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American Jewry, A House Divided Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

September 5, 2015

Almost a month ago, as the discussion about Iran began, a member of the congregation mentioned to me that she and her husband had stopped talking about it. They were on opposite sides and the conversations were going nowhere. I imagine others are having the same experience, if not with a spouse, then with a friend or neighbor.

Then shortly after the agreement was released, Jewish Federations around the country began taking positions against it. In some cases I wasn’t surprised, but when the Jewish Federation in LA took this position, so quickly after the agreement was released that it was inconceivable that it had been studied thoroughly, there was tremendous pushback from the community. Many people spoke out saying that those who had made this decision didn’t reflect their views. As people began lining up on the two sides, the atmosphere in many communities became toxic, particularly back east. Some of you may have seen the article last week on the front page of the New York Times talking about the “vitriol...becoming so intense that leaders now speak openly of long-term damage to Jewish organizations and possibly to American-Israeli relations.” Back in my old community in Brooklyn, our state Assemblyman Dov Hilkind, rented a bus and plastered it with pictures of the Aytatollah and parked it in front of Congressman Jerry Nadler’s district office. People have been called Nazi’s and kapo’s and 1938 has been evoked not just by heated individuals but by leaders of the community and elected officials here and in Israel.

As this was going on I began to think about other battles within the Jewish community. Back in 1981 there was a fight with the then Reagan Administration over the sale of AIWACS, Airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), to Saudia Arabia. It some ways it was like this fight in that AIPAC played a leading role and there was resentment expressed by the administration about Jewish lobbying. But looking at it more closely, it was very different in several ways. First the division was not within the Jewish community but among political leaders. On the whole the Jewish community was united in opposition to this deal. Second the division within Congress was not along party lines. Among those who supported and those how opposed the deal there was an almost equal number of Democrats and Republicans.  A third difference was that the Israeli Prime Minister and the representatives of the Israeli government in the United States played only a small role. The Prime Minister met with the President and expressed his views but then the Israelis stepped back and were not involved in the congressional discussion.

While in some ways it is interesting to think back to the AIWACS episode I don’t feel that it is parallel in terms of the divisions within our current American Jewish community.

In the year 2000, Samuel Freidman, a journalist, published a book, Jew v Jew, The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry. In this book he highlights emerging fault lines within the Jewish community, particularly between the Ultra-Orthodox, non-University attending Orthodox,  and the rest of the community. He tells the story of neighborhoods and even cities in which “regular” American Jews no longer feel welcome when they become Ultra-Orthodox enclaves. He reminds us of the bitter opposition in some parts of the community to the Oslo accords. In one incident a Jewish man felt so passionately about this issue that he planted a bomb in a Florida synagogue where Shimon Peres was scheduled to give a talk.  Fortunately no one was hurt. Some of us may remember a split in the American Jewish community over Postville, the community in Iowa with the large kosher meat plant that was found to have labor, safety and immigration abuses. Each of these was in a sense a precursor to what we are experiencing now, and a foreshadowing which revealed some of the divisions that continue to be significant today. But none of these engaged as board a swath of the Jewish community, nor divided people, I don’t believe, to the extent we have experienced this summer.  To find that, I had to travel back much further into American Jewish history, all the way back to the years immediately before the Civil War.

Once the Civil War began American Jewry lined up solidly behind the Union in the north, where the majority of Jews lived, and behind the Confederacy in the South, home of some of the United States’ oldest Jewish communities.  At the time of the Civil War there were about 150,000 Jews in the US, mostly new immigrants, with 25,000 Jews in the South.

I first noticed this division in the American Jewish Community in reading about Abraham Lincoln’s relationship to the Jewish community and about one of his close friends and colleagues Abraham Jonas. Lincoln and Jonas had travelled the law circuit together and became involved in politics together first as Whigs and then as Republicans. Jonas was involved in Lincoln’s run for state office, for the Senate and then for the presidency and helped organize the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. He also saved Lincoln’s life, warning him of an assassination attempt just before Lincoln’s first inauguration. Yet with Jonas’ family spread out across the North and the South as were many American Jewish families at the time, only one of Jonas’s sons was loyal to the Union from before the war, and one son, was imprisoned in a Union jail at the time of his father’s death.  

Jonathan Sarna, an important American Jewish historian reports, “Though 7,000 Jews later served in the Union army,  the majority of Jews did not support Lincoln’s candidacy because of fear of war, threat of commercial loss, or outright support of slavery.” This is a picture of a much more divided Jewish community than I was accustomed to thinking about.

What I’d like to do this morning for a few moments, is recreate the division of that time. I have dueling sermons from that era and thought we could get the feel for the divide that existed. It was not viewed so much as a referendum on slavery per se but on peace v.r abolition. You have to remember that the Abolitionist movement, coming out of Protestantism at that time, was also filled with anti-Semitic rhetoric, rendering it inhospitable to Jews. Leaders of the Jewish community including Isaac Leeser and our own Isaac Meyer Wise were for compromise so as to preserve the peace. David Enhorn was the most outspoken of those opposed to slavery but other rabbis including Rabbi Max Lielienthal of Cincinnati also spoke out.

As the crisis loomed President James Buchanan designated Friday, January 4, 1861 as a day to be "set apart for fasting, humiliation, and prayer throughout the nation."  Let’s take a look at some of the sermons delivered that day and the response to them. I’d like to express a special thank you to Rabbi Gary Zola and the American Jewish Archives, which provided the documents.


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