American Jewish Historical Society Uncovers Original Documents About U.S. Jewry’s Protest of Damascu

Original documents detailing a joint effort by four American Jewish communities in 1840 to protest the torture of Jews in Damascus have been uncovered by the American Jewish Historical Society.

The papers include handwritten letters from Moses Montefiore, the Sheriff of London and the most prominent Jewish leader in the world at the time, and U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth, as well as minutes from public meetings protesting what is widely known as The Damascus Affair.

“Historically, this is an extremely important discovery,” according to Bernard Wax, director of The Society who recently discovered the letters in a metal container among the papers of the late Rabbi Edward Klein of the Free Synagogue in New York.

“The Damascus Affair was a pivotal event in American Jewish history,” Wax said. “It marked the first time there was an organized protest involving more than one Jewish community to protest outrages against Jews in another country.”

The Damascus Affair was a blood libel that occurred in Syria in 1840 when 13 Jews were imprisoned and tortured for the alleged ritual murders of a Christian monk and his servant. Two prisoners died from the torture and one converted to Christianity.

THE BLOOD LIBEL BECOMES A GLOBAL AFFAIR

The incident exploded into an international affair. Most of the protests were led by Montefiore and by Mordecai Manuel Noah, founder of the New York Herald and the Sheriff of the Port of New York, and Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, two of the most prominent American Jews in the 19th century.

Minutes of meetings held in American communities protesting the imprisonment and torture of the Jews in Damascus, newspaper clippings describing the protests here and abroad, a letter to then President Martin Van Buren, and other correspondence and resolutions, were among the papers uncovered by The American Jewish Historical Society.

Wax said the papers apparently were originally given to Rabbi Stephen Wise (Rabbi Klein’s predecessor at the Free Synagogue) in 1896 by Max Kohler, an attorney, author, and former secretary of The Society who was an avid collector of documents relating to American Jewish history.

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