Born in 1811 into a Sephardi family on the British-occupied island St. Croix (now in the U.S. Virgin Islands), and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, Judah P. Benjamin holds the dubious distinction of having owned more slaves than any other Jews in the United States. By all accounts a brilliant lawyer—his treatise on the sale of personal property is still in print—Benjamin rose to prominence during the Civil War, during which time he served as the Confederacy’s attorney general, secretary of war, and then secretary of state. Paul Finkelman reviews James Traub’s recent biography of this figure American Jews might prefer to forget:
Always identified or marked as “the Jew” by friends and foes alike, there is little about Benjamin’s career or life that was Jewish. . . . Benjamin would eventually live in five other cities with substantial Jewish communities (New Orleans, Washington, Richmond, London, and Paris), but he never affiliated with any of them. He probably never entered a synagogue after the age of sixteen, and, as Traub notes, despite his “erudition,” Benjamin “knew little of Jewish law or scripture.”
The great unanswered question is why he remained Jewish at all. Traub speculates that the combination of his name and his “dark curls and dark skin” would have continued to mark him as a Jew, even if he had converted. Perhaps, but we should also note that in both Charleston and New Orleans, the main fault lines of social acceptance were racial, not religious. . . . Benjamin’s Sephardi heritage did not seem to be an impediment to success. He may even have seen it as an advantage, making him slightly exotic in New Orleans, a city in which the exotic has always been prized. Moreover, Jews were seen as scholarly—the people of the book—and Benjamin prospered as “the smart Jewish lawyer.”
After the Civil War, many former Confederates would level anti-Semitic attacks at Benjamin for abandoning his country at the end of the war, shipping assets to England during the war, and making off for London with Confederate gold. In truth, he had already abandoned his country four years earlier, in 1861.
As an Ohio senator aptly put it, Benjamin was an among those “Israelites with Egyptian principles.”