Symbolic Gesture or Big Deal?

Posted on April 20th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of JMM Insights is written by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

I wanted to devote this month’s JMM Insights to one of the oldest documents in our collection – a short pamphlet with a very long title: “Sketch of the Proceedings in the Legislature of Maryland, December Session, 1818 on What is Commonly Called The Jew Bill.”

I bring this document to your attention not only because it will soon turn 200 years old, but also because it is so intertwined with the story of our current exhibit, Amending America: The Bill of Rights and the launch last week of the JMM-commissioned book on the history of our community, On Middle Ground: A History of Jewish Baltimore.

Let me begin by explaining what the pamphlet is and what it isn’t. The “Sketch” is a polemic, an argument in favor of the passage of the Jew Bill. The Jew Bill was intended to ameliorate the impact of the provision in the Maryland State Constitution of 1776 requiring a “Christian oath” for anyone holding public office (civil or military).

The Jew Bill failed to pass in 1818, but Thomas Kennedy of Hagerstown and his allies in the House of Delegates were not giving up.

The pamphlet consolidated the case for passage, including newspaper editorials from such diverse places as Natchez, Mississippi and Danville, Virginia condemning “Religious Intolerance” in Maryland, as well as letters of support from such notables as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In the great American political tradition, it also veers into the partisan, taking a shot at the Federalist Party for its nearly uniform opposition to the bill.

While this is a fascinating document, it is NOT the Jew Bill. The Museum does not currently own an original copy of the legislation that receives final passage in 1826 (though some members of our Board are still hunting for the possibility that the document exists and could be put on loan to us).

Dr. Eric Goldstein of Emory University, co-author of our new book, On Middle Ground, will be coming to JMM on May 9th to discuss his research on the Jew Bill in the course of writing the opening chapter of the book.

The program is called “Myth vs. Reality: The Maryland Jew Bill in Historic Context.

Without giving away everything that Eric will say (I do want you to come to the program or at least read the book), I would simply point out that Eric found ample evidence that the claims of disability and exclusion attributed to the “Christian oath” provision have been greatly exaggerated – that the rule was not rigorously enforced and that there were relatively easy work-arounds for those wishing to serve.

So was the passage of the Jew Bill just a symbolic gesture or was it a big deal? 

Working at the National Archives I ran into this sort of question often. After all, King George III had issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be “in rebellion” in August, 1775 and sent armies to North America to suppress the revolution… so how significant was the much belated Declaration of Independence eleven months later? As our current exhibit points out, our vaunted FIRST amendment was actually the third article of amendment when it came out of Congress, and was only promoted to first place when the first two amendments failed to be ratified.  Lincoln put so many restrictive clauses into the Emancipation Proclamation that it fell well short of “freeing the slaves.”. He even went so far as to declare it a “war measure” rather than a charter of freedom. Are all these documents over-rated? Or is there something else at work?

I recently listened again to a 2013 interview with Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lonnie responded to a reporter’s question by saying:

The Emancipation Proclamation is without a doubt the most misunderstood document in American history, that on the one hand the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Slavery was ended when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But what the Emancipation Proclamation does that’s so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end.

I find myself echoing Lonnie’s sentiment with respect to the Jew Bill. Maryland was not an environment of horrendous religious oppression in 1818 (nor was it a paradise of tolerance after the bill’s passage in 1827). In many ways, the Jew Bill was a symbolic gesture, having limited practical impact beyond facilitating the political ambitions of Jewish Baltimoreans Jacob Cohen and Solomon Etting.  But sometimes, symbolic gestures are genuinely a big deal, moving, even if slightly, the long arc of the moral universe.

In conjunction with Amending America, we have developed a very small highlights brochure of the “Sketch.”  Pick it up at the Front Desk on your next visit to the Museum, while supplies last.


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Seeing Differently: Ezra Jack Keats

Posted on April 19th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM’s Director of Development, Tracey E. Dorfmann. To read more posts from Tracey, click here.

I am grateful to be the mother of a talented children’s illustrator.  Among the many things I have learned from my daughter is to consider children’s illustration as a high form of art. There were many wonderful picture books that my daughter Hannah and I shared together when she was little.  Now I look at these books and their illustrators in a different way and see how they fit into the pantheon of children’s publishing.

As the adage goes “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This is certainly true for the American writer-illustrator, Ezra Jack Keats.

The child of Jewish immigrants, Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz was born March 11, 1916. He grew up in the “East NY” which was the Jewish Quarter of Brooklyn. As an early 20th-century Jewish child Keats grew up in harsh and impoverished circumstances in an era of great anti-Semitism. In interviews, he recalls “feeling invisible” as a child. His gift of artistic expression became his coping mechanism in his rough and dreary neighborhood.

Always a prolific artist, he painted and drew on any surface, that he could. He was also known to have a modest and caring temperament.  The experience of making images on so many different kinds of surfaces may be how he came to back collage techniques later in his artistic life.

For many of us, we have come to know of him through his Caldecott Award-winning story The Snowy Day, the story of a small boy enjoying the magic and transformative power of snow on an urban landscape. This book broke the “color barrier in children’s mainstream publishing.”

It was the first picture book to depict a black child as the main character of a story. The tale focuses on the enchanting aspects of a snowy urban neighborhood rather the color of the child’s skin. Yet for so many children this was the first time they could see themselves depicted in a storybook.

As a mature artist-illustrator, he wanted to uplift all children because he knew from experience that they often recede from view in the unforgiving urban landscape.  “His art is bold and speaks the universal truths of children.” Author Anita Silvey observed that “Keats could think like a child but paint and make images as an artist with a social conscience.”

Though Keats never had children of his own, there are millions of children around the world who claim him as their own.

If you are interested in finding out more about this wonderful illustrator there are many books about his art and his life or enjoy this YouTube video from a 2012 exhibition of his work presented by the Jewish Museum in NY  and check out this Ezra Keats website.

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The Blaustein–Ben-Gurion Agreement: A Milestone in Israel-Diaspora Relations Part 3

Posted on April 19th, 2018 by

Written by Mark K. Bauman. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel. To order a print copy of the magazine, see details here.

Part III: Visions of Zion

Missed the beginning? Start here.

The Israelis’ image of Zionism differed from that of most American and British Zionists. To Ben-Gurion and many other Israelis, the mission of Zionism included not only the creation of a Jewish nation but also the ingathering of Jews from what he and they viewed as galut or exile.[1] Only with aliyah to Israel could one find fulfillment as a Jew. Moreover, from the galut perspective of history regardless of how secure or accepted Jews might feel elsewhere, alienation and persecution appeared inevitable. As a second but corollary issue, the Israeli government rejected compromising its sovereignty by taking direction from those voluntarily living in exile. Ben-Gurion called for the massive immigration of Jews to Israel.

Address by Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee, entitled “Israel Through American Eyes.” It reports the progress and problems of the “newest democracy in the Middle East,” May 4, 1949. JMM 2000.155.6

Few American or British Jews, whether Zionist or not, had any intention of emigrating. They were loyal to and happy in their own countries and rejected the notion of exile and its connotation of secondary status. But it was the desire of influential Zionist leaders such as Abba Hillel Silver and Emanuel Neumann for involvement in Israeli decisions, emanating from their pre-state direction of the Yishuv, that posed the greatest conundrum between them and the new Israeli government. Silver and Neumann wanted to shape the social, economic, and political culture of Israel on the American model and nurture a political party in opposition to Ben-Gurion’s Mapai to further those aims. They perceived the fate of American and Israeli Jews as bound together and sought an Israeli politic that would reflect well on American Jews.[2] On the other hand, non- and anti-Zionists had long fought charges of dual loyalty and they, as well as most Zionists, had no desire to influence Israeli policies so long as those did not negatively impact them.

Regardless of these differences, the Israeli government wanted and needed the financial support and access to American government officials available especially through members of the American Jewish Committee. Moreover, Jacob Blaustein, as leader of the AJComm, took a pragmatic stand that fit will with Ben-Gurion’s desire to limit diaspora Zionist influence on his government. The non- and anti-Zionists whom Blaustein represented – even as most moved toward Zionism as time progressed – did not wish to direct the policies and affairs of Israel. As Melvin I. Urofsky observes, reaching an agreement through AJComm would also undermine the major fears and positions of the anti-Zionist American Council of Judaism thus de-legitimizing and isolating that organization. Blaustein also epitomized exactly the type of assistance Ben-Gurion and Israel most required. He enjoyed access to five presidents beginning with Franklin Roosevelt. He received presidential appointments to advisory councils because of his expertise in the petroleum industry. His unmatched work ethic and diplomatic acumen, as well as his extensive activities to assist Holocaust survivors and to promote human rights, provided him entrée to world leaders and the highest echelons of the United Nations. Blaustein and his cohort at the AJComm could lobby effectively in Israel’s behalf and raise money for its development and defenses.[3]

Continue to Part IV: Reaching an Accord

[1] On the concept see Arnold M. Eisen, Galut: Modern Jewish Reflections on Homelessness and Homecoming (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

[2] For an excellent summary of the literature and insights into the conflict between Silver, Neumann, and Ben-Gurion see Zohar Segev, “American Zionists’ Place in Israel after Statehood: From Involved Partners to Outside Supports,” American Jewish History 93 (September 2007): 277-302. However, Segev fails to note the Ben-Gurion/Blaustein exchange and how it facilitated the prime minister’s break with American Zionist Leadership.

[3] Urofsky, We Are One, 194-195; Sanua, Let Us Prove Strong, 56-58.

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