Mordecai Manuel Noah (also Mordechai Emanuel Noah) (1785-1851) was the first American proto-Zionist, as well as being an author, playwright, journalist and political figure. Noah is best known however for his scheme of settling the Jews in Grand Island, on the Niagara river near Buffalo New York. It is not generally realized that this tiny "Jewish Homeland" was to have been only a temporary refuge, and that Noah asserted that Jews would never give up their claim on Zion.
Mordecai Manuel Noah was born in Philadelphia on July 19, 1785. His parents were Manuel M. Noah, a Revolutionary War hero and Zipporah Phillips, of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish extraction. Zipporah Noah was a great, great granddaughter of Dr. Samuel Nunez, a Marrano (forcible convert) who made a daring escape from the Portuguese inquisition and settled in Savannah, Georgia in 1732. Mordechai's mother died in 1795 (or 1792 according to other sources). He was raised by his maternal grandfather Jonas Phillips, who had immigrated from Prussia to London and thence, after learning English, in Charleston, South Carolina in 1756. His stepmother was Rebecca (Machado) Phillips. The Phillips had 21 other children. His grandfather gave him a deep-seated reverence for American liberty, and an equally staunch pride in his people and religion
Mordecai obtained a commission of Major in the Pennsylvania militia, a title that stuck with him. To make his way in the world, Mordechai went to Charleston, hoping to study law, get experience in journalism, and become involved in party politics. His rise in the Jewish community and in the politics of the young nation was rapid.
Noah's patriotic "Mulek" articles in the Charleston Times, supporting the administration of President Madison, gained him notoriety and approval in the War of 1812. This helped him gain an appointment as the U.S. Consul to Tunis in 1813. The US had been been suffering the depredations of "Barbary" pirates for over 25 years, but lacking the will to fight in foreign waters, had paid ransoms and tributes to the different bandits and pashas who ruled the cost of North Africa. The nation was too parsimonious to pay for a proper fleet as yet, but public opinion was turning against the exorbitant and shameful ransoms, the ignominy of US citizens being sold into slavery, and the shame of having to placate and honor bandit rulers. Noah was successful in ransoming some prisoners, but the payment of ransom was unpopular. The administration found the excuse of his Jewish religion a convenient ground for terminating his employment.
Mordecai moved to New York City. He started a letter-writing campaign to reestablish his good name, advanced his career in journalism, and continued his political activities. His uncle, Naphtali Phillips, owned the National Advocate, a convenient platform for political publicity. . Mordecai soon became the chief editor at this prestigious enterprise, and he remained an editor or associate editor of different New York publications for the rest of his life.
In 1818, Noah delivered a famous speech at the consecration of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. His speech related the history of Jewish persecution around the world and argued that the Jewish people must be established as a nation with their own government, in order to avoid future oppression. He said, Jews must be turned aside from the crooked paths of traffic, miscalled commerce, to industry and agriculture..." This sort of thinking in fact coincided with the ideas of Protestants who believed in restoration of the Jews, and were becoming increasingly active in the Middle East, activity that was soon converted to educational enterprises and good works in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.
In 1821 Noah became Sheriff of New York. The National Advocate changed owners in 1826, and Noah changed political allegiance and left the the Advocate. He started his own newspaper and became a supporter of governor DeWitt Clinton, a Republican. Adroit political manipulations kept Noah on the winning side of the political fence.
Meanwhile, Mordecai Manual Noah's 1818 call to the Jews was being translated into action. In 1820 he petitioned the New York legislature for a grant of an extensive parcel of land on Grand Island in the Niagara River, to establish a new Jewish homeland where "Israelites" of all types might find refuge. Grand Island had been territory disputed with the Iroquois Indians until 1815. He did not get the grant, but together with a coalition of Freemasons and early Christian Zionists, he purchased large parts of Grand Island in the public auction held in 1825. A newspaper reported:
It is said Mr. Noah's object is to accommodate his brethren, the Jews, many of whom are wishing to emigrate to this country, and to locate in a body, in sufficient numbers to form a colony or city, by themselves. Grand Island has been selected for this purpose, and it is stated in the Albany Gazette, that the corner stone of a city will be laid on this island, with suitable masonic and religious ceremonies, in the course of the present summer, probably about the time when the canal is completed and in operation.
A ceremony was held consecrating the new Jewish Homeland, called "Ararat" on September 12, 1825. As there were too many attendees to transport to Grand Island, the ceremony was held in St Paul's church, Buffalo N.Y. Noah delivered a long speech, in which he made it clear that Grand Island was to be only a temporary gathering place, until the Jews could return to Zion:
(Above is from the New York Evening Post, Saturday September 24, 1825 #7241.)
Noah had not consulted with Jewish rabbis and leaders abroad however. They objected strenuously on the overt grounds that they were content to wait for the Messiah, and perhaps because he had tried to set up a government that would collect taxes from all the Jews of the world, with himself as its head. The scheme collapsed because of lack of Jewish support and because of subsequent scandals and persecution involving the Freemasons of New York state, who were among his major supporters.
In 1829 Noah merged his New York Enquirer. with the New York Morning Courier, a anti-abolitionist Jacksonian paper, managed by James Watson Webb. Falling out with Webb in 1833, Noah joined the Whigs and founded the Evening Star, but that paper foundered in 1842. He continued to advocate the return of the Jews to Palestine, and to dabble in journalism and politics in minor capacities. In his Discourse on the Restoration of the Jews, published in 1844, Noah again proclaimed his faith that the Jews would return to the land of Israel and rebuild their ancient homeland, and called on America to take the lead in bringing this about. He died of a stroke in 1851.
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