The Ugly Story of the Confederacy’s Most Prominent Jew

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.”

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Civil War, American Jewish History, Slavery

Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict