The Not-So Lost Cause of Moses Ezekiel: The Jewish Sculptor's Confederate Statues Have Become a Beacon for White Supremacists

By Moehlman, Lara | Moment, September-October 2018 | Go to article overview

The Not-So Lost Cause of Moses Ezekiel: The Jewish Sculptor's Confederate Statues Have Become a Beacon for White Supremacists


Moehlman, Lara, Moment


Judith Ezekiel only vaguely remembers the time her grandfather took her to see the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. A young girl, Ezekiel--now a women's studies professor at Ohio's Wright State University--was dwarfed by the 32-foot tall monument. A larger-than-life figure of a woman, representing the South, stands at its top, wearing a crown of olive leaves. Her left hand holds a laurel wreath out toward the South, acknowledging the sacrifice of her fallen sons. Below her are 32 life-size figures, among them a black soldier fighting alongside his white master and an older black woman holding a crying white infant as its father, a Confederate soldier, kisses the baby before he heads off to battle.

The memorial is the work of one of Ezekiel's ancestors, Moses Jacob Ezekiel--a Confederate soldier and Jewish sculptor. It is one of the many statues he produced during his lifetime, including one of Thomas Jefferson located on the grounds of the University of Virginia. That's the statue hundreds of white supremacists rallied around in August 2017 to protest the city of Charlottesville's decision to remove a different statue--that of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee--from a public park. Tiki-torches in hand, they chanted the Nazi slogan "blood and soil" and "Jews will not replace us," likely unaware that the Jefferson statute was created by a descendant of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.

Judith Ezekiel watched the deadly events of Charlottesville's "Unite the Right" rally with disgust. She decided to post a message to her relatives on Facebook: It was time, she wrote, to discuss the fate of the Confederate Memorial. "We're used to having a progressive family history, and having this Confederate statue presents a conundrum for us," she says. Her great-grandmother was a secretary to suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt. Her great-uncle was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's principal agricultural economist. And another relative, Raphael S. Ezekiel, published The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen on the psychology and sociology of white supremacy. Family members responded to her post with enthusiasm, but it took a 12-hour family group chat stretching across five time zones for a consensus to emerge. One suggested pounding the statue to dust. Another wanted to surround it with statues of slaves emerging from the ground. Finally, 22 family members spanning three generations of Ezekiels signed a letter asking for the statue to be removed from Arlington National Cemetery and placed in a museum where it could be properly contextualized.

"Like most such monuments, this statue was intended to rewrite history to justify the Confederacy and the subsequent racist Jim Crow laws," reads the letter, which was published in The Washington Post. "It glorifies the fight to own human beings, and, in its portrayal of African Americans, implies their collusion. As proud as our family may be of Moses's artistic prowess, we--some twenty Ezekiels--say remove that statue."

Born in 1844, Moses Jacob Ezekiel grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the son of a successful cotton merchant. One of 14 children, Moses Ezekiel was raised as an observant Jew--and a proud Southerner. His father, Jacob, once wrote to President John Tyler about the impropriety of calling the American nation a "Christian people." (Tyler wrote back saying he regretted the comment.) At the time there was no conflict between Jewish and Confederate values, says Michael Feldberg, the executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. "Jews who lived in the South during the period before and during the Civil War were pro-slavery. They simply were," he says. "There was relatively little anti-Semitism in the South because, don't forget, the Jews were white, and the real issue was not religion but race."

When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Moses Ezekiel quickly enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI)--becoming the first Jewish cadet at the institution. …

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