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Charlottesville Downtown Charlottesville. Photo: Bob Mical

My Southern Roots: a Jewish Odyssey
By Carol Gould
August 22, 2017

It is lamentable that in the shadow of Charlottesville worldwide pundits and British radio-phone-in audiences spent days on end equating the Confederacy with Nazism.

My Jewish ancestor Jacob Karesh emigrated from what is now Lithuania to South Carolina in 1811. He joined forces with a non-Jewish plantation owner and prospered. My family was honourable and hard-working. I lost an ancestor at the horrific battle of Gettysburg.

Confederate families who wished to see an end to slavery nevertheless fought to defend their rural way of life. Britain and the world depended on Southern cotton, sugar and tobacco, and the destruction of all this – including the burning of Atlanta by Union General Ulysses Grant – terrified the South. My family in no way, shape or form resembled the awful white characters in 12 Years a Slave or The Help. (In South Africa jobs with Jewish families were sought-after because workers knew they would be treated with generosity and respect. These employers, like my ancestors in South Carolina, were caring and generous and made sure their staff felt part of the 'meshpuchah' – family.)

Some Southern families lost all of their sons in the Civil War. Not all owned slaves. They were not Nazis. White northern Carpetbaggers victimised freed slaves. The KKK also existed in the North. Southern families lost some 350,000 soldiers; with those faded pictures on living room walls above the fireplace they remember them as all families commemorate their fallen youth, as do Northerners, in just or unjust wars. Lumping them with the Hitler era is hurtful to their memory. On social media 'Nazi Germany / Confederacy' has become a handle I resent.

I refer everyone to that moving scene in Gone with the Wind when Melanie Wilkes is tending an injured Union soldier and says to Scarlett, 'I like to think that some Northern woman is tending to my Ashley.' The deprivation and starvation suffered in the South post-bellum was horrifying; I find deeply hurtful the present hysteria about 'those evil, bigoted Southerners.'

English kings tortured Jewish moneylenders, massacred Jews in England before the Expulsion, accused them of Blood Libels and burned them alive in York Minster, banning them from entering the UK from 1290 to the 17th century; should they have their coffins and elaborate tributes removed? Should monuments to the military heroes of a bygone age who likely oversaw ugly confrontations with people of color in British colonies be demolished? Should the Benjamin Franklin House in London and American mainland monuments to Washington and Jefferson be demolished because they owned slaves? In Britain we have already been embroiled in the uncomfortable Oxford University debate about Cecil Rhodes which, as I write this, continues to fester.

The ultimate irony is this: across American and British campuses we have seen speakers from Israel and local lecturers attempting to rationally discuss the Palestinian-Israeli relationship foot-stomped and shouted down by the same groups who are screaming about American racism and Nazism. In brutal irony Black Lives Matter militants repeatedly disrupted left-wing, passionate civil rights champion Bernie Sanders on his campaign trail in such an intimidating manner as to make those of us watching this fear for his life. This is what president Trump meant when he referred to 'both sides' in the violent Charlottesville confrontation. Professor Geoffrey Alderman has written about the terrifying behaviour of anti-Israel/USA militants towards me and I have written, in the Jewish Chronicle in 2010, about a British Channel Five executive who cornered me at a London party, lashing out at my American heritage. He was as frightening to me as any neo-Nazi in Virginia. When the US Ambassador, Philip Lader, was foot-stomped and heckled on BBC Question Time on the Thursday after 9/11 that was just as scary as any 'alt-Right' mob. The BBC had to apologize the next day.

Let it be known that I am proud of my cousin who died in the Civil War. In the twentieth century my parents were tireless campaigners for civil rights and for the desegregation of the troops, as chronicled in The American magazine, but I cherish the memory of my Southern roots. When my late mother, in army uniform, stood up in the jeep as she approached our plantation mansion in 1943, shouting at the field workers 'unshackle yourselves,' the foreman told her the staff had a happy and safe life with my family. My Philadelphia Uncle Lewis Karash's housekeeper, Bessie, was the granddaughter of our retainers and adored her adopted family. I remember sitting with her shelling peas for Thanksgiving and looking up to her in awe. To this day I have never been ashamed of my Confederate family and rejoice in the fact that 150 years after the bitter Civil War my country twice elected a black president. Black Lives Matter arose because of renewed racial tensions but I am ever optimistic that the United States will renew its pledge to racial harmony for coming generations.

Carol Gould is a BBC/Sky News/LBC broadcaster. A native of Philadelphia, she is the author of Spitfire Girls and Don't tread on me - anti-Americanism Abroad. Her next book is A Room at Camp Pickett about her mother's army days at a segregated Virginia base.

Charlottesville vigil, Washington Downtown Charlottesville. Photo: Ted Eytan


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