Journalist, diplomat, politician, lawyer, and the most popular American playwright of his time, Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) was one of the preeminent Jews in American history – the first born in the U.S. to reach national prominence.
In a campaign marked by anti-Semitism, Noah was elected the first Jewish sheriff in New York, a position he held for only a year (1822-1823). Shown above is a subpoena writ (circa 1822) signed by Noah as sheriff, to “cause to come to the next court of Common Pleas for the City of New York” a jury comprised of “twelve free and lawful men” in the matter of Maria Myrick, Executor of John A. Myrick, Plaintiff v. Thomas Shields, Defendant.
Noah’s signature as sheriff is exceptionally rare, because less than a year after receiving this appointment he resigned to briefly pursue a legal career.
Noah was born into a family of Portuguese Sephardic ancestry and his father, who immigrated to America from Germany, fought in the War of Independence and was honored by George Washington’s attendance at his Jewish wedding.
Renowned as both a defender and liberator of Jews and an American nationalist, Noah served as president of the New York Hebrew Benevolent Society and was active on behalf of congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and Shearith Israel in New York.
He is perhaps best known, however, for his controversial and failed attempt to virtually single-handedly create a haven for oppressed Jews at Grand Island on the Niagara River in upstate New York (1825). He originally planned to call the colony “Jerusalem” and to convene a 70-member Sanhedrin there but he ultimately called it “Ararat” after Mount Ararat, the biblical resting place of Noah’s Ark – in context, a lovely little pun.
As a newspaper editor, Noah was keenly aware of the potential economic benefits presented by the opening of the Erie Canal on October 26, 1825, and he decided to purchase a portion of the strategically-located “Grand Island 15,” a large uninhabited isle of more than 17,000 acres sitting in the Niagara River near Buffalo.
Though he frankly admitted that he expected to make a fortune on his investment, his primary motive was to create a short-term haven for persecuted Jews. Moreover, as an American patriot he also felt that having persecuted Jews from around the world come to Ararat would provide a tremendous benefit to the United States which, in the early nineteenth century, desperately sought immigrants.
Despite meager financial support, Noah was able to purchase 2,555 acres for $16,985. What he lacked was public support for the project – except, ironically, among American evangelicals who even then supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
Long taken by the idea of a Jewish territorial restoration, Noah believed that some Native Americans were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel and, in his renowned Discourse on the Restoration of the Jews, he declared his faith that the Jews would rebuild their ancient homeland in the United States.
The theatrical and kitschy inauguration ceremony, which was covered by the international press, included a selection of Psalms sung in Hebrew and Noah’s dedication of a 300-pound cornerstone bearing the following inscription (the stone may be seen today at the Buffalo Historical Society):
Ararat, A City of Refuge for Jews, Founded by Mordecai M. Noah in the month of Tishrei 5586, September 1825 and in the 50th year of American independence.
Upon his arrival in Buffalo, however, Noah discovered there was no easy way to get to Grand Island – he never actually set foot there – and the proposal for a “Jewish Refuge” was quickly abandoned. But even after the failure of Ararat, he announced that Jews would never abandon their dream of regaining their ancient land and returned stalwartly to the idea of Eretz Yisrael as a national home for Jews.
As he declared during the dedication of Ararat on September 15, 1825: “Why should the parent of nations, the oldest of people, the founders of religion, wander among the governments of the earth, entreating succor and protection when we are capable of protection ourselves?”
As such, he became an advocate for modern Zionism many decades before Herzl.
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Noah’s plan for a temporary Jewish homeland in the United States – the restoration of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael and the reestablishment of Jerusalem as the eternal Jewish capital was always the ultimate goal – may have had its genesis in his removal from a high government position because he was Jewish.
In appreciation of Noah’s powerful editorials as a newspaper editor in support of the War of 1812, President James Madison appointed him consul to the Kingdom of Tunis, in which capacity (and against all odds) he secured the release of American hostages held there by Barbary Pirates. However, despite his extraordinary success, he was removed because, according to Madison, “It might be well to rest the reason pretty much on the ascertained prejudice of the Turks against his Religion and it having become public that he was a Jew.”
In his dismissal letter, Secretary of State James Monroe wrote:
At the time of your appointment as Consul at Tunis, it was not known that the religion which you profess would form any obstacle to the exercise of your Consular functions. Recent information, however, on which entire reliance may be placed, proves that it would produce a very unfavorable effect. In consequence of which the President has deemed it expedient to revoke your commission…
A furious Noah sent several letters to Madison arguing that the American government knew very well at the time of his appointment that he was Jewish; that he had been highly effective as consul; and that though he had tried to ascertain what alleged “recent information” had led to his discharge, he never received a substantive response.
Noah was particularly concerned that his dismissal would create a dangerous precedent and block Jews from holding public office in the future. His vociferous protests found support not only among Jews but also from high-profile non-Jews including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In Travels in England, France, Spain and the Barbary States, he presented a well-argued and feisty rebuttal against any allegation that his Judaism somehow compromised his ability to meet the duties of his office:
My religion an object of hostility? I thought I was a citizen of the United States, protected by the constitution in my religious as well as in my civil rights. My religion was known to the government at the time of my appointment, and it constituted one of the prominent causes why I was sent to Barbary; if then any “unfavorable” events had been created by my religion, they should have been first ascertained, and not acting upon a supposition, upon imaginary consequences, have thus violated one of the most sacred and delicate rights of a citizen….
After having braved the perils of the ocean, residing in a barbarous country, without family or relative, supporting the rights of the nation, and hazarding my life from poison or the stiletto, I find my own government, the only protector I can have, sacrificing my credit, violating my rights and insulting my feelings, and the religious feeling of a whole nation. O! Shame, shame!!
Noah’s actions as consul to Tunis were thoroughly investigated – not by the Department of State but, in a dramatic departure from standard protocol, by the attorney general – and the findings completely exculpated him of any misconduct or breach of his official duties. After his anti-Semitic and humiliating treatment by Monroe and Madison, he began to think about all the Jews he had met around the world and how no country, except America, had emancipated its Jews or offered them a sanctuary they could call home. It was this that led to his idea that it was important to create a Jewish sanctuary within the United States which, until the return to Eretz Yisrael was feasible, would be protected by the Constitution and offer refuge for persecuted Jews.
Most Americans viewed the Ararat fiasco as merely a harmless stunt, but some were offended by Noah’s presumptuousness in proclaiming himself “Governor and Judge of Israel” and daring to establish a Jewish state himself.
Indeed, Jewish leaders characterized him as “a crazy man,” “a simple charlatan,” and “the chimerical consulate of a pseudo-restorer.”
The European Jewish establishment generally scorned his proposal. For example, exhibited here is a letter from the chief rabbi of France, Abraham de Cologna, published in the January 25, 1826 edition of The National Aegis:
Re-assemblage of the Jews – The following letter has been addressed to the Editor of the Paris Journal des Debats, by the Grand Rabbi De Cologna, relative to the proclamation of the new self-constituted Judge and Regenerator of Israel, Mr. Noah of New York, calling upon his Jewish brethren throughout the world to assemble under his standard at the intended city of refuge, Ararat, in Grand Island, and imposing upon such as do not choose, or are not able to obey his call, a certain annual tribute per head for leave of absence:
Sir – The wisdom and love of truth which distinguish your journal, and the merited reputation it enjoys in France and in foreign counties, induce me to hope that your politeness will grant me a place in your next number, for some observations which I address to the public in the interests of reason and truth.
The French and English papers have lately announced the singular project of a Mr. Noah, who calls himself the founder of the city of Ararat, in the United States of North America. Certainly, if Mr. Noah was, as he is supposed to be, the proprietor or occupier of a great extent of uncultivated land, and confined himself to the engagement of men without fortunes to run the risk of colonizing with him, promising at the same time mountains of gold, nobody would think of disputing his right to follow the fashion of sending forth projects. But Mr. Noah aspires to play a much more elevated character: he dreams of a heavenly mission; he talks prophetically; he styles himself a Judge over Israel; he gives orders to all the Israelites in the world; he levies a tax upon all Hebrew heads. In his exaltation he even goes so far as to make the central Jewish consistory of France, his Charge des Affaires, and he honors the President of this body with the noble rank of “commissioner of emigration.” The whole is excellent, but two trifles are wanting – 1st, the well authenticated proof of the mission and authority of Mr. Noah; 2ndly, the prophetic text which points out a marsh in North America as the spot for re-assembling the scattered remains of Israel.
To speak seriously, it is right at once to inform Mr. Noah, that the venerable Messrs. Hierschelf and Meldola, chief rabbis of London, and myself thank him, but positively refuse the appointments he has been pleased to confer upon us. We declare that according to our dogmas God alone knows the epoch of the Israelite restoration; that he alone will make it known to the whole universe, by signs entirely unequivocal; and that every attempt on our part to re-assemble with any national design is forbidden, as an act of high treason against the Divine Majesty. – Mr. Noah has doubtless forgotten that the Israelites, faithful to the principle of their belief, are too much attached to the countries where they dwell, and devoted to the governments under which they enjoy liberty and protection, not to treat as a mere jest, the chimerical consulate of a pseudo-restorer.
As however justice requires some consideration to the absent, we should be sorry to refuse him the title of a visionary with good intentions.
Abraham de Cologna (1755-1832) was an Italian rabbi, orator, and political leader who, while holding the post of rabbi of his native city of Mantua, was elected a member of the Parliament of the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy. He served as a deputy to the Assembly of Notables in Paris and as a member of the Grand Sanhedrin established by Napoleon in Paris (1806), serving also as its vice president (1807). He was appointed to the French Central Consistory which, upon Napoleon’s imperial Decree of March 15, 1808, was established to administer Jewish worship in France, and he succeeded David Sintzheim as chief rabbi of France.
In 2016 the present-day town of Grand Island proclaimed September 2 as “Mordecai Manuel Noah Day” to celebrate Noah’s vision for religious freedom, equality, and tolerance.