Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Journalist, diplomat, politician, lawyer, and one of the most popular American playwrights of his time, Mordechai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) was the first American-born Jew to reach national prominence and one of the most influential Jewish Americans of all time. Also one of the most prominent Zionists of his day, he became a passionate advocate for modern Zionism many decades before Herzl and, of particular interest, he became the first person to promote the restoration of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael through their own efforts (as opposed to by purely political means) and to propose the Jewish purchase of land there.

Noah portrait.

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. However, his mother died when he was seven and his father promptly left, leaving him to be raised by his grandfather, Jonas Philips. Though there is no record of Noah’s education, he evidenced remarkable Jewish knowledge and scholarship, and there is little doubt by historians that he was educated by his grandfather, who succeeded in imbuing in him a deep reverence for both his Jewish faith and American liberty.

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Renowned as both a defender of Jews and Judaism and as 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. A leading American playwright and journalist, among his Jewish efforts was his publication of the first English translation of Sefer Hayashar, a medieval Hebrew midrash of unknown authorship (also known as Toledot Adam), which is referred to in Joshua and Samuel II. Noah’s 1840 preface included endorsements by several Hebrew scholars of the day.

Noah’s published translation of Sefer Hayashar (1840).

Noah is best known, however, for his controversial 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 – and, in context, a lovely little pun.

As a newspaper editor, Noah was keenly aware of 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 island 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 always to create a short-term haven for persecuted Jews. Moreover, as an American patriot, he also viewed his plan to have persecuted Jews from around the world come to Ararat as providing a tremendous benefit to the United States which, in the early nineteenth century, desperately sought immigrants.

Though, despite meager financial support, he was able to purchase 2,555 acres for $16,985, Noah lacked public support for the project except, ironically, from 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 American Indians were from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and, in his renowned Discourse on the Restoration of the Jews, he declared his faith that the Jews would return and rebuild their ancient homeland in the United States.

The theatrical and kitschy inauguration ceremony held on September 15, 1825 (which happened to be Tzom Gedaliah), which was covered by the international press, featured a magnificent procession including firing canons, political leaders, a military escort, labor organizations, and clergymen. Published reports of the event mention that a “Jewish flag” was included in the parade but, unfortunately, its format and design are lost to history. The program 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, Noah was surprised to discover that there was no easy way to get to Grand Island – he never actually ever set foot there – and the proposal for a “Jewish refuge” was quickly abandoned.

In the somewhat-dismissive mini-article in the September 24, 1824 issue exhibited here, Niles’ Register reports that:

September 24, 1825 Niles’ Register article on Noah laying the cornerstone for Ararat.

The ceremony of laying the cornerstone, of what is to be a city of the Jews, on Grand Island, N.Y. took place on the 14th instant, and Mr. Noah, editor of the New-York National advocating “governor and judge of Israel” has issued a proclamation, which, for the ridiculous, may be compared with that of a certain general in “the men of war” during the late war [of 1812]. We have not time to notice it further at present.

Noah made clear that he viewed Ararat as only a temporary solution: “In calling the Jews together under the protection of the American Constitution and its laws, it is proper for me to state that this asylum is temporary and provisionary. The Jews never should, and never will relinquish the just hope of retaining possession of their ancient heritage . . .”

Most people viewed the whole Ararat fiasco as merely a harmless stunt, but there were some who were deeply 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 (my favorite) “the chimerical consulate of a pseudo-restorer,” and the European Jewish establishment generally scorned his proposal and no Jews answered the call to come. For example, exhibited here is a letter from the Chief Rabbi of France published in the January 25, 1826 edition of The National Aegis:

Chief Rabbi of France’s correspondence regarding Noah and Ararat.

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…

….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 G-d 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.

Rabbi 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.

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 – he had become editor of The National Advocate, the official publication of Tammany Hall, and other periodicals – in support of the War of 1812, President James Madison appointed him as Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis, in which capacity (and against all odds) he secured the release of American hostages held there by the Barbary Pirates; the precedent for using Jews as American representatives to negotiate with Arabs and Muslims had been instituted by George Washington. 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… There are some circumstances, too, concerned with your accounts, which require a more particular explanation, which with that already given, are not approved by the President.

Noah’s Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States.

That final sentence was a reference to allegations regarding Noah’s expenditures in securing the release of Americans held hostage by the Barbary Pirates, some of which costs Noah had paid out of his own pocket. A furious Noah sent several letters to Madison arguing that, at the time of his appointment, the government knew very well that he was Jewish; that he had been highly effective as consul; that he had established no contact with the Jews of Northern Africa and had been meticulously observed the Christian Sabbath and holidays. He argued that the Bey of Tunis had developed great respect for him and produced letters from his fellow consuls of France, Spain, and England attesting to the great esteem in which they held him. He put forth every effort to ascertain what alleged “recent information” had led to his discharge, but he never received any substantive response.

He returned to the United States to fight for his vindication but, at the end of the day, the only satisfaction that he received was no satisfaction at all: On January 14, 1817, the State Department agreed to pay him $5,000 owed to him, but the government was steadfast in refusion to make any mention of his religious discrimination claim, let alone to apologize for it. Adding insult to injury, Madison sent a May 15, 1818, letter to him expressing his pleasure that the matter had been closed “in a manner favorable” to him.

More troubled by the violation of the nation’s founding principles than his own losses, Noah was particularly concerned that his dismissal would create a dangerous precedent and block Jews from holding public office in the future, and 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 (1819), Noah presented a well-argued and spirited 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 sent Adams, a philosemite fluent in Hebrew, a copy of this book and, in a grateful March 15, 1819 response, Adams became the first American president to support a Jewish state (but, in his next sentence, he hoped that once the Jews had autonomy in their own country, they would become liberal Unitarian Christians):

I have to thank you for another valuable publication your travels in “Europe & Africa” which though I cannot see well enough to read I can hear as well ever & accordingly have heard read two thirds of it & shall in course hear all the rest—It is a magazine of ancient & modern learning of judicious observations & ingenious reflections I have been so pleased with it that I wish you had continued your travels into Syria Judea & Jerusalem. I should attend more to your remarks upon those interesting countries than to those of any traveller I have yet read – If I were to let my imagination loose I Should wish you had been a member of Napoleons Institute at Cairo nay farther I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites indeed as well disciplin’d as a French army – & marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the dominion of it – For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation For as I believe the most enlighten’d men of it have participated in the ameliorations of the philosophy of the age, once restored to an independent government & no longer persecuted they would soon wear away some of the asperities & peculiarities of their character possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians for your Jehovah is our Jehovah & your God of Abraham Isaac & Jacob is our God I am Sir with respect & esteem / your obliged humble servant.

According to Meir J. Soloveichik, “this exchange between Adams and Noah, perhaps more than any other correspondence in American history, embodies the Jewish love affair with America and the Philosemitism of some of its founders, which presaged the future American support for the Jewish state.” Adams’s support, at a time when there were fewer than 5,000 Jews living in the United States, was heartfelt and with no political motivation. Memorably, when Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomed Vice President Mike Pence to the Knesset, he greeted the VP by quoting Adams’s support for a Jewish state in his 1819 correspondence to Noah.

Jefferson also corresponded with Noah and, in a notable May 28, 1818 letter to Noah written from Monticello, he wrote:

I thank you for the Discourse on the consecration of the Synagogue in your city, with which you have been pleased to favor me. I have read it with pleasure and instruction, having learnt from it some valuable facts in Jewish history which I did not know before. Your sect by its sufferings has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance, inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practiced by all when in power. Our laws have applied the only antidote to this vice, protecting our religious, as they do our civil rights by putting all on an equal footing. but more remains to be done. For altho’ we are free by the law, we are not so in practice. Public opinion erects itself into an Inquisition, and exercises its office with as much fanaticism as fans the flames of an Auto-da-fé. The prejudice still scowling on your section of our religion, altho’ the elder one, cannot be unfelt by yourselves. It is to be hoped that individual dispositions will at length mould themselves to the model of the law, and consider the moral basis on which all our religions rest, as the rallying point which unites them in a common interest…

In 1986, the Yeshiva University Museum received this original letter as a gift in honor of the University’s centennial.

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 antisemitic 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. This led to his idea that it was important to create a Jewish land within the United States which, until the return to Eretz Yisrael was feasible, would be protected by the Constitution and would be a safe place for persecuted Jews. Hence, Ararat.

Besides Adams and Jefferson, as discussed above, Noah corresponded with several other American presidents, including Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren.

On the occasion of the 1818 consecration of Shearith Israel in New York, where Noah delivered the keynote address, Madison – not surprisingly, given Noah’s vociferous response to the antisemitism of the Madison government – delivered a rather formal reply to Noah:

Sir: I have received your letter of the sixth, with the eloquent discourse delivered at the consecration of the Synagogue. Having ever regarded the freedom of religious opinions and worship as equally belonging to every sect, and the secure enjoyment of it as the best human provision for bringing all, either into the same way of thinking, or into that mutual charity which is the only proper substitute, I observe with pleasure the view you give of the spirit in which your sect partake of the common blessings afforded by our Government and laws.

Soon after entering the White House, John Quincy Adams, following in the footsteps of his father (John Adams), wrote to Noah that he believed in the “rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation.” Van Buren also corresponded with Noah regarding the infamous Damascus Affair of 1840, where Noah led the opposition of American Jews to the allegation that the Jews of Damascus had murdered a monk. Through Secretary of State John Forsyth, he wrote to the American Minister in Turkey with orders to “prevent and mitigate these horrors” and affirming that American institutions “place on the same footing, the worshipers of God, of every faith and form, acknowledging no distinction between the Mahomedan, the Jew and the Christian.”

Subpoena writ written by Noah as Sheriff.

After his Ararat setback, Noah never again raised the possibility of a Jewish city of refuge and, instead, he dedicated himself to creating a thriving Jewish community in the United States while simultaneously sustaining and promoting the hope of American Jews for a homeland in Eretz Yisrael. He returned to politics, journalism, and Jewish social activism and, in a campaign marked by antisemitism, he was elected the first Jewish sheriff in New York, a position he held for only a year (1822 – 1823). Exhibited here is a subpoena writ (circa 1822) signed by Noah as Sheriff, an exceptionally scarce autograph because he held the position for so short a period.

Noah urged the creation of a Jewish college that would teach Hebrew – “that ancient and beautiful language, which our poets, prophets, and warriors, have used with so much effect, a language which G-d has ordained as His own” – with a major motive being to provide kosher meals to its students and to prevent assimilation. He led the effort to create the Jews’ Hospital in New York (now Mt. Sinai), which was completed a year after his death. Shortly before his death, he planned a trip to see Jerusalem with his own eyes, but it was not to be. His funeral was among the largest in New York history, and he was buried in the Beth Olam Cemetery in Queens.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].