A CENTURY OF JEWISH POLITICS
“With politics. ” Isaac Leeser declared in 1855 in his journal, Occident and American Jewish Advocate, “Jews have little concern, except to vote for those whom they individually may deem most fitting to administer the offices created for the public good. ” 1 Politically, during this formative century, Jews functioned as voters, officeholders, or as petitioners to government officials, and many, like Leeser, claimed that they did so as Americans—or Ohioans, Georgians, Californians, and New Yorkers—in the interest of the community as a whole. Yet the simplicity of Leeser's statement, articulated repeatedly by American Jews, belied a more complicated world of American Jewish politics. For during this era Jews in America founded a range of organizations to argue on their behalf and on behalf of Jewish people around the globe. These defense agencies reflected both the ways in which immigration shaped Jewish life and the lack of a clear boundary between American Jews and their sisters and brothers living elsewhere.
Leeser did offer a correct assessment in that American Jews in the century from the 1820s through the 1920s neither voted as a deliberate bloc nor took a unified stand on major political issues. Nothing demonstrated this fact better than the Civil War and the issue of slavery. Southern Jews regarded the matter no differently than did their neighbors. Three thousand Jewish men fought in gray uniforms, and Jewish women aided the cause with volunteer work. Northern Jews took a more complicated stance. Some ardently opposed the “peculiar institutio. ” of slavery, and a handful of Jews who were part of militantly abolitionist groups, like