Comedian Larry David allowed Henry Louis Gates, Jr., host of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS, to do a little genealogical digging. On live T.V., Gates reveals to David that they traced his family line to Henry Bernstein of Mobile, Alabama, who was David’s great-great-grandfather back in the Civil War era. And, as it turns out, Bernstein was a slave owner.
Bernstein was also one of 3,000 Jewish Confederate soldiers. He owned two slaves, which seemed to blow David’s obviously conditioned mind. We think Gates, as a real historian, knew the hidden secret all along from doing other Jewish genealogies. He asks David, “What part of the Jewish experience is this?”
David says it’s part of a family history that no one ever talked about nor had ever mentioned this truth bomb to him. Of course faked self-depreciation is part of David’s schtick, so who knows.
To be perfectly fair to Larry David, his southern Jewish great-great grandfather was not an oddity or an outlier. Although not a large demographic, almost without exception Southern Jewry was very loyal to the Lost Cause. And many in the North were openly sympathetic or outright Copperheads.
In fact, as southern antebellum Jews go, his ancestor, poor ol’ Henry Bernstein, was a piker with only two slaves. Most southern Jews were active slave holders and traders with over a third owning five or more. One of the largest slave owners in all the South was Jacob Cohen of Georgetown, South Carolina with 294 slaves.
In contrast, I have census records for all my paternal great-great and great-great-great-grandparents. They were all gentile “cracker” southerners who fought for the Confederacy — and only one owned one slave. Too poor is my assumption.
David handled the revelation and outing stoically; but at minute 2:15, he exhibits his (and the universal) ignorance of true history by claiming “his people” were part of the battle against the South and slavery. In fact, besides being substantial slave owners, the Jews played almost no role in the Abolitionist Movement. They were so disengaged that real abolitionists castigated them in frustration. In the North, Jews played key roles in cotton trading and textiles and were motivated to keep the product flowing.
Jewish Professor Salo Baron perceived no moral dilemma on the part of 19th-century Jews: “Jewish merchants, auctioneers, and commission agents in southern states continued to buy and sell slaves until the end of the Civil War. … At no time did Southern Jews feel tainted by the slave trade.”
Some, especially blacks, expected the moral lead in the abolition of slavery to be assumed by the “people of the Bible.” But many commentators during and since were puzzled by such fervent defense of a system out in which Jews presumably made their Biblical trek. The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in their report of 1853 expressed their frustration. Excerpts from the report state:
The Jews of the United States have never taken any steps whatever with regard to the slavery question. As citizens, they deem it their policy to have every one choose which ever side he may deem best to promote his own interests and the welfare of his country. They  have no organization of an ecclesiastical body to represent their general views; no General Assembly, or its equivalent. The American Jews have two newspapers, but they do not interfere in any discussion which is not material to their religion. It cannot be said that the Jews have formed any denominational opinion on the subject of American slavery… The objects of so much mean prejudice and unrighteous oppression as the Jews have been for ages, surely they, it would seem, more than any other denomination, ought to be the enemies of caste, and friends of universal freedom. [Louis Ruchames, “Abolitionists and the Jews,” PAJHS, vol. 42 (1952), pp. 153-54]
Even the Jewish scholars can find but a few sentences of Jewish protest over the plight of the Black slave. It is now clear, writes Dr. Marcus, “that most antebellum Jews, those in the North as well as in the South, cared little about the moral issues of human bondage.
“Jews not only accepted this doctrine, Dr. Korn admits, but “some of them helped to formulate and circulate it …
Those Jews who stood against the institution were scorned and rebuked — most harshly by their own brethren in the synagogue. Even the anti-slavery Jews, opposed the spread of slavery not out of sympathy for the condition of Blacks, but because it was a threat to their jobs. [Robert Korn, “Jews and Negro Slavery,” p .215]
All 21 synagogues in the South were pro-Confederate; and of those in the North, there is no history of a rebuke of the slavocracy or support of emancipation. All southern synagogues excluded blacks from membership. In fact, instead, influential Jews pushed for Christianizing the slaves. Post Civil War, they were hard-line segregationists, at least until the end of the 19th century, when Eastern Europeans emerged on the political scene.
“The pursuit of wealth in slaves and usury not only violated Jewish ethics but destroyed the rough democracy imposed upon a people in exile. Initially, the Jews looked to their rabbis and scholars for guidance. Eventually, the aristocracy of learning gave way to the aristocracy of wealth. Leadership of the community passed from the wise man to the rich man, a curse of organizational Jewry even today.” [ Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht, The Fate of the Jews: A People Torn Between Israeli Power and Jewish Ethics, p. 39.]
The slavery debate raged across the country but no Jewish leaders of the Old South “ever expressed any reservations about the justice of slavery or the rightness of the southern position.”[ Abraham J. Karp, Haven and Home: A History of Jews in America. p. 29]
Jewish clergy did not even discuss black slavery until 1860, and then primarily in support of it. Jewish writer Arthur Hertzberg sums up their position [Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter]:
As was to be expected, the Jewish clergy in the South, without exception, endorsed the Confederacy. These preachers, most of whom were quite recent immigrants from Germany, summoned up great passion in their defense of states’ rights. They repeated the conventional platitudes of that day, that the black race was incapable of taking care of itself.
No event caused the forces of bondage to rejoice more than when Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall of Congregation B’nai Ieshurun in New York issued a sermon that was to become known as the “Bible Defense of Slavery.” On Jan. 4, 1861, he preached the most publicized sermon ever delivered by an American Jew up to that time:
It remains a fact which cannot be gainsaid that in his own native home, and generally throughout the world, the unfortunate negro is indeed the meanest of slaves. Much had been said respecting the inferiority of his intellectual powers, and that no man of his race has ever inscribed his name on the Parthenon of human excellence, either mental or moral.
‘What he did,” Dr. Korn wrote, “was to place Judaism squarely in opposition to the philosophy of abolitionism… and insisted that… biblical tradition and law guaranteed the right to own slaves.” This critical confirmation of “God’s will” from a prominent and respected Jewish authority, indeed the highest paid American clergyman, gave the slavemaster all he needed to fight the righteous battle against the abolitionists. [Robert Korn, “The Civil War,” p. 17]
One lone Rabbi, David Einhorn, spoke out against the prevailing attitude, and was run out of his Baltimore congregation in 1861:
Of the moral condition: There are enough churches, synagogues and temples, but there is very little religion, little morality … here [among the Jews]. Everything is empty, everything is glimmer … Here, too, rules the golden eagle rather than the … Here, too, all feelings of the heart and dreams are concentrated only on acquiring [things] … There is only one thought: to make as much as possible. [Fein, Baltimore Jews]
The Jewish press weighed in with its opinion on the matter of black slavery and of the character of the African as well. Again, the abolitionists were bitterly disappointed. The Jewish Record of Jan. 23, 1863:
We know not how to speak in the same breath of the Negro and the Israelite. The very names have startlingly opposite sounds — one representing all that is debased and inferior in the hopeless barbarity and heathenism of six thousand years; the other, the days when Jehovah conferred on our fathers the glorious equality which led the Eternal to converse with them, and allow them to enjoy the communion of angels. Thus the abandoned fanatics insult the choice of God himself, in endeavoring to reverse the inferiority which he stamped on the African, to make him the compeer, even in bondage, of His chosen people.
There is no parallel between such races. Humanity from pole to pole would scout such a comparison. The Hebrew was originally free; and the charter of his liberty was inspired by his Creator. The Negro was never free; and his bondage in Africa was simply duplicated in a milder form when he was imported here … The judicious in all the earth agree that to proclaim the African equal to the surrounding races, would be a farce which would lead the civilized conservatism of the world to denounce the outrage. [ Hugh H. Smythe, Martin S. Price, “The American Jew and Negro Slavery,” The Midwest Journal, vol. 7, no. 4 (1955-56), p. 318]