Biblical history tells us that Abrahamic monotheism, the foundation of not only Judaism but Christianity and Islam as well, began some four thousand years ago in Ur, the ancient land that is now southern Iraq. There, the patriarch Abraham made his sacred covenant with God in which the followers of Abraham were to someday inherit the promised land of Canaan. A millennium later, the Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah were finally established there, along with the written text of Judaism presented in the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah.
In another thousand years, however, that land which the Romans called Judaea became a protectorate of the Roman Empire that was administered by a Roman governor. Within a few years, the Jews rose up in rebellion against the harsh Roman rule and its onerous taxation. The revolt was crushed in 73 B. C. with the capital of Jerusalem being almost totally destroyed, the area annexed as a Roman province and the Jews driven from their promised land. Thus began their two-thousand year Diaspora . . . a tragic journey that would entail much suffering and lead them to every corner of the world.
Initially, the Jews were allowed to live in relative peace in the various lands to which they traveled, but that changed radically in the Fourth Century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Jews were then accused of being responsible for the death of Jesus and soon became regarded as pariahs . . . a people forever to be rejected by society and, like lepers, made to live apart from others. Only with the coming of Islam three hundred years later did the Jews finally find a safe haven among the adherents of this new form of Abrahamic monotheism. This was particularly true in the Iberian Peninsula which had been conquered by the Islamic Moors of North Africa.
During their eight hundred years in Spain and Portugal, the Jews not only were allowed to live in peace but became a vital part of Moorish society, serving their Islamic hosts in a variety of important capacities. This too came to a tragic end in 1492 when the Christian forces of Castile and Aragon drove the Moors from the peninsula. At that time, the Jews were faced with three choices . . . convert to Christianity, depart with the Moors or be tried for heresy and executed. Those who chose the first alternative became known as “Conversos,” with some rising to important positions in Spain and Portugal.
One such person was Luis de Carabajai y Cueva, the son of Portuguese converts, who became a royal accountant for Portugal’s African slave trade in Cape Verde. Around 1550, he moved to Spain where he was made second in command of a Spanish Indies fleet that was to sail to New Spain in Mexico, and where he would assume the post of mayor of Tampico. In 1579, King Philip II of Spain named Carabajai governor of Nuevo Reino de León, a vast region that took in much of northern Mexico and southern Texas. Earlier, during an expedition to that area in 1554, he had crossed the Rio Grande River into what is now Texas, and thus became the first person of Jewish heritage to set foot in what would become the American South.
The first actual Jew to settle temporarily in the South was Bohemian-born Joachim Ganz, a mining expert and metallurgist who had immigrated to England in 1581. There, he developed a highly improved method of smelting copper which brought him to the attention of Sir Ralph Lane, the first governor of the Virginia Colony, who was organizing a mining expedition to the Colony with the support of Sir Walter Raleigh. Lane selected Ganz as his mineral expert and in June of 1585, the expedition landed and camped on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Two months later, the group moved to Roanoke Island where they established the first settlement of the Virginia Colony. Plagued by a lack of supplies and attacks by the local tribes during the following year, as well as not finding any significant mineral deposits in the area, the colony was abandoned, with the group, including Ganz, returning to England.
The next to arrive in the South as a true settler was a French Jew, Elias Legarde, who arrived in James City of the Virginia Colony in 1621 aboard the ship “Abigail.” Legarde went to the Colony as an indentured servant of another Frenchman who had sailed on the same vessel, Anthonie Bonall, a viniculturist and silk maker. Seven years later, Legarde was released from his indenture and leased a hundred acres of land in Elizabeth City on which he started his own vineyards. Other Jews also began to settle in the Virginia Colony during that early period, such as Josef Moses and Rebecca Isaaks who had both come to Elizabeth City in 1624, John Levy who purchased two hundred acres of land along Powell’s Creek in Prince George County in 1648 and the Rodrigues brothers, Silvedo and Manuel, who arrived in Lancaster County about 1650.
The first Jews to come to North America as a group, however, were the four men, six women and thirteen children from Portuguese Brazil who landed on Manhattan Island in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in September of 1654. Unlike in the South, their reception in the Dutch colony was not a warm one and the colonial governor, Peter Stuyvesant, who considered all Jews to be deceitful and repugnant, seized their possessions. He then ordered that the group be expelled on the grounds that they were indigent. Friends in Holland appealed to the Dutch West India Company that controlled the colony and Stuyvesant’s order was overruled. The following year, the Company grudgingly issued formal approval for Jews to be allowed to live in the colony “so long as they do not become a burden to the Company or the community.”
During his entire term as governor, Stuyvesant continued to make life miserable for the Jews, such as barring them from serving in the home guard or any other public office and then taxing them to pay for their replacements. Jews were also not allowed to establish a synagogue or open any retail business. While much the same feeling towards Jews existed in most of the Northern English and French colonies of America, the reverse was true in the Southern British colonies. An example of this involved the second, larger group of Jews to arrive in the New World during the following century.
On July 11, 1733, only a month after the founding of the Georgia Colony by James Oglethorpe, the schooner “William and Sarah” landed in Savannah with forty-two Jewish men and women aboard who were welcomed into the Colony. Included in the group was Dr. Samuel Nuñes, the first physician to settle in America and who perhaps saved the entire Colony during an early outbreak of yellow fever. A few years later, some of these Jews relocated to Charleston in the South Carolina Colony where they formed the nucleus of the large Jewish community that soon developed in that city. By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, the Jewish population in the British colonies was between two and three hundred and except for the few living in New York, virtually all resided in Georgia and South Carolina.
The welcome given to these early settlers attracted many other Jews to the South, and by 1800, there were over two thousand Jews living in South Carolina alone, mainly in Charleston which remained the center of Jewish life in North America until being surpassed by New Orleans three decades later. During the years just prior to the War Between the States, the Jewish population in America had swelled to about a hundred fifty thousand, with a third of them living in Louisiana. While Georgia and South Carolina still remained important Jewish centers, many others had gone to Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. On the other hand, in the North, even though many Jews did immigrate there, mainly from the various German states, conditions for them generally remained far less than cordial. The situation became even worse toward the mid-Nineteenth Century when a number of secret anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic organizations were formed in the North, such as the Order of the Stars Spangled Banner that began in New York City around 1840.
Many of these groups later became the basis for the nativist American Party, better known as the “Know Nothings,” that was established in New York in 1844. Even though the “Know Nothings” faded from the political scene in 1860, their bias towards Jews continued to grow in the North later that century. Historian John Higham, the author of the 1957 analysis “Social Discrimination Against Jews in America, 1830-1930,” once commented that “Kansas farmers, Cambridge intellectuals and Manhattan day laborers shared one great fantasy; they believed that Jews lay at the root of their problems.”
The greater acceptance of Jews in the South and their prominence in Southern life was even used against Northern Jews during the War Between the States. Those Jews were publicly condemned by Union politicians because thousands of their co-religionists in the South were serving in the Confederate military and others, such as Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, were holding high positions in the government. Many of the Union’s military commanders, including Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Benjamin Butler, were also openly anti-Semitic and often persecuted Jews whenever given a chance to do so. One outstanding instance of such prejudice occurred in 1862 when General Grant issued his infamous General Order No. 11 expelling all Jews from the States of Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Another example concerned the providing of spiritual comfort to those in the military during that War. In July of 1861, the United States Congress passed a bill which authorized regimental commanders to appoint military chaplains, but with the proviso that they be “a regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” Only Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, a non-jew who was later expelled from the Union for pro-Confederate sentiments, opposed the measure on the grounds that it discriminated against Jews. Several months later, it was discovered that a largely German regiment in Pennsylvania, “Cameron’s Dragoons,” had elected Michael Allen, a Jew, as their chaplain and Allen was forced to resign as he was neither “ordained” nor a Christian. Following this, the regiment’s officers tested the law by electing an ordained rabbi, Arnold Fischel, as their chaplain. This time the matter was sent to Secretary of War Simon Cameron for whom the regiment was named, but he denied that appointment as well. It was not until the following year that Jewish pressure on President Lincoln forced him to rescind the law and in September of 1862, Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia was named as a Union hospital chaplain.
Conversely, in the South, when the War began in April of 1861, Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope’s recommendation to Congress that his Department be allowed to appoint military chaplains of all faiths was swiftly enacted. While no official Confederate records remain in regard to those chaplains, it is known that several rabbis did serve in that capacity. In a 1963 article for the American Jewish Historical Quarterly, Rabbi Bertram Korn, a former rear admiral in the Navy’s Chaplain Corps, cited a number of those individuals, such as Rabbis James Guthaim of New Orleans and two from Richmond, Virginia, George Jacobs and Maximilian Michelbacher. As early as August of 1861, Rabbi Michelbacher wrote to General Robert E. Lee requesting that Jews be granted furloughs to attend services during the high holy days. Even though Lee was sympathetic to the request, he said that while “the necessities of war admit no such relaxation of the efforts required for its success,” he would leave the matter up to his local commanders to grant such a request whenever conditions allowed it. General Lee also had personal relations with many Jews during the War, such as his friendship with the future world-renowned sculptor, Cadet Sergeant Moses Ezekiel of the Virginia Military Institute, whom he once advised to pursue a career in art.
The prejudice in the North ultimately led to various types of discrimination throughout the region in the latter part of the century, particularly in New York and New Jersey where many resort hotels, schools, private clubs and even local militia units began to bar Jews. Little of this ever took place in the Southern States however. For example, Jews had held many high public offices in the South since colonial days, such as Francis Salvadore, the first Jew in America to be elected to public office when he became a member of the South Carolina Provincial Congress in 1774. A decade later, David Emanuel was elected to the Georgia State Assembly, rose to be president of the State Senate in 1797 and in 1801, became America’s first Jewish governor. Whereas, in New Hampshire, full legal equality for Jews, including the right to hold public office, was not granted until 1877.
The surge of Northern anti-Semitism grew even stronger in the early 1900s after the influx of millions of impoverished Eastern European Jews to America, with most of them arriving in the North where they were forced to live under ghetto-like conditions in major cities like New York and Chicago. This was manifested not only in the propaganda of hate groups like the many Northern branches of the Ku Klux Klan, but by such prominent Northerners as auto magnate Henry Ford of Michigan whose newspaper, “The Dearborn Independent,” printed numerous anti-Semitic articles in the 1920s. Ford also published a four-volume work, “The International Jew,” that was largely based on the fictitious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” There was also Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin whose virulently anti-Jewish radio broadcasts a decade later reached an estimated daily audience of thirty million Americans.
Except for a few periods of relative respite, such as in Napoleonic France during the late Eighteenth Century and the Prussian-led German Empire over half a century later, the Jews who remained in Europe were forced to contend with centuries of inquisitions, pogroms, brutal persecution and almost total ostracization that finally culminated in the genocidal Nazi Holocaust. Following the horrors of World War Two, many of the Jews still left alive in Europe finally returned to the promised land of Israel. On the other hand, those who had previously chosen to rise from European bondage and cross the Atlantic Ocean, their latter-day Red Sea, managed to find their new Canaan in America, particularly in the land of Southern hospitality.