When listening to the musical “Hamilton” I am struck by how acutely aware its protagonists were that they were participating in an exciting new political experiment that would allow them to change the world in revolutionary ways.
There was at least one prominent Jewish figure among the circles who shared in that adventure. Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) of Philadelphia made a name for himself as a journalist, playwright, civil servant and politician. In 1814 he was appointed to the post of American consul to Tunisia where he successfully resolved a notorious case involving an American fishing boat that was captured and enslaved by Barbary pirates.
President Monroe soon dismissed him from his post. Monroe admitted that Noah’s religion was the reason for his removal—but that his motives were not anti-semitic. Rather, he feared that it would create diplomatic obstacles when negotiating with Muslims (though in those days Jews usually had an an advantage over Christians in such situations); and in any case, the consul had overspent his budget for ransoming the crew, a charge for which he was subsequently exonerated.
Noah warned that the United States should be careful not to erode the support of the Jews at home or abroad. He claimed that European Jewry constituted a commercial network of sufficient influence that it was in the American interest to maintain their good will.
On the other hand, he was also well aware that the Old World could be a very hostile and dangerous place for Jews, and therefore the welcoming tolerance of America could play a momentous role in shaping the national destiny of the people of Israel. He articulated his extraordinary vision in an address before the Shearith Israel congregation in 1818: “Until the Jews can recover their ancient rights and dominions and take their ranks among the governments of the earth, this is their chosen country; here they can rest with the persecuted of every line, secure in person and property, protected from tyranny and oppression and participating of equal rights and immunities.”
There you have it. Noah never abandoned the traditional Jewish expectation that the national sovereignty to which they are entitled would one day be restored in their historic homeland. In the meantime, however (as Theodor Herzl would later decide when offered an interim solution in Uganda) there was a pressing need for a temporary haven in which Jews could be accepted and protected as equals—and that haven was the pioneering experiment in universal civil rights: America.
Noah’s project enjoyed support from Christians whose eschatological theologies called for a restoration of Jewish sovereignty (many of them believed this would lead to their conversion to the True Faith) as a precondition for Christ’s return in the Millennium.
The collapse of the Ottoman empire seemed to confirm this scenario, as did certain features of the European Enlightenment. Although generally indifferent or hostile to nationalism and religious parochialism, Napoleon had recently made a flamboyant show of convening Europe’s Jewish religious leaders in the framework of a revived Sanhedrin, Israel’s ancient supreme court. Noah, who maintained ties with Abbé Henri Gregoire, the outspoken French champion of liberal ideals and inter-faith brotherhood, undoubtedly regarded such a development as a harbinger of imminent redemption in the new liberal world order.
But Mordecai Manuel Noah’s vision of the Jewish future in America was not limited to a passive confidence in his country’s receptiveness to Jewish refugees, nor in the Jewish readiness to assume the responsibilities of productive citizenship. He took it upon himself to found a Jewish state within the United States of America: the colony of Ararat to be established on Grand Island in the Niagara River near Buffalo, New York, not far from the Canadian border. He argued that settling the area with Jews would help guard the region from Canadian encroachment.
It is nigh impossible to find a description of the founding ceremony for the Ararat project that manages to keep a straight face or avoid sarcasm when outlining the flamboyant pomposity that Noah brought to Buffalo, which was then little more than a sleepy rural village of about 2,500. Contemporary observers were dubious as to whether there were significant numbers of Jews in attendance. At any rate, the area of Grand Island could not have accommodated more than a few dozen families—though there are indications that he expected the pilot project to be further expanded after its initial success. For the occasion, Noah got hold of whatever he could find with an impressive or gaudy uniform–including parades of Masons, military companies, an Indian Chief, exotically costumed musicians and volleys of cannons. Noah himself wore a colourful costume borrowed from a production of Richard III, and made his entrance to the strains of the “Conquering Hero” theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus. Numerous biblical texts were incorporated into the ceremony. On the nascent city’s cornerstone were engraved the words of the “Sh’ma Yisra’el.”
The official proclamation of Ararat took place in the town’s largest edifice, St. Paul’s Episcopal church. To Noah’s enumeration of his various professional and political credentials he added “and by the grace of God, Governor and Judge of Israel.” He went on to proclaim “to the Jews throughout the world that an asylum is prepared and offered to them, where they can enjoy the peace, comfort and happiness which have been denied them through the intolerance and misgovernment of former ages.” In other speeches he spelled out in detail how the current venture would serve as a watershed in the sad trajectory of Israelite history since biblical times. To be sure, the Judaism practiced here would be of a particularly enlightened variety. In particular, he declared that polygamy would be abolished (this had been a major concern at Napoleon’s “Sanhedrin”); and that Ararat would be receptive to Hebrews of all varieties, including such exotic flavours as Karaites, Samaritans, those from India and Africa—and especially to the native Americans who, in keeping with the widespread belief of the time, were remnants of Israel’s “ten lost tribes” (Noah himself composed a tract on the subject). Although Noah believed that safety from persecution might be achieved by means of assimilation, he found that option unacceptable. Jews should strive to proudly cultivate their heritage and Hebrew language. Emulating ancient Jewish practices and anticipating the methods later adopted by the Zionist movement, he called for a three-shekel “capitation tax” to be levied upon all the Jews of the world to defray the new state’s expenses. He made efforts to recruit Jews in Europe, though not all his advertisements reached their intended addresses.
The name “Ararat” was of course a clever pun on Noah’s own surname, and it evoked the image of an ark full of Jewish refugees being rescued from a European deluge. He also made use of other biblical expressions, notably that of “cities of refuge” originally devised as a place to which perpetrators of involuntary manslaughter could escape harm from their victims’ avengers.
The ambitious project elicited more than its share of ridicule, parody and insinuations that it might be nothing more than a clever real estate scam. There is no evidence of a single Jew, including Noah himself, ever setting foot on the Grand Island colony.
Though Ararat may have been a failure, it could be argued that the entire continent ultimately came to fulfil Noah’s original vision. More than two million Jews were able to escape the hardships and perils of central and eastern Europe before the gates were closed under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. Those refugees and their children were thereby saved from the clutches of European tyrants and murderers, in numbers that could never have squeezed into Mordecai Noah’s little refuge on the Niagara River.