The earliest collective action by American Jews on behalf of their overseas brethren came in response to the Damascus blood libel of 1840. That spring, in the ancient capital of Syria, an Italian friar and his Muslim servant mysteriously disappeared. The Capuchin order of monks charged that Jews had kidnaped and murdered the two men to use their blood for Passover recipes. Under torture, two “witnesses” named several prominent Damascus Jews as the killers. The accused were arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Local officials then seized 63 Jewish children to compel others to reveal where the blood was hidden.
Word of these outrages reached the United States in the summer of 1840. American Jews were dismayed that the ancient blood libel had reared up again. But what were they to do? The well-organized English Jewish community sent the respected Sir Moses Montefiore to the Ottoman Sultan to protest events in Damascus. American Jewry, numbering no more than 15,000 individuals scattered across a vast nation, had no national organization or recognized leader to speak for them - they had never before presented a united front on any issue of national or international moment.
Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, joined by communal leaders from other major American cities, stepped into the breach. Public rallies, meetings of synagogue congregations and committees of correspondence - organized by the Jewish communities in New York, Philadelphia, Richmond and Cincinnati, among others - called on President Martin Van Buren to intervene in Damascus.
Their petitions argued that “the moral influence of the Chief Magistrate of the United States would be, under Heaven, the best aid we could invoke for the protection of our persecuted brethren under the Mohammedan domain.” The New York protesters did “most emphatically and solemnly deny as well in our own name as in that of the whole Jewish people, that murder was ever committed by the Jews of Damascus, or those of any other part of the world, for the purpose of using the blood or any part of a human being in the ceremonies of our religion.”
Van Buren ordered American diplomats in Constantinople and Alexandria to tell the Ottoman rulers of Syria of the “horror” felt by all Americans at the “extravagant charges strikingly similar to those which, in less enlightened ages, were made pretexts for the persecution and spoliation of these unfortunate people.” Van Buren cited America's liberal institutions, which “place upon the same footing, the worshipers of God, of every faith and form” as his basis for intervening “in behalf of an oppressed and persecuted race, among whose kindred are found some of the most worthy and patriotic of [American] citizens.”
Bowing to pressure from the United States, Britain and France, Pasha Muhammed Ali, overlord of Syria, ended the torture of Jewish prisoners, ordered their release and instructed Damascus officials to protect the Jewish community. The American ambassador helped Montefiore secure from the Ottoman Sultan an imperial decree in November declaring that the blood libel had “not the least foundation in truth” and that Jews “shall possess the same advantages and enjoy the same privileges” as his other subjects, especially the free exercise of their religion.
American Jewry experienced its first taste of successful united action on behalf of its brethren overseas. Rabbi Leeser expressed the thinking of many American Jews of that time, as well as the spirit of the Babylonian Talmud, when he observed:
“As citizens we belong to the country we live in; but as believers in one God, as the faithful adorers of the Creator, as the inheritors of the law, the Jews [of other lands] are no aliens among us, and we hail the Israelite as brother, no matter whether his home be the torrid zone, or where the poles encircle the earth with impenetrable fetters of icy coldness.”
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society