Virginia Jews both insiders and outsiders, historically

Ruins of the ill-fated English settlement of Roanoke. A Jewish colonist apparently lived there. (Engraving by John Parker Davis, 1893)

In 1790, there were 200 Jews in Virginia. By 2013, the commonwealth was home to 95,000, most of them near Washington, D.C., according to historian Phyllis K. Leffler.
And through most of that history, there was a common thread: In Virginia, Jews were both insiders and outsiders. They were complicit in slavery and white supremacy, while also falling prey to anti-Semitic discrimination and threats.

“The [Virginian] Jewish story is one of educational attainment, economic success and engagement in government,” Leffler, a history professor at the University of Virginia, said recently in a virtual talk hosted by The Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies. “But it’s also a story of discrimination and exclusion in times when white supremacy rears its angry head.”

The ill-fated Roanoke colony, founded in 1585, apparently had a Jewish settler — Joachim Gaunse, a metallurgist from Prague, Leffler said.

Roanoke disappeared without a trace. But once Virginia was more securely established, its few Jews were denied equal status with Christian colonists. Both citizenship and public office holding required taking an oath of office to Jesus Christ, “and Jews could not swear to that oath,” Leffler said.

Discriminatory laws were not evenly enforced and there are examples of Jews owning land, engaging in lawsuits and conducting business in Virginia, she said.

“Despite the early restrictions of the colonial era, Jews appear to be accepted during the early republic, and in most places in the South, had become insiders,” she said.

Being an insider meant being able to hold enslaved people. By 1830, a majority of Richmond Jews owned slaves, mirroring the rate of slave ownership among all whites in the city. On the eve of the Civil War, 75 percent of Richmond Jews owned enslaved Blacks.

“As assimilated Southerners and largely insiders to the culture beginning in the late 18th century, these Virginia Jews adopted and participated in white supremacist values by owning Black human beings who they enslaved,” Leffler said.

Virginia Jews, like their white Christian neighbors, fought for the Confederacy. Rabbis from Richmond published their support of slavery and of the Confederacy in newspapers. Of the 99 soldiers in the Richmond Light Infantry Blues that left for battle in April 1861, 15 were Jews. Despite their support, anti-Semitism was present in Virginia.

“Despite the commitment of Jews to serve the South, anti-Semitism was never far, revealing the ways in which Jews knew that their outsider status could rise to the surface at any time,” Leffler said. “A common view was the Jews were citizens of no country except the Jewish nation. Some regarded them as disloyal, unpatriotic, cowardly. They needed to prove their willingness to fight. So even during the Civil War period, Jews are both insiders and outsiders in the life of Virginia.”

After the war, and until World War II, the Jewish community in Virginia continued to grow, although nowhere near as quickly as Northern immigration gateways such as New York. Jews in Virginia established stores, participated in political life and built synagogues and cemeteries. Prosperity was accompanied by anti-Semitism. In 1910, the book “The Jew a Negro” was published, which claimed Jews shared negative characteristics with Blacks.

Jews in the South during this time were often fearful, and for good reason. Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Marietta, Ga., was falsely accused of murdering a white female employee. Despite being acquitted, Frank was lynched in 1915.

Frank’s murder “struck immense fear throughout Jewish communities in the South,” Leffler said, and led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. “The fear of anti-Semitism, which reached its peak with the trial of Leo Frank, remained so pervasive throughout the South that few, if any, Jewish laymen or rabbis would have had the courage to speak out on so unpopular an issue as the rights of Blacks.”

One of the reactions by Southern whites to the Civil Rights movement was an explosion of anti-Semitic extremism. In their opposition to rights for Blacks, segregationists accused Jews of being communists bent on destroying democracy in the United States.

“The Civil Rights movement presented Southern Jews with a dilemma,” Leffler said. “They understood themselves to be part of a persecuted minority. For the most part, they were not hardened segregationists, but they had a marginal status within Southern white society, and mainly remained silent.”

While Virginia Jews have become part of the state’s mainstream, anti-Semitism hasn’t gone away entirely, Leffler said.

“As much as Jews have assimilated, achieved some of the highest positions in education, business, political and civic life, we are still viewed as outsiders by those who espouse white nationalist values.”

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