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

Hamas Wants a Renewed Ceasefire, but Doesn’t Understand Israel’s Changed Attitude

Yohanan Tzoreff, writing yesterday, believes that Hamas still wishes to return to the truce that it ended Friday morning with renewed rocket attacks on Israel, but hopes it can do so on better terms—raising the price, so to speak, of each hostage released. Examining recent statements from the terrorist group’s leaders, he tries to make sense of what it is thinking:

These [Hamas] senior officials do not reflect any awareness of the changed attitude in Israel toward Hamas following the October 7 massacre carried out by the organization in the western Negev communities. They continue to estimate that as before, Israel will be willing to pay high prices for its people and that time is working in their favor. In their opinion, Israel’s interest in the release of its people, the pressure of the hostages’ families, and the public’s broad support for these families will ultimately be decisive in favor of a deal that will meet the new conditions set by Hamas.

In other words, the culture of summud (steadfastness), still guides Hamas. Its [rhetoric] does not show at all that it has internalized or recognized the change in the attitude of the Israeli public toward it—which makes it clear that Israel still has a lot of work to do.

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli Security