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T H E A L A B A M A R E V I E W 300 The Hand of Esau: Montgomery’s Jewish Community and the Bus Boycott. By Mary Stanton. Montgomery: River City Publishing, 2006. 194 pp. $15.95. ISBN 1-57966-041-X. Were southern Jews outsiders who supported segregation publicly as a way to gain acceptance from white gentiles, or were they insiders who shared the prejudices of other whites? This has been the central question for historians looking at the issue of southern Jews and the civil rights movement. Mary Stanton explores this subject in her short but insightful book The Hand of Esau. The consensus interpretation is that most southern Jews sympathized with the plight of blacks but kept quiet and even outwardly supported Jim Crow out of fear that the South’s reactionary establishment would target Jews if they challenged the racial status quo. This “fear thesis” is best laid out in Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights (Athens, Ga., 2001). Stanton makes much the same argument, but offers some new and fascinating evidence that could lead the way toward reinterpreting the story of southern Jews and civil rights. What is not open to reinterpretation is the fact that the large majority of southern Jews were not outspoken supporters of the civil rights movement . As Stanton notes, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed frustration that, while northern Jews were strong supporters of the movement, their southern co-religionists seemed to go “out of their way to consort with the perpetrators of the status quo” (p. 166). Jews in Montgomery were no different. They had long been integrated into Montgomery’s society and economy. Mordecai Moses won election as mayor in 1875 as part of a redeemer Democratic ticket. The local newspaper called the Charlestonborn Jew “the candidate of the white men of Montgomery.” Like Jews in other southern cities, Montgomery Jews concentrated in the retail trade; this gave them a far greater visibility than their miniscule numbers would otherwise suggest. During times of racial unrest, their role as merchants made them especially vulnerable to public opposition . According to Stanton, this led Montgomery Jews to squelch any public dissent from within the community on racial issues. When Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein joined the Temple Beth Or congregation in 1928, he was discouraged from addressing the “Negro question” in his sermons. After Rabbi Goldstein became an outspoken defender of the Scottsboro boys, his congregation forced him out in 1933. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Jewish merchants joined the local White O C T O B E R 2 0 0 7 301 Citizens’ Council and even took out an advertisement in the local paper declaring their allegiance to segregation. When some Jews criticized the advertisement, the merchants claimed that they were only trying to stave off an anti-Semitic backlash. Rabbi Seymour Atlas of the Orthodox congregation Agudath Israel faced tremendous pressure from his congregants when he spoke out on civil rights. Unhappy with their rabbi’s public support of the Bus Boycott, the synagogue board voted twenty-seven to one not to renew his contract in 1956. When they searched for a replacement, candidates were required to promise not to discuss racial issues if they were hired. Montgomery Jews were justifiably fearful that such support for civil rights could foster anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism did arise among the most reactionary of the segregationists, including Admiral John Crommelin, who portrayed the civil rights movement as a Jewish plot. Yet Stanton suggests that Montgomery Jews’ fear of anti-Semitism may have been overblown. Crommelin was largely a fringe figure, attracting only ten percent of the vote when he ran for mayor of Montgomery in 1959. Locally, at least, Jews enjoyed remarkable acceptance. When the North Alabama White Citizens’ Council tried to restrict membership to Christians, the Montgomery chapter left the regional organization in protest. Indeed, Les Weinstein, a longtime member of Agudath Israel, was one of the early members of the Montgomery White Citizens’ Council and served on the group’s board. According to Stanton, Jews “appreciated the benefits of white supremacy” (p. 20). While Stanton seems hesitant to take...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9961
Print ISSN
0002-4341
Pages
pp. 300-301
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-11
Open Access
No
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