Friday, April 12, 2013

Exactly Who Were These Confederate Jews? A Critical Examination of The Whipping Man

So for my first post, I'd like to share an essay I wrote for Theatre Criticism a few years ago.  While The Whipping Man closed on Broadway some time ago, I find the issues of Jewish identity and persecution to be relevant to the current struggles inside and outside of our community.  Matthew Lopez's play examines the little-known revelation that Jews, formerly a persecuted people, in fact owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy.  While as I history buff I always enjoy exploring esoteric footnotes in the grand narrative, I found his treatment of the subject frustratingly shallow and lacking in any kind of empathy or understanding of what it was actually like to be a Jew in the 19th-century and why Jews would participate in the vile institution of slavery.  In Theatre Criticism I was so pissy after seeing the play that I decided to write research paper to prove how shallow I found the play. 

In exploring this issue, I do not mean to excuse shameful behavior Jews--or any other people--have engaged in, both in the past and in the present.  I am often the first to speak out when I hear xenophobic rhetoric coming from the Jewish Right, but at the same time I am also deeply troubled when my more liberal friends flat-out dismiss Israel's right to exist without any understanding of the emotional context that makes the country such a beautiful, maddening mess of contradictions.  I am often reminded of President Obama's "A More Perfect Union"speech from 2008, when he responds to criticisms of the incendiary views expressed by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright:  "That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems...But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

That is what I hoped to explore in this essay.  I hope you enjoy it.

“‘The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also departmental orders, are hereby expelled by the [military] department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order’” (from The Jewish Confederates by Robert N. Rosen, p. 63).  

The above quote is not an excerpt from a Nazi command, but in fact was issued by Union general Ulysses S. Grant in 1862, in the middle of the American Civil War.  Though the order was quickly rescinded amid public outcry, the incident serves as a commentary on the tense relationship between Jews and the Union at the time of the conflict, commentary that is sorely absent from Matthew Lopez’s Civil-war drama, The Whipping Man.  The play tells the story of Caleb DeLeon, a Jewish Confederate deserter who arrives wounded to his Richmond home in the last days of the war in April 1865, only to find his parents gone and the house occupied by Simon and John, his former slaves.  An impromptu Passover seder serves as a vehicle for Simon and John--who were raised in the Jewish faith--to note the parallels between the Israelite slaves in the Exodus story and the Emancipation of African-American slaves in the present, while causing the three men to explore their faith and expose painful secrets while asking the question:  how could Jews, a formerly enslaved people themselves, own slaves and fight for the Confederacy?  

In attempting to answering this question, Lopez’s characters draw blanks: “I can’t square anything I don’t understand,” Simon admits. “That’s why we always asking...That’s what a Jew is” (Lopez 42).  In an interview Lopez states he wrote the play to show the pervasiveness of American slavery:  “‘It seemed to me the most regrettable of hypocrisies and one that might resonate with a modern audience, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  We are all the result of the mistakes and the hypocrisies of our American forebears’” (Murray).   But deeper examination into American Jewish history leading up to that time period reveals a more surprising story: for many Southern Jews this history of persecution in fact intensified their devotion to their adopted Confederate home. 

Though The Whipping Man discusses at length oppression of the Israelites in Biblical Egypt, for contemporary Jews in the 19th century systematic persecution was anything but ancient history.  The Jews who immigrated to America beginning in the 17th century from places like Poland, France, Bavaria, Portugal and Prussia did so to escape intense persecution from societies and regimes who blamed them for the death of Christ (Norman H. Finkelstein, American Jewish History 47).  Jonathan D. Sarna writes, “Nearly all of them sought, in addition, a measure of anonymity, an avoidance of public notice, for without exception they came from lands which still imposed disabilities on Jews and still enforced anti-Jewish laws of a medieval character” (The American Jewish Experience 7).  The DeLeons of Lopez’s story would probably have been descended from Sephardic Jews from Spain, and it is indeed no secret that in 1492 Columbus sailed to America in the same year Kind Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled all of the Jews from Spain.   Arriving in America found unprecedented freedom for these immigrants.  Soon Jews began founding synagogues, establishing themselves as merchants and shop owners, and participating the the electoral process and even fighting in the revolutionary war. Indeed, “The Jew of the European village who could only dream of a great future had the chance here to prove his mettle.  He could be venturesome, daring, and enterprising”  (Sarna 15). For many who had long been plagued by the “wandering Jew” stereotype, this was a chance to put down roots. 

And though Jews felt a warm welcome throughout America, this was especially true in the South.  While a rise in Puritanism in New England led to anti-Semitism, the ruling elites in the South were from more tolerant Protestant denominations, intellectual cosmopolitans far more tolerant of religion than of social class.  The fact that Jews were white didn’t hurt their cause either (Rosen 32).  Jews of the South were able to assimilate much quicker than in the North.  According to Rabbi David Korn:  “‘Nowhere in America--certainly not the antebellum North--had Jews been accorded such an opportunity to be complete equals as in the old South.”” (Rosen 54). According to Jewish Confederate army volunteer Isaac Hermann described the South as “‘the land of Canaan where milk and honey flowed’” (Rosen 52). This indicated a strong emotional bond many felt to their adopted region. 

This level of acceptance in the South influenced Jewish attitudes about slavery and secession. One main reason many Jews volunteered for the Southern army was to counter negative stereotypes: “It was a cardinal belief of anti-Semites and others that ‘the Wandering Jew’ was a citizen of no country, that they were cowards and were disloyal”  (Rosen xiii).  Rosen goes onto compare the situation of “Jewish Johnny Rebs” to that of African Americans who fought for the Union Army to prove their worth as equals (Rosen xiii).  As for the slavery issue, the attitude among Jews was complex.

Though Ernestine Rose and Rabbi David Einhorn were prominent critics of slavery in the North, (Finkelstein 73), some Southern Jews used the Bible as a defense of the practice. The Talmud taught that the “‘the law of the land was the law’” and slavery was the law of the land.  Many pro-slavery rabbis noted that the biblical fathers were slave holders. (Rosen 38).  Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York, the first Jewish Clergyman to address congress in 1860 delivered a sermon entitled “A Biblical View of Slavery” that stated “‘slave holding is no sin...slave property is expressly placed under the protection of the Ten Commandments....”  (Finkelstein 76).   In Lopez’s play though, Caleb seems unable to to come up with any of these points when John begins quoting the Bible at him. 

But even Southern Jews who had reservations about slavery fought for the Confederate cause.  Jake Weil was an immigrant from the Alsace-Lorraine who freed most of his own slaves, but believed that property rights were a strong  that ‘“In truth one man never has right another man to own,’” but wrote that “‘one man has no right to sell property to another and after he has invested the proceeds claim that the buyer is evil and should divest himself of his property’” (Rosen 42-43). Jewish Abolitionist Rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal, while baffled by Southern Jewish support for secession, acknowledged this support of slavery may have had something to do with the conditions of Jewish life in Germany, where many immigrants had faced intense isolation and persecution.  And because Germans as a whole were supportive of abolition, many Jews were against it (Rosen 37).  While property rights may have been often used as a cop-out for Southerners wanting to minimize the role of slavery in the Civil War, for Jews the issue was personal. 

In addition to territorial issues, Jews in the South had other reasons to be suspicious of the anti-slavery movement among New Englanders. In The Whipping Man Caleb refers to propaganda found in “the northern papers, the abolitionist pamphlets” (Lopez 40.  More accurately he should have referred to “those abolitionist christian pamphlets,” for the Christian church was on the front lines of the abolition movement. While many Christian abolitionists preached equal rights for blacks, they expressed deeply anti-semitic views, believing that Jews as “lecherous” who ‘did sometimes kill a Christian baby at the Passover’” and “the enemy of Christ and liberty...a descendant of the monsters who nailed Jesus to the cross.”’ (Rosen 38).  Such observations could have made for interesting commentary in the various theological debates in The Whipping Man.

Jews also experienced different different treatment within the Union and Confederate armies.  Rosen writes: “It will surprise many to know that, although there was anti-semitism in the South, there was little anti-semitism in the Armies of Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, or in Jefferson Davis’s executive offices--while Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman issued blatantly anti-Jewish orders and Proclamations.”  (Rosen xii).  In addition to Order No. 11, Col. John V. Dubois issued Order No. 2, which ordered the removal of all “all cotton speculators, Jews, and other vagrants” (Sarna 63).  In 1861 Jewish theology student Michael Allen was dismissed from the Union army for ministering as a chaplain to men of all fathers.  After much petitioning from Jewish communities in the North, in July 1862 that law was amended (Rosen 276). 

Matters were different in the South, where there were several Jewish chaplains as well as Jews serving in the Confederate Congress.  There was, in fact, a Jewish family with the name of DeLeon who lived in South Carolina.  Maj. David Camden DeLeon, like Robert E. Lee, was a hero of the Mexican American War who became the first acting surgeon general of the the Confederacy.  He was deeply conflicted about secession, noting that ‘“Treason and Revolution are next-door knockers’.”  (Rosen 42).  Judah Benjamin,  attorney General of the Confederate States of America.  Despite admiration from Jefferson Davis, Benjamin faced much criticism in the North.  Henry Wilson, senator from Massachusetts claimed that he was part of a plot to overthrow the government of his adopted country that gave equal rights “even to that race that stoned prophets and crucified the redeemer of the world’” (Rosen 74). Still, even with the approval of high ranking members of the Confederate government, there were many Southerners troubled by the Jewish presence in both congress and the cabinet.  Anti-Semitic Confederate Congressman Henry S. Foote claimed “Jews had flooded the Confederacy and controlled nine-tenths of the business ‘by official permission’”(Rosen 270-271). Articles in Richmond newspapers considered it “blasphemous for Benjamin to serve as Secretary of State” “mocked Jews and foreigners, calling merchants ‘Jew and Yankee extortioners.’”(Rosen 271). Despite Benjamin’s position as the “brains of the confederacy,” by the end of the war he recommended emancipation for black troops who fought in the confederate army, a proposal that was supported by Davis but rejected by the Confederate Congress (Rosen 84).            

Like the rest of their fellow countrymen, Jews fighting for the Confederacy were in despair at the end of the war.  For people who had been fighting to protect what had become their new adopted homeland,  Jewish confederates saw in the Union occupation during Reconstruction as a modern-day version of the Babylonian captivity (Rosen 333).  And while in The Whipping Man Caleb is reluctant to go to a federal hospital because he was a deserter, in many cases Jewish soldiers received harsher treatment by both the Union army and the Union press. (275). An Associated press reporter from the north noted that “‘The Jews in New Orleans and all the South ought to be exterminated...They run the blockade, and are always to be found at the bottom of every new villainy’” (Rosen 275).  Once again, Jews were being disproportionally scapegoated for their role in larger events.  

To be clear, none of this information goes to excuse any Jews who participated in the vile institution of American slavery.  But it is also true that throughout history survival has made strange bedfellows, and the biggest mistake Lopez makes in The Whipping Man is that questions of ethics and faith vs. survival are in any way new issues for the Jewish community.  Just as contemporary liberal Jewish audiences may be puzzled by the idea of Jews as slave holders, many others found equally confounding that fear for Israel’s security led many Jewish voters to support conservative Christian candidates George W. Bush and Mike Huckabee in recent elections.  Within Israel, many have criticized those who reference the Holocaust to justify hard treatment of Palestinians.  Lopez has stated that it was important for him to not portray his slaveholding character as a stock villain:  “‘I hope that Caleb will be seen as being as much a victim of slavery as these other characters are’” (Kragan).  But by taking such great lengths to make Caleb sympathetic, Lopez has also robbed the character and the play of any amount of context or complexity.  By failing to provide any kind of explanation for his characters’ contradictions, The Whipping Man misses an opportunity to truly challenge his audience, obscuring this painful chapter in history far more than illuminating it.

Works Cited

Finkelstein, Norman.  American Jewish History.  Philadelphia:  The Jewish Publication Society,2007.

Kragan, Pam.  “'Whipping Man' playwright examines little-known facet of slave history.”  North County Times. 5 May 2010.

Lopez, Matthew. The Whipping Man. New York: Samuel French, 2009, 2010.

Murray, Larry.  “Interview:  Matthew Lopez Explains His New Play, ‘The Whipping Man.’” Berkshire on Stage.  11 May 2010. 

Rosen, Robert D.  The Jewish Confederates.  University of South Carolina Press,  2000

Sarna, Jonathan D.  The American Jewish Experience.  New York:  Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc. 1986.




  1. I just wanted to thank you for such an interesting article. I found your blog yesterday and am thoroughly enjoying it!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the kind words!