Every few months brings news about the Confederate flag or Confederate monuments, and their legitimate or illegitimate place in American culture. Last spring lawmakers unsuccessfully urged The Citadel to take down the rebel flag that flies on the school’s campus, arguing that the school not be entitled to government money as long as the flag remained on view. In December 2016 a soaring, 70-foot tall Confederate monument, topped by a statue of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis and standing near the University of Louisville, was moved to a less visible location. This May saw the city of New Orleans removing the final of four Confederate monuments in the city, which included statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Recent weeks have provoked an impassioned debate about the hundreds of remaining monuments on American soil, initiated by white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of General Lee in Charlottesville.
Surely the most visible monument to the Confederacy stands at Arlington National Cemetery. Unveiled in 1914 and measuring 32-feet tall, the classically styled and highly allegorical bronze monument rests 400 yards away from the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Comprising over thirty life-size figures and topped by a woman holding forth a laurel wreath of victory, the monument was sculpted by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, an American-born Jew of Sephardic ancestry and a cadet who fought in the Civil War.
While it comes as a surprise to many, a fair number of Jews did, in fact, support the Confederacy. The Confederate Secretary of State was a Jew named Judah Benjamin, who served earlier as Attorney General of the Confederacy and the Confederacy’s Secretary of War. Numbers differ, but historian Robert Rosen estimates that approximately 2,000 Jews fought on the Confederate side. Ezekiel offers one of the most public and prominent examples of a Jew who straddled the line between the values of his religion and a misplaced patriotism.
Born in Richmond, Ezekiel was the first Jew to attend the Virginia Military Institute. Serving as a cadet in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, Ezekiel fought in the bloody Battle of New Market. Although his family owned slaves, Ezekiel allied with the Confederacy because, as he wrote in an after-the-fact evasion, he believed that each state should make its own autonomous decisions: “None of us had ever fought for slavery and, in fact, were opposed to it. . . . Our struggle . . . was simply a constitutional one, based on the constitutional state’s rights and especially on free trade and no tariff.” Regrettably, while coming from his own place of oppression, and grateful for the freedoms afforded Jews by living in America, Ezekiel was not immune to prejudicial thinking.
Ezekiel’s portraits of American political luminaries affirm his fervent patriotism and grateful commitment to his native country. A proud Southerner, Ezekiel was disappointed when he was not asked to sculpt Robert E. Lee, whom he knew personally and socialized with after the war. According to Ezekiel’s autobiography, none other than Lee had encouraged him to pursue a career in art. He quoted the general: “I hope you will be an artist as it seems to me you are cut out for one. But whatever you do, try to prove to the world that if we did not succeed in our struggle, we are worthy of success. And do earn a reputation in whatever profession you undertake.”
Among the sculptures that Ezekiel did carve of prominent American figures are three portraits of Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian. He first carved a marble bust (1888) for the Senate’s Vice Presidential Bust Collection. A later commission — from two Jewish philanthropist brothers — resulted in a nine-foot bronze statue of Jefferson, originally placed in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville (1901). A replica of that Jefferson sculpture (1910) was erected near the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson in 1819.
Jefferson stands atop the Liberty Bell, as drafter of the Declaration of Independence, holding the document outward. Ezekiel depicted Jefferson in his thirties, the future president’s age at the time when he wrote the Declaration. As a man who epitomized democratic ideals and who authored the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Jefferson stood for the very religious liberty that Ezekiel celebrated with his first major commission: a neoclassical, 25-foot allegory of Religious Liberty, which sits on the grounds of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, beside Independence Mall. The sculpture was a commission from the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith in 1874 on the occasion of the upcoming 1876 Centennial Exposition.
Allegorical in conception, the monument presents the classicized Liberty as an eight-foot woman wearing a cap with a border of thirteen stars to symbolize the original colonies. In one hand she holds a laurel wreath and the other hand extends protectively over the idealized young boy at her right, a personification of Faith who holds a flaming lamp. At Liberty’s feet an eagle representing America attacks a serpent symbolizing intolerance, and Faith steps on the serpent’s tail. The group stands on a pedestal that bears the inscription “Religious Liberty, Dedicated to the People of the United States by the Order B’nai B’rith and Israelites of America.”
Ezekiel was a study in contradictions: A fervent American and yet an expatriate for forty years, and a sculptor of religious liberty and yet an ardent memorializer of the Lost Cause. As an artist remarkable for his unique place in American history and in American art, Ezekiel opens up a conversation about how a Jew — an Other — can be an oppressor of a different Other. Victims of enslavement and prejudice, Jews seem unlikely supporters of white domination and oppression. Ezekiel also opens up a conversation about the place of Jewish American artists and of the place of Jewish art in a religiocultural heritage without a long history of artistic production. As Ezekiel aptly observed in his autobiography: “The race to which I belong had been oppressed and looked down upon through so many ages, I felt that I had a mission to perform. That mission was to show that, as the only Jew born in America up to that time who had dedicated himself to sculpture, I owed it to myself to succeed in doing something worthy in spite of all the difficulties and trials to which I was subjected.”
Featured Image credit: detail of the northwest frieze of the Confederate Monument by Moses Jacob Ezekiel at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Tim1965, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
[Editor’s note: The post originally stated that Ezekiel’s family owned no slaves. This has been corrected. We regret the error.]