Born in 1811 in St. Croix, at that time a British colony, Judah Benjamin immigrated with his family to Charleston, South Carolina, in his early youth. He studied law at Yale University for two years and later was elected to the Louisiana legislature. He did well financially as the owner of a sugar plantation and eventually served as Louisiana's U.S. senator from 1853 until secession in 1861. One door he clearly opened for Senator Lieberman: He was the first openly professing Jew elected to the United States Senate. (An early senator, David Levy Yulee, was of Jewish heritage but did not count himself a "professing Jew.")
After the secession, he served as attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state in the cabinet of Jefferson Davis. He was really Davis' right-hand man and chief policy adviser, constantly at his side. His service as secretary of war was very brief: He was charged with mismanaging the war effort and resigned His friend President Jefferson Davis quickly appointed him secretary of state in February 1862. Toward the end of the war, Benjamin proposed enlisting slaves to fight on the Southern side and freeing them for their military service. His proposal was defeated and derided. There was the sense that Benjamin was contradicting the very premise of the Southern cause, that slaves were inferior beings. His sensibility was seen as decidedly out of tune with the mainstream of Confederate feeling. He was perceived, in effect, as alien.
Anti-Semitism was a factor during his service in the U.S. Senate and in the Confederate government. Senator Ben Wade of Ohio accused him of being an "Israelite in Egyptian clothing" on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Benjamin answered, "It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain."
After the assassination of Lincoln, more anti-Semitic imagery came into popular consciousness. If Lincoln was compared to the Messiah, then Benjamin was depicted as Judas. Seeing the writing on the wall, Benjamin burned his papers and fled to England, where this remarkable man rose again to prominence, as a jurist. He became queen's counsel, and his "Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property" (1868) became the most important textbook on the subject for its time.
It is unlikely that Senator Lieberman will be subject to the crude anti-Semitism that Benjamin endured. On the other hand, the very reception Gore's announcement is receiving indicates a certain degree of unease in the public mind. All at once in the media we are hearing about the unprecedented degree of Jewish presence in the Clinton Cabinet, and in the U.S. Senate. Lurking behind the unease may well be the same mythical constructions of the Jew that rose up in Benjamin's case whenever there was a crisis: The Jew as obsessed with money, the Jew as disloyal Judas.
Judah Benjamin was not a religiously observant Jew like Senator Lieberman, but he was open about being a Jew. He was proud and never backed away from his identity. Perhaps that's the most important lesson history has to offer Jews in America.