Born in 1799 to a Sephardi family in the English city of Brighton, Moses Cohen took the somewhat less Jewish name of George Benjamin at the age of twenty-three and then set off for the U.S., where he settled in North Carolina. Not long after his marriage to a twelve-year-old Jewish girl, he brought his new family first to Toronto and then to the town of Belleville, some 100 miles to the east. Benjamin made little of his religion, but he also did not keep it a secret. Later, his conservative politics—which he had first embraced in England—would lead him to a career as a newspaperman and politician. Allan Levine writes:
Benjamin established Belleville’s first newspaper, the weekly Intelligencer, and he [eventually] made Canadian history twice. In 1836, he won election as a clerk of the Thurlow Township, encompassing the town of Belleville, . . . becoming the first Jew elected to a municipal office in Canada. And two decades later, in 1856, he was elected to the Province of Canada’s Legislative Assembly as a conservative supporter of John A. Macdonald, soon to be the first prime minister of Canada. . . .
Benjamin and [his wife] Isabella and their ever-growing family fit into the slow pace of life in Belleville. Their Jewish background was not conspicuous: it is unlikely that their sons were circumcised, and Isabella certainly did not keep kosher. The newspaper business provided Benjamin . . . with a modest living and a small-town visibility, which enabled him to become involved in municipal and provincial politics. As the paper’s publisher/editor, Benjamin was as partisan and spiteful as the custom of the day dictated. . . .
In April 1836, a group of critics who were angered by one of Benjamin’s editorials . . . hung him in effigy outside his office door. Benjamin was not troubled by this until John Barker, the editor and publisher of the Kingston British Whig, a newspaper [associated with the opposing Reform party], decided to have some fun at Benjamin’s expense. About a week after the effigy-hanging, Barker published a ditty titled “On the execution of the Belleville Jew.” . . . This was not the last time that a detractor would use his Jewish background to insult him.
Benjamin had a successful political career, and was even invited by the opposing party to be minister of finance. (He declined out of loyalty to the Conservatives.) He was baptized shortly before his death in 1864, most likely so that he could be buried in a church cemetery.