Back to Index

The Middle East - Religion



Cameron Sawyer comments on my posting about the religion forum held at the Baker Institute and my suggestion that the subject merited a book. Indeed, one publisher sent me an e-mail expressing interest in publishing such a book. Cameron is from Tennessee. The largest publishing center for Bibles is Nashville, and it was probably that which inspired the Scopes monkey trial, which apparently started as a publicity stunt for a small East Tennessee town. Although i have never met him, one of the men I most admire is Sir John Templeton, born in 1912 in a small Tennessee town, Winchester, named after Winchester, Virginia, which was named after my old haunt, Winchester, England. He went to Yale, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, and had a very successful career as an investment banker. His main interest in religion, and he has established a Nobel-like prize for the reconciliation of science and religion. I wonder if the monkey trial inspired him to do that?

Suffice it to say that religion in the South is a very special thing. The Bible was used to justify slavery. As for Jews in the South, it seems to be a very mixed story. I was at Berkeley with Jere King, later a professor of history at UCLA. He was from Alabama, but he reneged his Southern heritage, and he talked about Southern anti-Semitism. Years ago a book by a Southern Jew (I forget his name) titled Enjoy suggested that he enjoyed Southern life. As I recall, he was a newspaper publisher from North Carolina. Cameron tells a story completely new to me, but its focus seems to be on Charleston. He says:

"A very interesting subject and would make a very interesting book. It has been explained to me that among those extreme fundamentalists, particularly in the rural south, who read the Bible in a strictly literal way, the Old Testament is given the same literal treatment as the New, and therefore consider that the Jews must definitely be considered the Chosen People (despite the fact that they are going to hell for denying the Savior; a paradox which doesn't seem to bother anyone very much), and that it is their destiny to possess the Holy Land. But this is not the only link. Rural southern fundamentalists anyway gravitate towards the Old Testament. I have heard of rabbis being invited to such churches to help explain certain passages.

A perhaps unrelated but also interesting subject is the history of the Jews in the Old South, which is little known even among American Jews (who are mostly descendants of later immigrants). Before the Civil War, there were few Jews in the north but a thriving community in the south. Jews in the Old South were unusually well integrated into society. In fact, Reform Judaism was invented in Charleston as part of the general movement to integrate. The first synagogue in the Western Hemisphere was likewise built in Charleston, and Jews occupied important positions in society and politics. The number two man in the Confederate Government was the remarkable Judah Benjamin, one of the most colorful figures of 19th century American history, the Dark Prince of the Confederacy , hated in the more anti-Semitic north, where in some circles the Rebellion was considered a Jewish plot. The wartime mayor of Richmond, the Confederate capital for most of the war, was also a Jew.

Sitting in the U.S. Senate before the war, Benjamin was the most passionate advocate of the southern cause, and Daniel Webster's nemesis. The debates between Webster and Benjamin are legendary, and range over many topics unrelated to the Civil War. Benjamin was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but refused to serve. After the war, the heartbroken Benjamin fled to England via Cuba and refused ever to set foot in the U.S. again. He started his legal career all over again from scratch in London, starting from a humiliating second legal education and rising from that to become the greatest lawyer in England, and the only lawyer ever to have been given a banquet in Parliament upon his retirement. There are no descendants of the old urban southern aristocracy without a good bit of Jewish blood".

My comment: Many Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to Holland, and thence to the Dutch Caribbean islands, where the first where the first synagogue in the Western Hemisphere was built. New York was New Amsterdam, and this brings up the question of the Jewish ancestry of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a standard item in Nazi propaganda. How did the Jews in the South come there?

Ronald Hilton - 4/4/02


Webmaster