Looking Back 150 Years, Jewish Record Far From Admirable.
The 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United States — Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment in late January 1865 — comes at an fraught moment in the history of race relations. Considering that black men are being killed by police at the same rate as they were lynched in the era of Jim Crow, it can be depressing to reflect on how many promises of 1865, not to mention 1776, have not yet been fulfilled. But it can also be edifying to probe into some of the lesser-known aspects of the story of how the emancipation of slaves was finally accomplished. The history of the abolitionist movement is of more than antiquarian interest: it should serve to inspire us to finish the job today.
Nobody can argue that the balance of the Jewish record on the question of American slavery and the Civil War is anything but regrettable. If the career of Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin were not enough, the overwhelming complacency of the antebellum Jewish community, even in the North, provides a record sufficiently embarrassing to warrant official acknowledgement — even, perhaps, reparation.
But there were American Jews before the war who risked everything to fight the South’s “peculiar institution.” Familiar with the story of Exodus, they knew it was not actually all that peculiar. Now, 150 years after the end of slavery, when the unfinished work of emancipation and Reconstruction is announced daily in the headlines, it is worth lighting a yahrtzeit candle to those Jews who found in Judaism the imperative to line up, every time, with the oppressed. Before Selma, before socialism, the Jewish abolitionists were the first to map that once-fertile, now neglected terrain: the intersection of the identities of radical, American and Jew.