The Dangerous Myth of the Southern Sephardim, Pt. II

Part II: The Sephardic Jews of America and the South

The Sephardim, it is important to observe, never developed the reputation in Spain for blood-thirstiness or murder, neither were they often accused of the sexual exploitation of Christian girls, as were their Ashkenazi cousins in Central Europe. The open violence, greed, and degenerate living that have come to make up the stereotype of Jews in Europe does not belong to the Jews of Spain, and it would be inaccurate, even unfair, to portray Spanish Jews in such a way. They were refined, assimilated, and, rather, had a reputation for subtle and nuanced undercutting, false conversions and Indian-giving, and, of course, the innocuous appearance with which they baited Christians to fight amongst themselves so as to prevent them from fighting an outside enemy. Their ability to ingratiate themselves to their hosts, even while undermining them, is the defining characteristic of their tribe.

The majority of Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal after their expulsion went to three destinations—Holland, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire. The role of the Jews in shattering Christendom in the coming centuries is often overlooked—but it cannot be denied that Roman and Reformed camps alike favoured the Jews and then turned against them as they discovered the true nature of their “friendship”. The false Masoretic text of scripture captured a number of Reformers, who subsequently allowed it to corrupt the text of the vernacular Bibles, including the denial—central to the Arian heresy, we must remember—of the Virgin Birth which is central to Nicaean Christian belief. So much of the good intention of the Protestant Reformers, seeing the abuses of the Roman church in their lands, was turned to destruction by the interference from Jews—most of them “refugees” fleeing Iberia. Pope Leo X, responsible for the illegitimate sale of indulgences to fund his massive building projects, also approved the publication of the Talmud for popular consumption among literate Christendom. Luther, before his realization that he was himself being used, gushed of the “Jewishness” of Christ, and worked against the leading anti-Judaic writer of the day, Johannes Pfefferkorn (himself a genuine convert from Judaism who worked tirelessly to stamp out the evil of the Talmud).

The Jews in Italy suffered serious turn-arounds, largely as a result of defectors from their own camp becoming dedicated Christians and spreading the content of the Talmud and other Jewish texts among the Christians of the day, revealing the falsehoods of Judaism and the dangers posed by the Jews to the Church. In the end, only the mercantile superpower and ally of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Venice, opened its doors to them—and there they flocked, becoming major figures in Mediterranean trade themselves. (It is not for nothing that both Shakespeare’s Shylock and Marlowe’s Barabas are Italian Jews—Italian Sephardim to be precise). Pope S. Pius V, overseeing the Council of Trent, restored all previous bulls on the subject of the Jews by his predecessors, driving them hence from the Papal States. Only the Calvinists continued on friendly terms with the Jewish communities, which grew significantly in all the major mercantile centres of Europe, funding efforts to combat the growth of Spanish power in the New World.

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Council of Trent

Bringing the Talmud to America

From Holland, the Sephardic Jews played a central role in harbouring the greatest enemies of our people, the tyrannical Puritans, who were put to flight from England in the 1660s after attempting to establish a theocracy in England based largely on principles S. Chrysostom would have recognized as a Judaized, counterfeit Christianity. Likewise, the Jews of Holland made up a larger portion of the Sephardim who would establish their communities in South Carolina, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and elsewhere in the English colonies. With the arrival of the Enlightenment, itself a movement heavily influenced by Sephardic Jewish intellectuals, emancipation of the Jews allowed for greater freedom of movement and much more difficult detection on the part of the remaining defenders of Christianity.

By the time the Jews arrived in the New World, therefore, they had been assimilating to protect their own interests for centuries. This did not stop when they came to the Americas. Jews in the Northern colonies worked closely with local authorities and religious sects, introducing Hebraic ideas just as readily as Jews in the Southern colonies. By 1722, the first Jewish professor at Harvard, a marrano from Portugal, established himself as a leading authority on Hebrew literature and scripture—and indispensable resource for the scripture-conscious New Englanders. Judah Monis’ readings and interpretations of Hebrew scripture and literature undeniably shaped the religiosity of all who were touched by Harvard’s reputation, especially since Hebrew was a required course at among all Harvard’s upperclassmen. Elsewhere, a Dutch Sephardic, Moses Hays, managed to have the words “upon the true faith of a Christian” scrubbed from a loyalty oath in Newport. Arriving later in Boston, he opened Massachusetts Bank and initiated the first Masonic lodge in all New England. His legacy included sizable donations to Harvard to maintain the theatre there.

A far more insidious character is the first Southern Jew, Jacob Lumbrozo, who was forced to flee Portugal for Holland and then made his way to the colony of Maryland, where he first appears in a very public case of blasphemy for publicly declaring Jesus Christ to be a “necromancer”. He was convicted, but given amnesty by Richard Cromwell. Not long after, he brought a case against one of the ministers involved in his blasphemy suit, declaring the minister had not paid the required fees for the reading of banns and marriage licenses. Having destroyed the minister’s reputation, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Lumbrozo had a hard time keeping out of the public eye; he appeared as a witness in 1669 in a defamation suit where one Margery Gould was charging libel against a woman who had called her a whore. Lumbrozo was listed as “a dear friend” of Mrs. Gould and her husband, but after the case was settled, the couple filed charges of attempted rape when Lumbrozo had (forcefully) demanded sexual favours as payment for his testimony. When he counter-sued for defamation it was revealed he was in fact the employer of the Goulds (actually a conditional indenture from which the Goulds had a right to release if the rape could be proved), Lumbrozo withdrew his suit, freeing the Goulds but avoiding conviction of attempted rape.

It was South Carolina, however, that became the headquarters of early American Jewry, and can boast for their part the first Jew elected to public office in the Americas and the birthplace of one of the most insidious faces of international Jewry, Reform Judaism, dedicated to the idea of putting aside the religious requirements of the Jewish religion that might make it difficult for them to participate in social activities. Kosher diet laws are ignored in general, the Sabbath not kept as strictly, legal loopholes found for abuses like usury—all things that make it infinitely easier for a Jew to infiltrate and hide among his host population. The Reform Jew can eat barbecue, swindle fellow Jews to feign a lack of favouritism, work and meet men on Saturday while resting inside on Sunday. Here in the Tidewater, just as in Spain, Sephardic Jewry ingratiated themselves to the emerging aristocracy to guarantee their social standing through just such strategies. After everything that has already been written, perhaps it ought to be said that there is something impressive, even admirable, about the ability of the Sephardic Jewish community to preserve themselves in both hostile and friendly environments. The unique mastery of mercantile undertakings and political manipulation is not evil in itself; it is dangerous to us, but that does not make it immoral objectively. The Sephardic Jews had mastered, in a way their Ashkenazim cousins could not and their Mizrahim cousins did not need to, the art of self-preservation away from their ancient homeland—so well, in fact, that they consider a return to that ancient homeland to be less beneficial to them than to remain as a foreign, wandering people in friendly host-countries.

The danger remains, however, to their host population, whom they will inevitably view from a purely practical standpoint. What benefits the tribe is good, what does not benefit it should be resisted by all possible means. The Sephardic community, being overrepresented in those Dutch company undertakings that shaped the trans-Atlantic slave trade, benefited tremendously from the status quo in the American South. The liberal society fostered by Sephardic Jewry in the 18th and early 19th centuries had started to shift in the mid-1800s with the arrival of large quantities of European immigrants from Catholic nations—Ireland and Italy especially. No Sephardic Jew, with their experience in Spain, Italy, and France could be blind to what such a demographic change would mean for their people. Indeed, a mere 30 years separated the failure of the Confederate cause and the frenzy of the Dreyfus Affair in France, demonstrating clearly what many South Carolinian Jews had already begun to suspect in the 1840s—a “Golden Age of American Jewry” was a tenuous proposition indeed.

Northern attitudes towards the Jews, defined by frontiersmen like Grant, were also shifting due to a large influx of Ashkenazim from Russia and Austria—the same Jews who would ruin everything the Sephardim had built in Central Europe. Far from identifying en masse with the Southern cause, therefore, there were significant motivations for Sephardic Jews to support the Confederacy without any reference at all to either the Southern people or even their own economic gain (which actually was far greater for their Ashkenazim cousins who, along with a few Gentile hucksters, defrauded the US government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by setting up false supply companies and then providing cut-rate and fake supplies, or simply skipping town after the US Army had paid the bill.) The Sephardic community was, as a whole, adopting the posture of the European Hofjude – the “court Jew” – a fixture of many European courts (especially the German small states). They would serve as a quiet advisor lurking in the background, offering solutions to problems that secured their own place and might appear unethical or untoward coming from a Christian advisor or member of the royal family.

The Confederacy’s “Pet Jew”: Judah Benjamin

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None was a clearer articulation of the Hofjude archetype than Judah Benjamin. It is to his credit that President Davis earned the reputation of undying loyalty to those he perceived to be his friends; as readily as he met offenses with the duelling pistol, he treated favours with the fullest possible reciprocation. His presidency was, therefore, an ideal environment for a Hofjude to arise. Enter Judah Benjamin, the eager-to-please scion of a disgraced house, whose family struggled to survive during the British occupation of the Danish island of St Croix, ultimately fleeing to the tribal capital of Charleston. As dedicated to education then as they are now, the local community recognized mental abilities in young Judah and his school-teachers gained him admission to Yale University in New Haven, a city which, though it banned all non-Christian bodies prior to the 1840s, was quite friendly to the Jews, such that the President of Yale in the 1770s even took note of new arrivals in approving language.

To Yale Judah Benjamin went, ambitious to join the ranks of distinguished South Carolinians like John C. Calhoun. Alas, it was not to be. The oppressive nature of his own personality saw him expelled for “ungentlemanly conduct”, though there was enough positive influence as to cover up whatever crime he was guilty of—though gambling, whoring, and kleptomania were all popular rumours played up in the Yankee press during the war. That he conducted himself in a way completely unbecoming of a Christian is sure—precisely what he did is left to the imagination, but such an imagination need not be especially vivid to draw up images of swindling and card-cheating endemic to the race of homeless merchants to which Benjamin belonged.

Refusing to return to Charleston such a disgrace to his people, he instead travelled to New Orleans, where he established himself as an attorney in good repute by offering to take the wayward daughter of a local Creole magnate off his hands. The mixed-marriage flew in the face of French custom, and the young Natalie was apparently as displeased with the arrangement as her father was relieved by it. After learning English and bearing Benjamin a daughter, she departed for Paris, where she apparently adopted and then discarded a long series of paramours and admirers throughout the rest of her life. The arrangement has let at least some contemporary historians to propose Benjamin’s involvement in sodomitic practises—possibly also the reason for his departure from Yale. However, no evidence of male lovers has ever surfaced (as has happened with Lincoln, for example) to give flesh to the speculation. At any rate, taking advantage of his new connexion, he further ingratiated himself with the Creole elite of the city and eventually gained a Senatorial appointment from the governor of Louisiana.

Having built his fortune in New Orleans, the mercantile capital of the Delta slave-trade, Benjamin spoke eloquently in defence of the institution that enriched his clients, but slowly shifted under the influence of the fire-eaters became a voice of Southern rights in the Senate. While the Yankees of the body continued to attack “that little Jew from New Orleans”, he was generally well-received and well-respected by other Southerners. As loyal as he was to friends, however, Benjamin was both heavy-handed and pitiless with underlings and rivals, which tended to cause even friends to distrust him. When secession was declared, he resigned his position in the Senate, but his sense of self-preservation drove him to immediately flee the District of Columbia and go to Louisiana. Davis was quick to appoint Benjamin to the post of Attorney General, remarking that he “had a very high reputation as a lawyer” and that he admired “the lucidity of his intellect, his systematic habits, and capacity for labour”. Contemporaries observed, however, that for a man whose work ethic was admirable, the Attorney Generalship was a wasted role—with no developed system of courts, the Attorney General had very little to do other than observe.

Benjamin by no means wasted his time, however; what he needed most of all was a sponsor, a patron that would guarantee his place and fortune in return for the sort of personal—fanatical—sense of personal loyalty he had cultivated in himself in New Orleans. He found Jefferson Davis was precisely such a man, and throughout the War, with every fierce defence Benjamin demonstrated of Davis’ ideas, Davis made another ill-advised promotion, until Benjamin was Secretary of State and the city of Richmond hated both him and his devoted patron.

The dislike of Benjamin has been falsely imputed to a sort of casual anti-Semitism common to “American” culture at the time. The reality, however, has much more to do with Benjamin himself. As doggedly devoted as he was to his sponsor, Benjamin was heavy-handed with his equals and imperious with underlings. His treatment of Generals Beauregard and Jackson as Secretary of War was so harsh that both men tendered resignations— though Stonewall’s, in fact, never made it to Davis’ desk; he was talked out of it by one of his lieutenants. His cold dismissal of a call for reinforcements in Roanoke led to the utter destruction of the Confederate force there, completely destroying his reputation as a statesman for even the most patient Southerner. When he was rewarded with the Secretary of State rather than demoted from Secretary of War, there was justified outrage.

Benjamin’s advice on trade and investment was never taken by the Confederate government (much to the Confederacy’s detriment)—but he certainly took the advice himself. The majority of his money was kept in overseas accounts (mostly in France, purportedly for his wife’s access), and he did some measure of speculation in the market to keep himself financially solvent in the worst months of the War. In the end, his suggestion to separate from Davis fleeing the capital led to the President being captured, while the man who Mary Chestnut called his “pet Jew”, made it to the coast and fled for England, where he went on to lead a very successful career as a Tory-leaning barrister.

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Mary Chestnut

Benjamin’s last act before fleeing was convincing Davis that his idea for a prolonged guerrilla war against Yankee aggression was both foolhardy and destructive. General Lee, for his part, had already advised that he considered that species of fighting to be dishonourable, so Davis was forced to begrudgingly accept defeat. It is a disservice to Lee, however, that he is often said to have ignored Davis’ desires and led the Confederacy and the South into shackles rather than fighting to the death—Lee was encouraged in his misgivings, and Davis ultimately abandoned his plans, in large part because of Benjamin’s lobbying. He knew from his own historical knowledge that the jig was up, so to speak, and that the last, best hope resided in fleeing to another place receptive to his people. Disraeli’s Great Britain was an obvious choice.

Franklin Moses, the Sephardic Scalawag

Not every Southern Jew was so fortunate as Benjamin. Many had to make due afterwards. The archetype of the post-war Jew is defined by Franklin Moses, Jr., who is also perhaps the most illustrative example of the Southern Sephardic Jew. (((Benjamin Ginsberg))) is the most recent author on the life of this curious creature—a fire-eater turned Confederate commander turned Radical Reconstructing governor of South Carolina. Not only was he a radical reconstructionist, he was far ahead of his time: forcing through legislation that has explicit parallels to social welfare programs and preferential treatment for minorities, he modelled what would become the dominant form of Jewish influence on public policy in the 20th century.

R.H. Woody wrote in his seminal study of Moses that he was “suave, polite, elegant in manners, impressive in appearance, and bearing many of the ear-marks, externally at least, of the ideal Southern gentleman, he was a shrewd, unscrupulous scoundrel, untrue to his friends, unfaithful in his public trusts, and devoid of fine moral instincts”. It would perhaps be unfair to impute all of that to Judah Benjamin, but he was certainly not without some of those traits, typical as they are to the flatterer and parvenu type that Benjamin represented. Moses, though, was inarguably a far worse traitor than Benjamin was ever accused of being, well within the tradition of his ancestors who undermined Visigothic Christendom.

Franklin Israel Moses was the son of a successful flatterer who had won himself one of the daughters of the lesser Tidewater nobles, Jane McLellan. He was a skilled attorney and reader of the winds, siding with Jackson on nullification (he was a student and close confidant of James Petigru), Pierce and Douglass on Kansas-Nebraska, and then, belatedly, the fire-eaters on secession. He then found his way onto the Constitutional Convention of 1865 in South Carolina, and was elected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of that State with broad Radical Republican support. He raised his son according to his wife’s faith, but as the younger Moses’ life demonstrates, he was taught as previous generations of his people had understood, that Christianity and Judaism were not different religions, but two expressions of the same basic faith, of which Judaism was the elder and more venerable, but Christianity was the wiser and more expedient for a member of his race.

Franklin Moses, Jr. was similarly endowed with a gift for seeing the signs of the times. He entered South Carolina College in 1853 but withdrew two years later to marry the daughter of James Richardson of Sumter, a distinguished attorney and state court reporter. With Richardson’s introductions and his father’s aid, he entered public life as the personal secretary of the governor, naturally adopting the position of Pickens himself, vocally embracing the doctrine of States’ Rights and Secession, but being careful that his name was never on any document endorsing either of them until after the end of the War when his standing with the Johnson administration was beyond question. He then set forth to campaign for Reconstruction as fervently as possible from the pages of a conservative, pro-South newspaper, wherein he condemned the carpetbagger and the radical but elevated the freed Negro and his untapped potential. The Negro, he said, was untouched—and, having been made equal to the White man, be brought up to be a truly independent and sovereign individual, free from the faults of the collective that had prevented anyone from denouncing the “insanity” of secession in 1860.

Then he stepped further, imagining himself perhaps more secure than he was—at the Republican Convention of South Carolina in 1868, he protested the presence of a chaplain, claiming that the institution of having a man of God at political conventions had been “prostituted” lately, and politicized religion—and, furthermore, that chaplaincy was a paid position, and the convention should only hear prayers from men who were willing to do so free of charge! A ventryman of a local Southern Methodist Church and a close friend of Bishop Cain of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Moses was convincing in his argument—and representative of his people’s tendency to undermine Christianity wherever it seemed too powerful to them.

The success of the Republicans that year seemed to confirm suspicions of Moses’ sagacity, and in less than four years he became governor—since infamous as one of the most corrupt and criminal governors in the history of the Carolinas. He handed out positions to his journalist employees and friends, engaged in sales and purchases on the black market, manipulating prices and laws to benefit himself, and collected tens of thousands of dollars in personal income from taxes that were funnelled into his personal projects. He could live high on the hog for only a short time, however—by 1874 he was declaring voluntary bankruptcy (a year after he had a suit for involuntary bankruptcy dismissed). He was also infamous for letting criminals roam free, and sought to establish programs to fund them upon release. In less than two years, he granted 421 pardons, the bulk going to petty criminals, murderers, and a dozen to men convicted of abusing their offices for personal gain (almost all of them Negroes). After his fall, his Radical friends in the South Carolina Assembly nominated him and a coloured candidate “of unsavoury reputation” to judicial benches in the State, which the governor vetoed but went forward anyway. Then, he vanishes. He resurfaces going in and out of prison for swindling and stealing, more or less right up until his suicide in 1906.

It is true that the case studies we have visited here represent individuals, and that therefore the protest may be made that they are not generally representative. Nevertheless, that they should be such prominent representatives of their people, and that they should not have been buried or forgotten, but well-recorded and memorialised, and this speaks volumes to the values and sense of security among international Jewry. They are, therefore, illustrative examples to lay to rest the myth—which we invented—that “our Jews” were somehow different or superior to the general body of Jewry around the world. At best, the Jews are a foreign people living among us who will betray us the minute they feel threatened by their position. At worst, they represent dangerous and definitive enemies of Christian civilization, of which no greater representative has existed in the last two centuries than our own Southern Christendom.

One comment

  1. Overall good article. But I don’t agree with the view many southern nationalists have of the Puritans being our great enemy. Puritan society was wiped out by immigrant newcomers early on and replaced with deists/Unitarians. Many SN simultaneously embrace Presbyterianism while hating Puritans. Both are Calvinist and both supported Cromwell during the English Civil War. While I don’t agree with some of the Puritans’ theology I don’t think they were enemies. Yankeedom is really the child of Unitarianism/Industrialism/Urbanization.