The Confederate flag that Dylann Roof posed with in an online photo before he murdered nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C. church in late June is as powerful a symbol as there is. Perhaps only the swastika elicits a more emotional response.
During the Civil War, the South used a variety of flags, but it was the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia with its distinctive blue St. Andrew’s cross (or saltire) with 13 stars on a red field that has endured as the emblem of southern secession and slavery. A century after the war ended and slavery was abolished, when African-Americans fought for their civil rights, many southern states including South Carolina adopted the flag as a symbol of their determination to maintain the racist status quo.
Many American Jews stood side-by-side with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. And Jews in general, who each year on Passover denounce the evils of slavery, have been strong advocates for social justice. Nonetheless, as difficult as it is for Jews today to accept, in 1861, thousands of young Jewish men enlisted in the Confederate army to defend southern rights. They may not have been necessarily fighting to preserve slavery, though many of their families did own slaves. And that included such esteemed rabbis as George Jacobs of Richmond, Va. who “rented” slaves for housework. Jacobs later relocated to Philadelphia and was instrumental in founding the city’s YMHA and the Jewish Publication Society.
Jews were hardly the largest slave owners in the south. As historian Saul Friedman points out, members of the Levy family, merchants in South Carolina, for instance, bought or sold 150 slaves during the period from 1783 to 1858. By comparison some of the large southern slave holders bought or sold more than 100 slaves in a single day. Friedman’s analysis indicates that in the decades before the Civil War, “Jews owned less than 0.03 per cent of all the slaves in America.” Yet when the call to arms came, Jews answered.
“This land has been good to all of us. We shall not be deprived of rights or property… I shall fight to my last breath and to the full extent of my fortune to defend that in which I believe,” Jake Weil, a Prussian-Jewish immigrant, wrote to his brother back in Europe soon after he witnessed the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederacy in early 1861. (A key member of the Davis’ Confederate cabinet was Judah Benjamin, a Jewish senator from Louisiana.)
And Weil was hardly the only Jew to feel that way. By the end of the war about 10,000 Jews had fought and many had died for the South – like 19-year old Lt. Albert Luria from an Orthodox Jewish family in Columbus, Ga. (Approximately 8,400 Jews joined the Union army in the north). The vast majority of the southern recruits were recently arrived German immigrants like Weil; clerks, peddlers, tailors and merchants, who were grateful for the new opportunities southern cities had offered them. Despite the existence of anti-Semitism, arguably worse in the north in mid-19th century than the south, they “adopted the southern way of life, including the code of honour, duelling, slavery and southern notions about race and states’ rights,” according to American historian Mark I. Greenberg.
No matter how they justified their defence of the South, the Civil War at its core was about the preservation of slavery. In the decades that followed, Jews continued to sing the praises of the South as well as revere the Confederate flag. But as the war’s legacy and its flag were hijacked by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists who hated Jews nearly as much as African-Americans, those patriotic feelings dissipated. In 1958, the bombing of synagogues in Atlanta and Nashville by the hate group, the “Confederate Underground” left no doubt that among some southerners Jewish participation in the war was merely a historical footnote, best not dwelled upon.
Historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.