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American Jewry And The 1840 Damascus Blood Libel


 

Meanwhile news of the dire events at Damascus had reached the shores of America, and the Jews of this country prepared to join in, for the first time in their history, with the exertions of their European brothers, on a matter affecting the honour of all Jewry. It is somewhat difficult to account for the lateness of their action. So far as I can ascertain, it took about 30 days for the European mails to reach America, yet it was not till Aug. 17 that a meeting was held in New York with J. B. Kursheet [Israel Baer Kursheedt[iii]] as Chairman and Theodore J. Seixas as Secretary which, passed resolutions expressing their horror at the treatment of the Damascus Jews and calling upon the President of the United States to intervene on their behalf. Five days later – time went more leisurely in those days – this resolution was sent to Washington, whence almost by return on Aug. 26th. Mr. John Forsyth, the Secretary of State, replied informing the New York Jews that already on the 14th inst. a letter had been sent to Mr. Gliddon, the U. S. consul at Alexandria, ordering him to do all in his power to help redress the wrongs of the Damascus Jews.

On Thursday evening, Aug. 27th, the Jews of Philadelphia held in the vestry of the Mikve Israel Synagogue a memorable meeting at which were present not alone the chief Jews of the city but several representative Christian clergymen, Dr. Ducachet, Rector of St, Stephens, Dr. Ramsay, a Presbyterian minister, and the Rev. Mr. Kennedy, all of whom ultimately spoke. The meeting appears to have been summoned by Hyman Gratz, but the most important figure at it and the orator of the evening was undoubtedly Isaac Leeser[iv], then in the height of his powers. He took the bold course of repudiating the blood-accusation by the simple argument that as both Christianity and Islam were derived from Judaism, if the last advocated ritual murder, the daughter-religions would equally be guilty of the same practice.

 

Given that Mohammed Ali had acknowledged the innocence of the accused Jews on August 28, it is clear that these actions taken by American Jews turned out to be unnecessary.

 

But though the action of the American Jews had no immediate effect, it was not for naught that they had taken a worthy share in the universal protest of Israel against the blood-accusation which affected the honor of all Jews.

When the next occasion arose for united action in the Mortara case, even distant California took part in the universal protest of all Jewry, and in the Russian and Roumanian atrocities of the past 20 years the Jews of America have been expected to take their share in any diplomacy or action that was needed, and have nobly fulfilled that expectation. Their part in the Damascus affair was thus the beginning of the diplomatic or international phase in the history of ‘the American Jews, and in this sense, I venture to think, deserves somewhat fuller attention than has hitherto been given to it.

 


[i]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_libel

 

[ii] Damascus Affair, The Jewish Encyclopedia, Ktav Publishing House, Inc. 1906, page 420. The article is available at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=22&letter=D

 

[iii] For more about I. B. Kursheedt see “America’s First Torah Scholar: Israel Baer Kursheedt,” The Jewish Press, February 7, 2007, page 1 (http://www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=20616).

 

[iv] For more about Isaac Leeser see “Isaac Leeser: Architect of Traditional Judaism in America,” The Jewish Press, June 22, 2007, page 1 (http://www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=21906).

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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