May 16, 2008

Who is Judah P. Benjamin?

I once wrote a response on Smooth Stone to a European's anti-Israel rant and typed "Don't you ever forget that we were writing the books that shaped your nation while your ancestors were still smearing themselves with feces and running naked after game in the wilds." It was a great comeback that I had heard from someone whom I admired many years ago and I never forgot it. When I wrote it here on Smooth Stone, I offended one Brit who was a regular Smooth Stone reader and she never returned here, seeking solace licking her wounds elsewhere, and some others attacked me for being anti-European, like there was something wrong with disliking Europeans who still yearn to see Jews ghettoed and locked up in cattle cars.

It is with great pride and giddiness that I restore my response to its original wording, this time with proper attribution to the original author, American-Jewish statesman, Judah P. Benjamin.

May 6th marks the death of Judah P. Benjamin. He was born in 1811 and died in 1884. Benjamin was the second Jew to serve in the U.S. Senate (after David Levy Yulee of Florida), representing Louisiana.

Two U.S. presidents (Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore) offered to nominate Benjamin as the first Jew to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Benjamin declined. During the Civil War, Benjamin served in the cabinet of the Confederacy -- variously as Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. Remarkably, he was the only Confederate cabinet member who did not own slaves. In the immediate aftermath of the war, there surfaced an unfounded rumor, tinged with anti-Semitism, that Benjamin had masterminded the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Fearing that he could never receive a fair trial, he burnt his personal papers and fled to England under a false name. Benjamin was buried in Paris.

When another senator accused Benjamin of being an "Israelite in Egyptian clothing," he replied:

"It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings of Mount Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain."
So I tip my hat to my kinsman, Judah P. Benjamin, for his verve, his brilliance, for his service to my country, and for being a role model to future generations of American Jews.