit: “The Israelites, as usual, far surpassed the Gentiles in shrewdness to the auspicious moment, and laid in stocks.”[lxi]

Jews were also accused of other illegal activities however, including passing counterfeit money and running the blockade. This anti-Jewish prejudice manifested itself in the South’s newspapers, particularly the Richmond Examiner. As Feingold explains, “The Richmond Examiner filled its pages with anti-Semitic diatribes which began by complaining about Jewish war profiteering and ended by accusing them of being responsible for Confederate defeats on the field of battle.”[lxii] One particular instance was on January 7, 1864, when the paper printed a rumor that an unnamed Congressman had obtained passports for three Jews to leave the Confederacy. Congressman Henry S. Foote of Tennessee took this as an opportunity to vent his prejudice towards Jews. As Korn writes Congressman Foote “was generally known that he disliked Jews and took advantage of every opportunity to vent his hatred upon them, no matter how flimsy the evidence.”

Foote called for an investigation, but Congress was not interested in pursue the matter. Additionally the Richmond Daily Examiner, Jan. 8, 1864 reported another instance where Jews appeared as balking their responsibilities to the Confederacy: “very recently, two immensely wealthy Israelitish merchants on Broad Street, departed for the North leaving their wives and daughters to carry on the business of their stores.” [lxiii]  The anti-Jewish prejudice above all accused Jews of being unpatriotic and supportive of the South, especially during the Confederacy’s most trying times. These accusations often led to South Christians demonstrating fierce anti-Jewish prejudice towards their Jewish neighbors. One town; Thomasville, Georgia passed a legal resolution to banish all of their Jewish resident, while another town found the Jewish residents guilty of “evil and unpatriotic conduct.”[lxiv]

Upper class Southern Jewish women for the most part did not experience anti-Semitism, but as Ashton states, “For Jewish women of this period, anti-Semitism could not be said to have been universal and open, but rather sporadic and threatening.”[lxv] There always the possibility that anti-Semitism could occur and that altered the behavior of Jewish women. Ashton recounts, “To navigate that social and political turbulence, to maintain established ties, or to forge new alliances, Jewish women displayed either their patriotism, their religious piety, or their common understanding that good women are supposed to maintain family and social ties. Their personal perception of their own needs and of the degree of danger they faced determined their highly individualized shaping of their community during the Civil War. After determining whom they loved and needed and whom they could trust, they displayed those aspects of their own identities that would in turn enable them to present themselves as trustworthy.” [lxvi]

Despite the sporadic incidents towards the end of the war Jews in the South faced less anti-Semitism on a whole than then their Northern counterparts did. Southern Christians did in fact accept individual Jews into kinship, developing friendships with them, and socializing with Jews. Jews were more accepted into the South by the Christian majority, because of slavery and the racial issue but also as Rosen claims, “It was OK to be anti-Semitic in Boston in the 19th century. Jewish immigrants were discriminated against in New York. There was less of this in New Orleans and Charleston, I think because of the diversity of religions in Southern cities, the lack of Puritanism, which was anti-Semitic generally.”[lxvii]

The North’s Union Army committed the worst incident of anti-Semitism during the Civil War. The Shylock stereotype was behind Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s reasons for ordering General Order Number 11, on December 17, 1862 , expelling Jews from areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. General Order Number 11stands out in American history as the first instance of a policy of official anti-Semitism on a large scale. The anti-Semitic order had deeper roots; many Northerners and Union army officials harbored anti-Jewish resentments. Jews in Union occupied Southern cities and towns faced the brunt of this prejudice. As Korn explains in his authoritative work, American Jewry and the Civil War (1951); “Some of the most prominent people in the Union were imbued with prejudice against the Jews.”[lxviii]

The racial situation in the South and the practice of slavery were one of the primary reasons Jews were able to avoid widespread anti-Semitism; Seth Forman points out “But the racial divide was the most substantial reason why anti-Semitism in the South remained tempered.”[lxix] While Korn writes, “The institution also furthered the Jew’s social acceptance. By providing a class of defenseless victims, slavery acted as an escape valve for frustrations which might otherwise have been expressed more frequently as anti-Jewish sentiment.” [lxx] Southern Jewry truly believed they could avoid anti-Jewish prejudice in the South by complying with the slavery system, and adhering to rest of Southern society.

It was primarily the issue of shared whiteness the smoothed the way for, and elevated Jewish social status at all levels. Southern Jews reached higher levels in the Confederate government, than they would see for nearly 75 years in any administration in the United States government. Southern Jews took up preeminent positions in the new Confederate nation, reaching ranks that were unheard for Jews anywhere even in the North. Judah Benjamin took up the most important positions, essentially being Confederate President, Jefferson Davis’ right hand man. Benjamin held numerous positions in the Confederate cabinet including, Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State.

Although Jews represented a small portion of the Southern population, they disproportionately held high-ranking positions in the Confederacy, including, “the Quartermaster General, the Surgeon General, several Congressmen, and other high public and military officers of the Confederacy.”[lxxi] Other Southern Jews that reached high positions included David Camden De Leon who was appointed the Surgeon General after the outbreak of the Civil War. His brother Edwin also held a prominent position, as an overseas representative for the Confederacy. De Leon was responsible for persuading European nations to recognize the Confederacy.

Now 150 years after the Civil War ended, and the Confederacy took its last breath, immortalized in a life “Gone with the Wind,” and a mythology still referred by many Southern states, including South Carolina, it is widely forgotten, that the Confederacy was not entirely a nation of hatred for all who were not White Christians. American Jewry found a haven in the South, experiencing some anti-Semitism, but not nearly at the level, they did in the North, or that Southern Jewry ever faced in the hands of the Confederate government or their southern neighbors as they did by the Union army and a future President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.

The Confederacy did imbue subservience for African Americans in the form of slavery, but Jewish activists now, need to remember their own participation in the full life of the slave holding antebellum South and Confederacy. The white supremacist hatred that caused the Charleston Church shooting historically was not born in the Confederacy, but in its death, during Reconstruction and its aftermath resulting in the rise of Jim Crow segregationalist laws, and vicious hatred of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) where a defeated South could not find its footing after losing the life they loved.

In mourning a mythological Confederacy, this hatred was born, but with the civil rights movement’s victories, and the election of the first African American president, this hatred is but sporadic. Removing every monument or reminder of the Confederacy is not the solution to the problem, we need to learn from history not erase it. Although the Confederacy and its flag and confederate symbols and monuments are bearing the brunt of the blame now, the United States as whole is facing continuing problems with race relations. The epidemic of police shooting African Americans is predominately in the North or so-called border states. Unfortunately, persistent racism in the North has no symbol like the Confederate flag to blame, but it is still there, and is still a problem. As President Obama stated in his famous speech in March 2008 as a Democratic candidate, the country as a whole needs to strive for a “More Perfect Union” in order to end racism in the entire United States of America.

[i] “Robert Rosen, The Jewish Confederates,” Susannah J. Uralp, ed. Civil War Citizens: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict, 157.
[ii]  Steven Hertzberg, Strangers within the Gate City: The Jews of Atlanta, 1845-1915, (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1978), 13-14.
[iii]  Clive Webb, Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, (University of Georgia Press, 2001), 2.
[iv]   Robert N. Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, (University of South Carolina Press, 2000), p. 15-16
[v]   Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 241.
[vi]  Webb, Fight Against Fear, 7.
[vii]  Leonard Dinnerstein and Mary Dale Palsson, eds., Jews of the South, (Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 25.
[viii] Catherine Clinton, Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South, (Oxford University Press, 2000)p. 194.
[ix] Arthur W. Bergeron Jr., Lawrence Lee Hewitt, Louisianians in the Civil War, (Columbia, MO.: University of Missouri Press, 2002, 73.
[x]  Lauren F. Winner, “Taking up the Cross: Conversion among black and white Jews in the Civil War South” in Catherine Clinton, ed. Southern Families at War : Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South, (Oxford University Press, 2000), 194.
[xi]  Dinnerstein, Jews and the South, 89, 90.
[xii]  Dinnerstein, Jews and the South, 27.
[xiii]  Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews of America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter : A History, (Columbia University Press, 1998), 111.
[xiv]  Hasia Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, (University of California Press, 2004), 155.
[xv] Bergeron, Louisianians in the Civil War, 2002. 75, 76.
[xvi]  Maurianne Adams and John H. Bracey, eds., Strangers & Neighbors: Relations between Blacks & Jews in the United States, ( University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 35.
[xvii]  Webb, Fight Against Fear, 11.
[xviii]  Robert Rosen, Confederate Charleston, University of South Carolina Press, 88.
[xix]   Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, 14.
[xx]   Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, 38.
[xxi]   Lewis M. Killian, White Southerners, (University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), 73.
[xxii]  Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, 219.
[xxiii]  LTC John C. Whatley VI, Jews in the Confederacy.
[xxiv]  Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, 14.
[xxv]   Webb, Fight Against Fear, 11.
[xxvi]   Webb, Fight Against Fear, 11.
[xxvii] Isaac Hermann, Memoirs of a Veteran Who Served as a Private in the 60s in the War Between the States, (CSA Press, 1911). The biblical reference is to Exod. 3:17.
[xxviii]  Hasia R. Diner and Beryl Lieff Benderly, Her Works Prise Her: A History of Jewish Women in America from Colonial Times to the Present, (Basic Books, 2002), 100.
[xxix]  Jacob Rader Marcus, Memoirs of American Jews, 1775-1865, (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955), 21
[xxx]  Marli F. Weiner, Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830-80, (1997), 1.
[xxxi]  Diner and Benderly, Her Works Praise Her, 106.
[xxxii]  Jacob R. Marcus, The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History, 31.
[xxxiii]  Clinton, Southern Families at War, 195.
[xxxiv] Hertzberg, Strangers Within The Gate City, 26
[xxxv]   Seth Forman, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Jewish: Desegregation in the South and the Crisis of Jewish Liberalism,” 121.
[xxxvi]   Webb, Fight Against Fear, 8.
[xxxvii]   Arthur. Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter : a History, (Simon and Schuster, 1989), 47.
[xxxviii]   Clinton, Southern Families at War,  195.
[xxxix]   Korn, “Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865,” in Dinnerstein, Jews in the South, 136.
[xl]   Seth Forman, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Jewish: Desegregation in the South and the Crisis of Jewish Liberalism,” 121.
[xli]  Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, (Oxford University Press, 1994), xi.
[xlii]   Diane Ashton, “Shifting Veils: Religion, Politics and Womanhood Among Jewish Women During the Civil War” in Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna, eds., Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, (University Press of New England, 2001), 83.
[xliii]   Nadell and Sarna, Women and American Judaism, 82.
[xliv]   Dinerstein, Jews in the South, 136.
[xlv]   Nadell and Sarna, Women and American Judaism, 83.
[xlvi]   Nadell and Sarna, Women and American Judaism, 83.
[xlvii]   Dinerstein, Jews in the South, 137.
[xlviii]   Henry L. Feingold, Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present, (Twayne Publishers, 1974), 93.
[xlix]   Clinton, Southern Families at War, 196.
[l]    Clinton, Southern Families at War, 196.
[li]   Nadell and Sarna, Women and American Judaism, 83.
[lii]    George C. Rable, The Confederate Republic: A Revolution against Politics, (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 185. (Michelbacher, Sermon Delivered, 3-14.)
[liii]    Clinton, Southern Families at War, 196.
[liv]    Leonard Rogoff, “Is the Jew White?: The Racial Place of the Southern Jew,” 195.
[lv]    Feingold, Zion in America, 93.
[lvi]    Clinton, Southern Families at War, 196.
[lvii]   Clinton, Southern Families at War, 196.
[lviii]   Dinnerstein, Jews in the South, 141, 142.
[lix]   Clinton, Southern Families at War, 196.
[lx]   Clinton, Southern Families at War, 196.
[lxi]   Clinton, Southern Families at War, 196.
[lxii]   Feingold, Zion in America, 93
[lxiii]   Dinnerstein, Jews in the South, 150.
[lxiv]   Feingold, Zion in America, 93.
[lxv]    Nadell and Sarna, Women and American Judaism, p. 83.
[lxvi]    Nadell and Sarna, Women and American Judaism, p. 83.
[lxvii]  http://www.truthinstitute.org/AJC_010701J_Conf.htm
[lxviii]  Bertram W. Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War, (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951), 164.
[lxix]  Seth Forman, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Jewish: Desegregation in the South and the Crisis of Jewish Liberalism,” 121.
[lxx]  Adams and Bracey, eds., Strangers & Neighbors, 175.
[lxxi]  Dinnerstein, Jews in the South, 239.

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Full Text December 16, 2011: President Barack Obama’s Speech at the 71st General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism

POLITICAL SPEECHES & DOCUMENTS

OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 112TH CONGRESS:

POLITICAL QUOTES & SPEECHES

Remarks by the President at the 71st General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism

Source: WH, 12-16-11
Gaylord Hotel
National Harbor, Maryland

2:37 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you so much.  Thank you, everybody.  Thank you.  Please, please have a seat.  You’re making me blush.  (Laughter.)  Thank you, Eric, for that extraordinary introduction and for your many years of leadership in the Reform movement.  And even though it is a few hours early, I’d like to wish all of you Shabbat shalom.  (Applause.)

Now, there are a lot of familiar faces in the house:  David Saperstein.  (Applause.)  Alan Solow, Rick Jacobs.  (Applause.)  Howard Kohr.

I want to welcome Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.  (Applause.)  The cooperation between our militaries has never been stronger, and I want to thank Ehud for his leadership and his lifelong commitment to Israel’s security and the quest for a just and lasting peace.  (Applause.)

I also want to recognize Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who’s with us here today.  (Applause.)

And finally, I want to give a shout-out to NFTY, I understand is in the house.  (Applause.)  Young people are going to lead the way, and they’re leading the way.  (Applause.)  There you go.  I’m fired up just listening to them.  (Laughter and applause.)

I am honored to be here because of the proud history and tradition of the Union for Reform Judaism, representing more than 900 congregations, around 1.5 million American Jews.

I want to congratulate all of you on the golden anniversary of the Religious Action Center.  (Applause.)   As Eric mentioned, When President Kennedy spoke to leaders from the RAC in 1961, I was three months old, so my memory is a bit hazy.  (Laughter.)  But I am very familiar with the work that you’ve done ever since, and so is the rest of America.

And that’s because you helped draft the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  (Applause.)  You helped to liberate Soviet Jews.  (Applause.)  You have made a difference on so many of the defining issues of the last half-century.  And without these efforts, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today.  So thank you.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  You have brought to life your faith and your values, and the world is a better place for it.

Now, since my daughter Malia has reached the age where it seems like there’s always a Bar or Bat Mitzvah — (laughter) — every weekend, and there is quite a bit of negotiations around the skirts that she wears at these Bat Mitzvahs — (laughter) — do you guys have these conversations as well?  (Laughter.)  All right.  I just wanted to be clear it wasn’t just me.  (Laughter.) What time you get home.

As a consequence, she’s become the family expert on Jewish tradition.  (Laughter.)  And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from her, it’s that it never hurts to begin a speech by discussing the Torah portion.  It doesn’t hurt.  (Laughter and applause.)

So this week — (applause) — congregations around the world will retell the story of Joseph.  (Applause.)  As any fan of Broadway musicals will tell you — (laughter) — there is a lot going on in this reading.  (Laughter.)  But many scholars have focused on a single word that Joseph uses when he replies to his father Jacob.

In Hebrew, that word is “hineni.”  It translates — (applause) — it translates to “Here I am.”  Hineni.  It’s the same word Abraham uses to reply to God before the binding of Isaac.  It’s the same word Moses uses when God summons him from the burning bush.  Hineni.  The text is telling us that while Joseph does not know what lies ahead, he is ready to answer the call.

In this case, “hineni” leads Joseph to Egypt.  It sets in motion a story of enslavement and exodus that would come to inspire leaders like Martin Luther King as they sought freedom.  It’s a story of persecution and perseverance that has repeated itself from Inquisition-era Spain to Tsarist Russia to Hitler’s Germany.

And in that often-tragic history, this place, America, stands out.  (Applause.)  Now, we can’t whitewash the past.  Like so many ethnic groups, Jews faced prejudice, and sometimes violence, as they sought their piece of the American Dream.  But here, Jews finally found a place where their faith was protected; where hard work and responsibility paid off; where no matter who you were or where you came from, you could make it if you tried.  Here in America, you really could build a better life for your children.

I know how much that story means to many of you, because I know how much that story means to me.  My father was from Kenya; my mother was from Kansas –- not places with a large Jewish community.  (Laughter.)  But when my Jewish friends tell me about their ancestors, I feel a connection.  I know what it’s like to think, “Only in America is my story even possible.”  (Applause.)

Now — I have to interrupt.  My friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz just got in the house.  (Applause.)  Now, the Jewish community has always understood that the dream we share is about more than just doing well for yourself.  From the moment our country was founded, American Jews have helped make our union more perfect.  Your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, they remembered what it was like to be a stranger, and as a result treated strangers with compassion.  They pursued tikkun olam, the hard work of repairing the world.  (Applause.)

They fought bigotry because they had experienced bigotry.  They fought for freedom of religion because they understood what it meant to be persecuted for your religious beliefs.  Our country is a better place because they did.  The same values that bring you here today led Justice Brandeis to fight for an America that protects the least of these.  (Applause.)  Those same values led Jewish leaders to found RAC 50 years ago.  (Applause.)  They led Abraham Joshua Heschel to pray with his feet and march with Dr. King.  (Applause.)  And over the last three years, they have brought us together on the most important issues of our time.

When we began this journey, we knew we would have to take on powerful special interests.  We would have to take on a Washington culture where doing what’s politically convenient is often valued above doing what’s right; where the focus is too often on the next election instead of the next generation.  (Applause.)

And so time and time again, we’ve been reminded that change is never easy.  And a number of the rabbis who are here today, when I see them, they’d been saying a prayer.  They noticed my hair is grayer.  (Laughter.)  But we didn’t quit.  You didn’t quit.  And today, we’re beginning to see what change looks like.

And Eric mentioned what change looks like.  Change is the very first bill I signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which says in this country an equal day’s work gets an equal day’s pay.  That’s change.  (Applause.)

Change is finally doing something about our addiction to oil and raising fuel-efficiency standards for the first time in 30 years.  That’s good for our economy.  It’s good for our national security.  (Applause.)  And it’s good for our environment.

Change is confirming two Supreme Court justices who will defend our rights, including our First Amendment rights surrounding religion — happen to be two women, by the way.  That’s also a good thing.  (Applause.)

Change is repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” so that in the first time in history, you don’t have to hide who you love to serve the country that you love.  That’s change.  (Applause.)

Change is working with the Reform movement, and other faith-based groups, to reform the federal faith-based initiatives, improving the way we partner with organizations that serve people in need.  Change is health care reform that we passed after a century of trying, reform that will finally ensure that in the United States of America, nobody goes bankrupt just because they get sick.  That’s change.  (Applause.)

Change is the 2.5 million young people — maybe some of those NFTY folks who have already — (applause) — who have health insurance on their parents’ plans because of Affordable Care Act.  That’s change.  (Applause.)

It’s making family planning more accessible to millions of Americans.  (Applause.)  It’s insurance companies not being able to charge you more just because you’re a woman, or deny you coverage if you have breast cancer.  (Applause.)

Change is committing to real, persistent education reform, because every child in America deserves access to a good school and to higher education — every child.  (Applause.)

And change is keeping one of the first promises I made in 2008:  After nearly nine years, our war in Iraq is ending this month and our troops are coming home.  (Applause.)

That’s what change is.  And none of this would have happened without you.  That’s the kind of change we’ll keep fighting for in the months and years ahead.

And just last night, you took another step towards the change we need and voted for a set of principles of economic justice in a time of fiscal crisis.  (Applause.)  And I want to thank you for your courage.  That statement could not have come at a more important time.  For as you put it, we’re at a crossroads in American history.  Last Tuesday, I gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where I described that crossroads.  And I laid out a vision of our country where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.  (Applause.)  And these are not Democratic values or Republican values; they’re not Christian values or Jewish values or Hindu or Muslim values — they’re shared values, and we have to reclaim them.  We have to restore them to a central place in America’s political life.  (Applause.)

I said it last week, I’ll say it again:  This is not just a political debate.  This is a moral debate.  This is an ethical debate.  It’s a values debate.  It’s the defining issue of our time.  It is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.  (Applause.)  And for those of us who remember parents or grandparents or great-grandparents who had to fight to get in the middle class, but they understood that the American Dream was available to them because we were all in it together — that’s what this is about.  (Applause.)  And last night, you reaffirmed the moral dimension of this debate.  (Applause.)

We have to decide who we are as a country.  Is this a place where everyone is left to fend for themselves?  The most powerful can play by their own rules?  Or do we come together to make sure that working people can earn enough to raise a family, send their kids to college, buy their own home, have a secure health care and a secure retirement?  That is the story that almost all of us here share, in one way or another.  This is a room full of folks who come from immigrants, and remember what it was like to scratch and claw and work.  You haven’t forgotten.  You know what it’s like to see those in your own family struggle.

Well, we have to apply those same values to the American family.  We’re not a country that says, you’re on your own.  When we see neighbors who can’t find work or pay for college or get the health care they need, we answer the call — we say, “Here I am.”  And we will do our part.  (Applause.)

That’s what you affirmed last night.  But more importantly, it’s what you affirm every day with your words and your actions.  And I promise you that as you pray with your feet, I will be right there with you every step of the way.  (Applause.)  I’ll be fighting to create jobs, and give small businesses a chance to succeed.  I’ll be fighting to invest in education and technology.  I will fight to strengthen programs like Medicare and Social Security.  (Applause.)  I will fight to put more money in the pockets of working families.  I won’t be afraid to ask the most well-off among us -– Americans like me –- to pay our fair share, to make sure that everybody has got a shot.  I will fight alongside you every inch of the way.  (Applause.)

And as all of you know, standing up for our values at home is only part of our work.  Around the world, we stand up for values that are universal — including the right of all people to live in peace and security and dignity.  (Applause.)  That’s why we’ve worked on the international stage to promote the rights of women — (applause) — to promote strategies to alleviate poverty — (applause) — to promote the dignity of all people, including gays and lesbians — (applause) — and people with disabilities — (applause) — to promote human rights and democracy.  And that’s why, as President, I have never wavered in pursuit of a just and lasting peace — two states for two peoples; an independent Palestine alongside a secure Jewish State of Israel.  (Applause.)  I have not wavered and will not waver.  That is our shared vision.  (Applause.)

Now, I know that many of you share my frustration sometimes, in terms of the state of the peace process.  There’s so much work to do.  But here’s what I know –- there’s no question about how lasting peace will be achieved.  Peace can’t be imposed from the outside.  Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them.  (Applause.)

And the fact that peace is hard can’t deter us from trying.  Because now more than ever, it’s clear that a just and lasting peace is in the long-term interests of Israel.  It is in the long-term interests of the Palestinian people.  It is in the interest of the region.  It is the interest of the United States, and it is in the interest of the world.  And I am not going to stop in pursuit of that vision.  It is the right thing to do.  (Applause.)

Now, that vision begins with a strong and secure State of Israel.  (Applause.)  And the special bonds between our nations are ones that all Americans hold dear because they’re bonds forged by common interests and shared values.  They’re bonds that transcend partisan politics — or at least they should.  (Applause.)

We stand with Israel as a Jewish democratic state because we know that Israel is born of firmly held values that we, as Americans, share:  a culture committed to justice, a land that welcomes the weary, a people devoted to tikkun olam.  (Applause.)

So America’s commitment — America’s commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel’s security is unshakeable.  It is unshakeable.  (Applause.)

I said it in September at the United Nations.  I said it when I stood amid the homes in Sderot that had been struck by missiles:  No nation can tolerate terror.  And no nation can accept rockets targeting innocent men, women and children.  No nation can yield to suicide bombers.  (Applause.)

And as Ehud has said, it is hard to remember a time when the United States has given stronger support to Israel on its security.  In fact, I am proud to say that no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours.  None.  Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise.  It is a fact.  (Applause.)

I’m proud that even in these difficult times we’ve fought for and secured the most funding for Israel in history.  I’m proud that we helped Israel develop a missile defense system that’s already protecting civilians from rocket attacks.  (Applause.)

Another grave concern -– and a threat to the security of Israel, the United States and the world -– is Iran’s nuclear program.  And that’s why our policy has been absolutely clear:  We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  (Applause.)  And that’s why we’ve worked painstakingly from the moment I took office with allies and partners, and we have imposed the most comprehensive, the hardest-hitting sanctions that the Iranian regime has ever faced.  We haven’t just talked about it, we have done it.  And we’re going to keep up the pressure.  (Applause.)  And that’s why, rest assured, we will take no options off the table.  We have been clear.

We’re going to keep standing with our Israeli friends and allies, just as we’ve been doing when they’ve needed us most.  In September, when a mob threatened the Israeli embassy in Cairo, we worked to ensure that the men and women working there were able to get out safely.  (Applause.)  Last year, when raging fires threatened Haifa, we dispatched fire-fighting planes to help put out the blaze. (Applause.)

On my watch, the United States of America has led the way, from Durban to the United Nations, against attempts to use international forums to delegitimize Israel.  And we will continue to do so.  (Applause.)  That’s what friends and allies do for each other.  So don’t let anybody else tell a different story.  We have been there, and we will continue to be there.  Those are the facts.  (Applause.)

And when I look back on the last few years, I’m proud of the decisions I’ve made, and I’m proud of what we’ve done together.  But today isn’t about resting on our laurels.  As your tradition teaches, we’re not obligated to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.  (Applause.)

We’ve got to keep going.  So today we look forward to the world not just as it is but as it could be.  And when we do, the truth is clear:  Our union is not yet perfect.  Our world is still in desperate need of repair.  And each of us still hears that call.

And the question is, how we will respond?  In this moment, every American, of every faith, every background has the opportunity to stand up and say:  Here I am.  Hineni.  Here I am.  I am ready to keep alive our country’s promise.  I am ready to speak up for our values at home and abroad.  I am ready to do what needs to be done.  The work may not be finished in a day, in a year, in a term, in a lifetime, but I’m ready to do my part.  (Applause.)

And I believe that with tradition as our guide, we will seize that opportunity.  And in the face of daunting odds, we will make the choices that are hard but are right.  That’s how we’ve overcome tougher times before.  That’s how we will overcome the challenges that we face today.  And together, we will rewrite the next chapter in America’s story and prove that our best days are still to come.

Thank you, God bless you, God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)

END
3:08 P.M. EST

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