By Andrew Wender Cohen
The nineteenth-century United States was a paradoxical place for Jews. No land on Earth was more open to Jewish immigration. The First Amendment to the Constitution and the disestablishment of state religions meant non-Christians could be citizens and office holders. Yet, Jews were a tiny minority. If discrimination was less common in the U.S. than in nations like Russia, it was nonetheless a reality that democratic ideology could not staunch.
American Judeophobia was visible in my research for my book, Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century. I argue that smuggling shows us how nineteenth-century Americans understood nationalism, secession, slavery, race, wealth, trade, taxes, cosmopolitanism, and empire. After the Civil War, Americans viewed smuggling as treason in miniature. It was thus especially meaningful that customs officials profiled a number of different groups, including Asians, women, and Jews.
This equation of Jews and smugglers had originated in Europe. It reflected the longstanding defamation of Jews as Christ-killers, traitors unwilling to swear oaths so essential to state and nation building. But it also depended upon the oft-stated myth that Jews were rootless agents of international capital and thus incapable of becoming citizens.
The slight gained currency amidst the hyper-nationalism of the Civil War. It part, this reflected the nativism that Republicans were unable to purge from their party. Some evangelical leaders deprecated Jews for theological reasons. Though Jews were a tiny minority in the cotton trade, they nonetheless loomed large in the stereotype of the rebel merchant. It did not help that men like Senator Judah Benjamin had risen to the top of Southern politics. Benjamin's role in leading the Confederacy fit comfortably within a "Passion Play" metaphor of the war, in which the South betrayed the Union, as Judas betrayed Jesus.
General Ulysses Grant issued his infamous Order #11, barring Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee, because he imagined all Jews were engaged in the illicit cotton trade. Though Lincoln countermanded Grant's command, the slander remained. General Benjamin Butler identified blockade runners by their Jewish religion. In his autobiography, Lafayette Baker, the Union's spymaster, did the same, presenting the smugglers with a comic-opera Yiddish accent. In 1863, the New York Illustrated News captioned a drawing of a sloop being chased by a gunboat, "Jews Smuggling Goods across the Potomac to Supply the Rebels."
Nor did the slur die after Appomattox. When officials arrested former customs inspector Charles L. Lawrence for smuggling in 1870, the New York Herald blamed the defendant's Judaism. "Almost from the day of his appointment," the reporter asserted, "a brisk trade sprang up among a certain class of Jews who make a profession of defrauding the government of the revenues due on importations of silks, laces, velvet, ribbons and other costly fabrics." The newspaper noted that Lawrence's surname was originally Lazarus, charging he had changed it to obtain a job at the Port, "doubts arising as to the eligibility of Israelites holding government office."
Officials openly vilified Jewish businessmen. Secret Service chief Hiram C. Whitley's memoirs told the story of a "keen, wiry, subtle, black-eyed" and "money-loving Jew" who smuggled diamonds in his boot heels. San Francisco Treasury Agent John T. McLean told Congress that "German and French Jews" were responsible for "a large portion of our undervaluations." "Without intending to disparage that race," McLean observed, "I think the Israelites a little more prone to that sort of business than persons who are not of that religious persuasion."
The immediate impact of such profiling was the harassment of Jewish merchants. It meant having their bodies and records searched. Even when these men were guilty, the stories feel disturbing in retrospect. Secret Service chief Whitley boasted of forcing his "money-loving"Jewish diamond merchant to swallow a "cathartic," threatening to "force it down" his throat "to the last drop." Within an hour, the custom-house had seized $4,000 in untaxed diamonds.
But outright fantasies about Jewish smugglers also played into post-war debates about protective tariffs. During the Gilded Age, the foremost advocate of free trade in the U.S. was a Polish Jewish immigrant named Joseph Solomon Moore, also known as "The Parsee Merchant." He was a globetrotting merchant until 1870, when he embarked upon an unlikely midlife career change. Moore printed a series of winsome letters in the Democratic New York World. In the guise of a Bombay trader, "Addersey Curiosbhoy, the Parsee Merchant," Moore gently explained how tariffs impeded his ability to buy American goods. The articles were an enormous hit. Gaining a sinecure as custom-house statistician and adviser to the Democrats, Moore churned out pamphlets favoring the reduction of tariffs on nearly every essential good.
The Parsee's effectiveness provoked overtly anti-Semitic responses from protectionists, who saw free trade as a Jewish-English conspiracy. The Industrial League declared him a "foreigner" in the pay of British gold. In 1887, the Boston Daily Advertiser published a column titled, "A Parsee's Christmas Cruelty," which accused him of devoting his Sundays to "promulgating free trade fallacies" and possessing "antipathy to everything Christian."
Jewish merchants complained bitterly about bias in the custom-house. San Francisco Jews published a pamphlet accusing Treasury Agent John T. McLean, of a "gross slander." That specific Jews had smuggled was no reason to stigmatize "a whole community of Israelites." Pressure succeeded. In 1871, the Grant administration replaced McLean with a Jewish politician praised as "a popular citizen and consistent Republican" who would "serve the government without prejudice or fear" not "petty oppression, espionage and vexatious intermeddling as in the manner of some."
Such protests actually reduced the overt profiling of Jews. For instance, in his 1908 memoir, New York Treasury Agent William Theobald bragged of outsmarting diamond smuggler Max Lasar, but he never mentioned his religion. Theobald presented Lasar's speech in normal English and dismissed anonymous anti-Semitic letters. Unconcealed anti-Semitism was becoming politically untenable, at least in New York City.
Of course, prejudice on the border and the profiling of travelers remain problems today. If Jews are no longer the targets, it is worth remembering that contemporary questions of citizenship, harassment, and privacy are rooted in a much longer history.