How the academic elites stole my Judah Benjamin biography: James Traub’s Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy

When you find out you have been plagiarized

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

What is the worst nightmare anyone in academia could have, finding out that someone else has stolen your topic or plagiarized you? Even worse, knowing it was done because you are a woman. Idea theft is a huge problem in academia, and women are often the victims of these thefts by the much more powerful men in the profession. However, while an idea is undeveloped, it is much more brazen in academia to steal ideas and topics that are published and well-publicized. Publishing is supposed to ensure an academic’s work is protected; well, that is what I thought. A woman without a doctorate can just be trampled on, published or not.

Three years ago, I posted my long-form essay entitled “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish Goal of whiteness in the South.” on Confederate cabinet secretary and non-practicing Southern Jew, Judah P. Benjamin on my blog on Medium. [1] Simultaneously, I published it on my profiles on Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and my Times of Israel blog a few days later. [2] The essay is not a brief look at Benjamin, but 25,000 words long with a highly developed thesis, analyzing his motives to support the Confederacy and slavery, which had less to do with southern ideals, but acceptance into southern racial society and his advancement and success.

My Benjamin essay is one of my most successful writings and most associated with me. It has amassed over 10,000 views on all platforms, with nearly 6,500 views just on Medium. Thanks to an acknowledgment on History.com citing me and linking to an essay for one of their articles. My essay on Medium was one of the top ten Google searches, up until this fall, that is, when on October 5, 2021, Yale University Press released James Traub’s “Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy” as part of their “Jewish Lives” series. [3] Ileene Smith serves as the editorial director of the series, with Anita Shapira and Steven J. Zipperstein as series editors.[4]

In February 2020, over the Super Bowl weekend, a significant figure in American Jewish academia contacted me on my academic social media account, Academia.edu. The academic big shot was the head of a Jewish college in the United States; he had downloaded my essay about Benjamin. A well-known scholar, this college president, was also editing a short biography series. “Where to do you teach/work? I am looking forward to reading this. Are you working on a book? I have a book series in US biography and would be interested in a Benjamin book.”

In a phone call later that night in February 2020 and subsequent emails, the college president made it seem as if he was interested in me authoring the book on Benjamin for his publisher. He sent me the information for creating the book proposal and samples. I thought it was my big break after fifteen years in the field. It was all too good to be true, then came the classic gaslighting, breaking down a woman in academia, finding faults in almost every sentence I wrote, even questioning facts backed up with evidence. The college president went from wanting me to continue writing my Benjamin biography to just wanting a Benjamin book for another academic one with a doctorate.

Just five days after approaching me about contributing his biography series, he sent me an email trying to convince me to make my essay on Benjamin off the internet; he repeated the comment twice. He tried to convince me it was because of typos, arguing the history was incorrect because I claimed Benjamin was the highest-ranking Jew in the American government, and I used sources by non-historians. However, the real reason is that it is easier to get a Benjamin book and copy my ideas if my writing is not published online. Why? The college president did not want me to write the biography. This college president wanted my arduous labors for someone else to plagiarize and steal my work. Second, I was a woman who did not have a doctorate and was not affiliated with any university, so how could I be taken seriously. Third, it was discrediting my work so another more prestigious writer, most probably male and with a doctorate, could write my topic, the one I had labored on, and act as I had never written anything about Benjamin.

I sought advice from my mentor and another female academic writer. She gave me what should have been the best advice on the topic, and it would be untouchable. Put it all over the internet and social media that you intend to elongate your essay into a book-length biography, post an article associated with your research. I took it seriously; I wrote a successful and highly shared article on my Times of Israel blog, relating Judah Benjamin with Bernie Sanders popular campaign for the Democratic nomination; “Sanders’s views on Judaism similar to last Jew close to presidency Judah Benjamin.” [5] I worried so much that this college professor would go behind my back; recruit someone else to write about Benjamin, I took to social media and warning against stealing others my work. I even contacted the relevant editor at his publisher, warning of legal action if it happened. After I contacted his publisher and editors, they reassured me they would not take my work and publish a Benjamin biography with their imprint.

I was initially shocked but not completely surprised to discover that Yale University’s Jewish Lives series published a book about Judah Benjamin. On October 5, they released “Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy.” I always knew the college president would exact revenge in some way for me going to his editors and preventing him from having a “Benjamin book” and the best way to have a Benjamin book published in a rival presses similar series. Although academic integrity should have stopped the Jewish Lives editor from handing the topic to someone who never wrote about Benjamin, there was nothing I could do to prevent them from infringing on my scholarly research.

Traub’s book “Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy” is one of the latest releases in the Jewish Lives book series. [6] The series started in 2010 and is published by Yale University Press with funding from the Leon D. Black Foundation. The series includes short introductory biographies, and they describe the series as “a prizewinning series of biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity.” The biographies cover “Jewish figures” in various categories, including “literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences.” [7] The series has the tagline “Biographies that illuminate the Jewish experience.” [8] The series editor chooses who she wants to write a specific biography, “Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.”

James Traub is an experienced and highly regarded journalist who has written extensively on foreign policy. [9] Traub is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Traub is also a longtime friend to series editor Ilene Smith, who personally recruited him to write about Benjamin. Traub notes in his acknowledgments that series editorial director Ileene Smith asked him to write the biography. Traub wrote, “Above all, I would like to thank Ileene Smith, my friend and editor and general editor of the Yale Jewish Lives series, who brought me the idea, nurtured me through the process, and very gently prodded me to make changes that she surely knew I needed to make.” (187) However, he even admitted he knew nothing about Benjamin or Southern Jewish history before writing his biography of Benjamin.

Yale University Press over-embellished Traub’s credentials. Yale University Press made his author bio vague enough to allude that Traub has a doctorate that he does not have and a professorship at New York University. Instead, Traub is a nonresident fellow at the university. He is a course instructor in American foreign policy at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus in journalism at the NYU, New York City campus. Traub has authored numerous books and is a columnist and contributor at Foreign Policy.” He has written only one other book on American history, John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. [10]

Traub has an undergraduate degree; however, it is from the ultimate of elite universites, Harvard University. Experience often replaces education, but in this case, it does not; Traub has minimal experience in writing about American history, none on American Jewish history, and neither on Southern Jewish history. A majority of the authors series editor Smith chose had doctorates, professorships and were experts in fields and relating to the historical figures they wrote biographies. However, when the editor chose authors who did not have doctorates or even graduate degrees, they wrote about cultural figures in the arts or film where experience might matter more than academics.

I have devoted my writing career to Southern Jewish History. I wrote three of my six graduate research papers on Southern Jewry, Jewish women, Jews participation in slavery, and contrast, Southern Jewish women’s participation in the civil rights movement. My masters’ thesis “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Jews, Whiteness, and Anti-Semitism in the Civil War South, 1840–1913,” [11] ended up a whopping 300 pages, which I posted in full last year on Academia.edu. In addition, I wrote two other companions in addition to the essay on Judah Benjamin, “Dual Loyalties in the Civil War: Rabbinical Responses and Support for the Union and Confederacy, “ [12] and “Questioning Jewish Loyalty to the Union: Grant’s General Order Number 11 and Antisemitism during the Civil War.” I posted both book-length manuscripts just this summer as part of a couple of rough draft manuscripts I feared would end up as my Benjamin essay, stolen by another writer. I thought publishing them would keep my intellectual property safe, but it does not matter.

Traub had a privileged upbringing that afforded him connections to jumpstart his journalism career and easily make the leap to authoring books. Traub’s parents held influential positions in New York society; his father was the chairman of Bloomingdale’s, while his mother was the chair emerita of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. Traub has Yale University connections through his wife Elizabeth Easton, who received all her degrees from the university, including her doctorate in the History of Art. Easton was the chair of the Department of European Paintings and Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum and an adjunct professor at New York University. Yale awarded Easton “the Wilbur Cross Medal — the highest honor accorded to Yale Universit’s Graduate School alumni.” [13]

Traub’s most significant connection is having a “friend” in Ileene Smith, alumni the Editorial Director of the Jewish Lives series. On a superficial search internet search, their connection goes back to at least the early aughts. In all fairness, his connections were Traub’s only qualification for being asked to write a biography in Southern Jewish history. In his press tour to the Jewish Insider, Traub admitted that he knew nothing about Benjamin when Smith asked him to write the biography. Even after writing about Benjamin, Traub did not know enough about historiography. After reading and using Eli N. Evans’ Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, first published in hardcover in 1987, the paperback in 1989 hardly the ’90s, as Traub claimed.

“Jewish Insider: How would you describe your knowledge of Benjamin before you began writing this biography?

James Traub: Here’s what’s happened. Ileene Smith, who is the general editor of the Yale Jewish Lives series, as well as being a very celebrated editor at Farrar, Strauss, approached me about doing this, I think because I’d written this biography of John Quincy Adams. If you had asked me then, I would have said, “Oh, Judah, Benjamin, he was that guy in the Confederacy.” That’s probably the sum total of what I knew. So, I read the very good biography by Eli Evans written in the ’90s, and I thought there were so many things that were interesting. You know, the drama of assimilation for this poor kid from the South who made it to the highest echelons of American life, and then this moral drama of a person who, in effect, assimilated to the wrong side. For him, success meant success in slave culture. I would say those two questions — one cultural and psychological and the other moral — made me think this is a guy worth writing a book about.” [14]

Traub’s volume is short, under 200 pages, and the series is supposed to introduce readers to prominent figures in Jewish history. Unfortunately, Traub’s experience in writing on American Jewry is minimal at best, and American Jewish history is nothing. He listed only one article relating to Judaism, the “New Israel Lobby” published in the “New York Times Magazine” on September 13, 2009. The article was a profile of advocacy group J-Street, deemed far too liberal and almost anti-Zionist in nature. However, knowledge of a topic is irrelevant when you have a university press behind you and an advance giving money and resources to hire research assistants and editors to get the job done.

Mark I. Pinsky, a Durham, North Carolina, freelance journalist, reviewed the book for the “New York Review of Books.” Pinksy seems to find problems in Traub’s conclusions about Benjamin, calling it “unambiguous,” “Traub is unambiguous in his verdict on Benjamin, who owned 140 slaves on his Louisiana sugar cane plantation.” [15] Pinsky does not entirely blame Traub for his incomplete “portrait” of Benjamin because “he left neither diaries nor personal letters and declined to cooperate with a would-be biographer while he was alive.” Pinsky explains, “What has made it difficult for biographers, including Traub, to paint a full portrait is that Benjamin was intentionally opaque about his personal life.” [16]

As a result, “Traub has necessarily had to rely to some degree on his own informed speculation.” [17] Problem is Traub is not that informed about neither Benn nor Southern Jewish history. Pinsky finds that Benjamin lacks in the book, and it is also padded more than it should. Pinsky writes, “Thus, with a good deal of historical context, this is as much a diplomatic history as a personal one, and as a result Benjamin is sometimes absent for pages. There is also some padding, including more about sugar cane cultivation and processing than most general readers might want to know.” [18] Considering the book is less than 200 pages, it is a problem that Traub had such difficulty reaching the required page limit; it says volumes on his knowledge of his subject.

The most problematic is Traub’s thesis finds foundations in my thesis; he emphasizes Southern Jewry’s support of slavery to gain acceptance in southern society life. Although Traub borrows a lot from my essay on Benjamin and the introduction to my thesis, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Jews, Whiteness, and Anti-Semitism in the Civil War South, 1840–1913,” without citing me or even acknowledging the existence of my work. Neither is he using the same sources I used to claim he found ideas in the same source material. Traub can hardly say the similarities are accidental, as if a freshman university student would explain plagiarism in their college essays. When professionals claim it is accidental, one must ask, why are they even writing, never mind recruited to write in a series?

In an interview with the Forward promoting his book, Traub claimed the following:

“I hesitated to write it because I wondered if someone should write a biography about someone like him. However, he was an extraordinary person who nobody knew anything about. No one is celebrating Judah Benjamin; he was a gifted person attached to an evil cause, but, by examining his life, we see the drama of assimilation play out as well as what slavery meant inside the life of one person.” [19]

Another problem, in the past ten, fifteen years, there have been five scholarly studies about Judah Benjamin, three of them were journal articles; two of which were published in Jewish history journals; one was published in a legal journal. Another long-form essay published barely three years ago on a popular online platform went viral. There was a book published in the past six years, two of the other writers were working on expanding their article or essay into a book. The editor of a similar series approached one of the writers to write a similar Benjamin biography. They were told they wanted to get someone else to author the book with a doctorate. Traub did not cite any of these sources. Traub’s words to the Forward resemble the preface of one of the uncited sources, “With such thin historiography on Benjamin, his accomplishments in controversial circumstances at a critical moment in American history have been overlooked.” [20]

Ironically, even when searching the title of Traub’s book on Google, my essay on Medium still comes out in the top twenty-five searches, while my post on the Times of Israel is still in the top 100 searches. So how is Traub completely ignored to cite and mention that my work exists? My essay is the most extended available biography on Benjamin since Southern historian Eli Evans monumental 1989 book Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate. While I primarily relied on secondary sources because of convenience, I still included every study published on Benjamin.

Traub purposely forgot my top-ranking essay and everything published about Benjamin in the last fifteen years. Traub ignored the recent historiography and even some of the seminal works on Jews during the Civil War, and Southern Jewish history and his book and analysis are poorer for it. I am not the only woman academic Traub chose to dismiss. I am not the only woman academic Traub decided to ignore. Traub’s source notes avoid any writing about Benjamin written by women. Traub repeatedly emphasizes Benjamin’s ability to change and adapt. In 2015, Legal scholar Catharine MacMillan, the Chair in Private Law at the Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London, wrote the essay, “Judah Benjamin: marginalized outsider or admitted insider?” arguing about Benjamin’s ability to adapt to different circumstances focusing on his years in England after escaping capture in the Confederacy. [21] In 2014, Professor MacMillan presented a paper entitled “Judah Benjamin: The Louisianan’s Influence on British Law” at Louisiana State University. [22]

While in 2018, MacMillan presented a paper at the William & Mary Law School Marshall-Wythe Lecture in Legal History “Personal Networks and the Transference of Legal Ideas: the Trans-Atlantic Career of Judah P. Benjamin,” and hosted a workshop, “A Political Exile’s Odyssey: The Strange Life of Judah P. Benjamin.” [23] McMillan was authoring a book about Benjamin’s legal career. [24] MacMillan is the preeminent scholar examining Benjamin’s legal profession. However, Traub never mentions her, and none of her writings appear in his endnotes.

The bias extends to one of America’s most beloved figures, Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In February 2002, Ginsburg delivered an address to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs when they honored her with the Albert D. Chernin Award. [25] Ginsburg’s speech discussed Benjamin being the first Jew nominated to the United States Supreme Court. While filed with the secondary source material, Ginsburg’s insights into Benjamin’s legal career is a welcome addition to a biography on Benjamin. Yet, Traub could cite a Tablet Magazine about Benjamin, of course, written by a man. [26]

Traub’s lack of knowledge of Southern Jewish history leads him to omit many other vital studies on Benjamin’s part of the recent historiography. Had Traub read Maury Wiseman’s 2007 article “Judah P. Benjamin and Slavery” and Geoffrey D. Cunningham’s 2013 article” ‘The ultimate step: ‘Judah P. Benjamin and secession,” he would understood why Benjamin supported slavery, and it was not for the institution, as Traub argued, “His life was one: he believed in the cause as firmly as he believed in the law.” Wiseman and Cunningham attempted to determine his positions on slavery based primarily on public published addresses. Both historians determined that Benjamin’s devotion to slavery and secession was rooted in the law and the Constitution.

Traub would have understood Benjamin’s views and connection or lack of them to Judaism and American Jewry if he had looked at the doyen of Jews during the Civil War, Bertram W. Korn. Korn analyzed Benjamin in his 1949 journal article, “Judah P. Benjamin as a Jew,” examining Benjamin’s attachment to Judaism and the Southern Jewish community. In addition, Korn looked at “What kind of Jew Judah P. Benjamin actually was.” [27] Traub cites some of Korn’s lesser works while ignoring his 1951 book, American Jewry and the Civil War, which is still the standard on the topic.

Instead, Traub chose to simplify his research to just a couple of sources, Pierce Butler’s 1906 biography Judah P. Benjamin, Robert D. Meade’s 1944 biography, Judah P. Benjamin and the American Civil War, and Southern historian Eli Evans’s 1988 book, Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate. Although Evans claims that the Butler and Meade biographies are the most complete on Benjamin, the outdated views make it challenging to analyze Benjamin’s life, they are best suited for the primary source material they include. Traub relies overly on historian Jonathan Sarna’s works, including American Judaism: A History (2004), Lincoln and the Jews: A History (2012), and Jews and the American Jews (2011).

Evans’ biography remains the best and most complete volume on Benjamin. Evans came from a longtime Southern Jewish family who made Southern Jewish history and Benjamin his research areas. However, not a professional historian, Eli N. Evans, and his family have a long history in the South and advancing Jewish studies in the region. Evans was born and lived most of his life in Durham, North Carolina, attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Yale Law School. The Evans family made history in the South. Evans’ father was Emanuel J. Evans, known as Mutt; he was a six-term mayor of Durham, North Carolina, the city’s first Jewish mayor, serving from 1951–63. According to a New York Times death notice, Evans was “a near-legendary figure, he was known throughout the South for his success in bringing desegregation to Durham’s schools, public accommodations, the police and fire departments, and city agencies.” [28] Family history led Evans to write both about his family and the greater story of southern Jews. In addition, Evans’s parents, Emanuel and Sara, “created and raised funds” for Jewish studies programs at two leading universities in their home state, Duke University and the University of Chapel Hill.

In 1973, two important volumes were published ushering in the field of Southern Jewish history, Leonard Dinnerstein’s anthology “The Jews of the South” and Eli N. Evan’s “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South.” Evans recounted in the preface of the anthology “Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History,” edited by Marcie Cohen Ferris and ‎Mark I. Greenberg, “In 1973, southern Jewish history was not really a field at all. There were only a few novels and books, and a handful of interested scholars along with a group mostly of amateurs and rabbis, who specialized in their own congregations, cities, and states.” [29]

Like history at that time, there were areas specifically in social history that the field lacked that needed to be analyzed. Evans indicated, “There were glaring omissions — such as the perspectives and history of southern Jewish women. Research on the history of peddlers, oral histories of the interactions between blacks and Jews, and private memoirs or autobiographies. In 1976, Evans formed the Southern Historical Society. In 1987, Evans published his monumental “Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate” and then in 1993, “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner.” Evans was looking to write another book on Benjamin, which has not come to fruition. Evans took nine years to write his Benjamin biography. He is a complex character, and any study should not be rushed. Otherwise, you end up with a book that is more of an elongated Wikipedia article passing judgment on Benjamin rather than a nuanced analysis that would add to the historiography.

Throughout the twentieth century, other writers have written biographies of Benjamin; however, Traub never mentions them. Among them, Rollin Osterweis’ 1933 volume Judah P. Benjamin: Statesman of the Lost Cause, Martin Rywell’s Judah Benjamin: Unsung Rebel Prince from 1948, and Simon I. Nieman’s 1963 biography, Judah Benjamin: Mystery Man of the Confederacy. While in 2015, Don Lenkiewicz wrote about Benjamin’s escape from America as the Confederacy surrendered and the Confederate Cabinet became fugitives accused of treason with the book Journey to Asylum: Judah Benjamin’s Great Escape.

With all the scholars studying Benjamin, Traub chose to dismiss and exclude in his biography of Benjamin. We can make two arguments Traub decided to ignore us, especially the women because both myself and MacMillan are Traub’s competition working on biographies of the Confederate Statesmen. Or we can claim all the sources that Traub ignored is because he could not conduct a simple search to discover them and expose his ignorance of his subject and the field. Both are damning to a scholar. Traub’s decision to ignore specific sources on Benjamin led to him including some factual historical errors in his book.

Traub’s argument is one point of my research in my masters’ thesis and the thesis of my Benjamin essay. Southern Jewry supported Southern mores, including slavery, to be accepted and white in the racial hierarchy. In his introduction, Traub wrote, “What’s more, for all the acceptance they enjoyed, Jews would have regarded their standing in society as too delicate to issue even the most modest challenge to the institution upon which that society rested.” (p. 16) Traub also wrote of Benjamin and the Jews of New Orleans, “The need to maintain a racial hierarchy in the face of the city’s racial blend may explain why Jews enjoyed such an exalted status there; while elsewhere Jews were relegated to a lower stratum of the social order, in New Orleans their whiteness trumped their otherness. In the face of a barrier so dangerously permeable, Jews had to be recruited into white society.” (p. 27) And in writing about Benjamin’s position on slavery, Traub wrote, “Benjamin was far too dispassionate a man to blind himself to what he saw around him in the name of his own interests. He knew what it was best not to know; he not jeopardize the position he had attained by expressing even the smallest doubts about slavery’s merits.” (p. 32)

In my thesis’ introduction, I wrote:

“Jews, especially Southern Jews, tried to adapt their life, in any way, which would help them attain that goal. Assimilation into Southern life was the best way to attain their goal. It happened that supporting the slavery and then the Confederacy was the ticket to that acceptance for Jews living in the South, and they took advantage of everything their whiteness could offer them in America.” [30]

It is a thesis I have written and published repeatedly. It started with my reading course paper in 2005, my submitted thesis proposal in 2006, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Anti-Semitism, 1860–1913,” and in 2015 when I published the introduction to my thesis on the Times of Israel blogs as “The Confederacy hostile to African Americans safe haven for American Jews.” [31]

Traub repeats this point in his book multiple times. However, he does not cite me, nor does he cite any of the sources I used that mentioned the racial status and whiteness of Southern Jews in the antebellum and Civil War era. However, because Traub does not know enough about Southern Jewry during the era and does not consult the relevant historiography, he makes a mistake with his analysis. Traub fails to realize the racial status of Jews was the same throughout the South; any state of the future Confederate states and the border states, if the state had legal slavery and the racial hierarchy, then Jews were considered white. The Southern Christian majority saw their Jewish neighbors as white meant they were accepted into society more readily than northern Jewish communities. As a result, anti-Jewish prejudice was rare and almost non-existent until the Civil War. Southern Jewish whiteness was my thesis argument in my Master’s thesis. If Traub had consulted Bertram Korn’s seminal study on the subject “American Jewry and the Civil War,” he would have known about the racial status of southern Jewry and when Judeophobia emerged.

Throughout Traub’s book, I found similar phrases, ideas, and arguments as my Benjamin essay and my thesis; I have not listed all of them in this article. Traub’s went as far as spinning the title of my paper “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish Goal of whiteness in the South.” in a line in his book, “One could hardly call it equal, for Davis was the prince and Benjamin his senior courtier.” (p. 93). While the introduction feels eerily familiar to my essay, it is difficult not to see that he stepped on a topic he should not have broached outside his realm, which another writer was working on. Worst, however, is that he does not cite or acknowledge my essay in any way; it feels too purposeful as if he ignored it to dismiss it and to discredit it.

However, Traub differs when he takes a political and moral tone on Benjamin; rather than just analyzing his place in history, he is passing judgment on Benjamin. The publisher describes the biography as “A moral examination of one of the first Jewish senators, confidante to Jefferson Davis, and champion of the cause of slavery.” [32] Traub has an over fascination with placing modern labels on Benjamin. These speculations were one of the reasons that Benjamin did not want biographies written about him. He did not want biographers to create assumptions about his political career, role in the Confederacy, and personal life. Throughout his biography, Traub makes assumptions about Benjamin’s sexuality to add salaciousness to the biography, which does not add anything to his thesis or the point of the Jewish Lives series. Benjamin’s sexuality would only matter if he were an advocate for gay rights or a trailblazer. Still, Benjamin did not want anyone to know more than he presented publicly about his personal life.

Traub’s decision to ignore specific sources on Benjamin led to him including some factual historical errors in his book. Among the most significant problems for a book in a Jewish Lives series, Traub spends little time examining Benjamin’s possible connection to Judaism, the context of Southern Jewry of the time and especially, the rising anti-Jewish prejudice, anti-Semitism or Judeophobia as Korn called it.

For example, Traub failed to acknowledge the myth surrounding an event in the Senate that may not have happened, only calling it a legend. “Legend has it that Benjamin retorted that when his ancestors were receiving the Decalogue from God, Wade’s “were herding swine in the forests of Britain.” (61) Traub used the words “legend has it,” however, Korn and Evans questioned whether Benjamin responded defending Judaism since he never spoke o being Jewish, aligned himself with the Jewish community, especially in his public political sphere. Benjamin chose to distance himself always. It would have been out of character to acknowledge his Jewish ancestry. Benjamin may not have renounced Judaism, but neither did he wear it as an honor badge. (61)

The mainstream and Jewish media are lauding his book. Although there are few reviews, Traub’s connections get him reviews in the major papers, The “New York Times” and the “Wall Street Journal.” Diane Cole in the Wall Street Journal gave Traub’s book the full review treatment. Cole noted Traub made “A cogent argument for acknowledging, rather than ignoring, Benjamin’s role in both Jewish and American history.” Cole does applaud Traub’s writing, “Mr. Traub ably documents his undeniable gifts for reinvention, resilience and intellectual virtuosity.” However, Cole also indicates what Traub lacks in his book, particularly context on anti-Semitism during the war, especially since Benjamin was the root cause of so much prejudice that arose. Cole pointed out, “I wish, though, that Mr. Traub had provided more context for understanding the prevalence of anti-Semitism during the Civil War era.” [33]

The “New York Times,” however, only gave a snippet about the book announcing its publication with a couple of other new releases. The NYT wrote, “This new biography complicates the legacy of Benjamin, a 19th-century New Orleans lawyer and one of the first Jewish senators in America, who used his nimble legal mind to defend slavery and the Confederacy.” [34]

Yale University Press and Traub’s editors were able to elicit two significant and influential historians to review his book and give him endorsements for the back of his book. These historians are leaders in their fields, Nell Irvin Painter and Jonathan Sarna. Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, is a historian of race relations in the South, focusing on African American history, and served as the director of Princeton’s program. [35] Painter wrote of Traub’s book, “James Traub elaborates the unexpected life of Judah Benjamin, who advanced the slaveholder’s cause from beginning to end, as both understandable and purposefully obscured. Absolutely fascinating!” [36]Although a prominent historian, she has been out of the field for over ten years, deciding to start another career as an artist and obtaining two degrees in the fine arts.

Painter’s last book, “The History of White People,” was published in 2010. Painter is a surprise choice to review a book on Benjamin, considering her research interests center around gender and race. However, her recent book examined the history of whiteness and looked at ethnicities, including Jews, as part of “enlargements of American whiteness.” [37] Still, Painter’s examination of Jews begins with the 1880 influx of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants and does not look at the antebellum period. Despite Painter’s credentials, we can question but also forgive that she does not know American Jewish historiography and the works that Traub has chosen to ignore and freely take from without attribution.

However, Jonathan Sarna is an expert in this era of American Jewish history. Sarna is the most important American Jewish historian and a Brandeis University professor. Sarna has given his approval to write a blurb for the book. Sarna called Traub’s biography, “This is, by far, the best and most readable, short biography of Benjamin that exists.” [38] However, Sarna knows better with so many sources on Benjamin omitted, this biography is simplistic at best. No scholar quoted so much in a volume should be asked to review it. Full disclosure, I volunteer with Sarna for the professional organization H-Judaic, the Jewish Studies discussion network part of the larger H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Network. I am H-Judaic’s project developer, I am responsible for the social media, and I created their Twitter feed. Sarna knew about my essay on Benjamin, as it featured prominently on my CV when I applied in January 2020 to H-Judaic for an editor post.

When I started at HNN as an intern, I updated HNN’s walk of shame page, “Historians in the Hot Seat,” which kept track of any historian that faced any scandal. Some lied about their credentials or past, most related to plagiarizing and the consequences. [39] Some of history’s biggest names made the list including, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. These top historians and other academics have withstood and quickly rebounded from plagiarism scandals, including most recently, Jill Abramson called their many uncited passages “unintended” and “mistakes.” Traub, too believes his high profile makes him Teflon enough to withstand any accusations of plagiarism. In 2002 journalist, David Plotz wrote of plagiarizing academics, including Ambrose in a Slate Magazine article “The Plagiarist Why Stephen Ambrose is a vampire”:

“For writers, the act of putting particular words in a particular order is our hard labor. Even when the result is mediocre and unoriginal, it is our own mediocrity. The words are our proof of life, the evidence we can present at heaven’s gate that we have not frittered away our threescore and ten. The plagiarist is, in a minor way, the cop who frames innocents, the doctor who kills his patients. The plagiarist violates the essential rule of his trade. He steals the lifeblood of a colleague.” [40]

Plotz noted all plagiarists have similar excuses and motivations for why they do it. They “steal” from good and bad sources, their reasons vary, most are rushed, and as Plotz indicated, “Probably don’t think they’ll get caught. Some are just exceptionally careless.” They usually call it a mistake or lousy note-taking and citations. Plotz also points out, “Plagiarists are almost always bright, and they often write better than those they rob.” [41] However, he did not elaborate on why plagiarists pick lesser-known writers because they believe not enough people would know their work and know about the transgressions. Writers often plagiarize, and more than they are even discovered. Most believe no one will find out; they think they can outsmart the public and the writers they copy. Still, the scandals “regularly” when one of the writers pushes their luck. Plotz made fun of the excuses the plagiarists used, the same one of making mistakes with their notes. Although most offenders could have done the same work with success themselves. [42]

While plagiarism can destroy a student’s academic career, when professional writers, journalists, or politicians plagiarize, unfortunately, their careers seem to rebound too quickly, showing a double standard. Sarah Eaton, an associate professor of Education at the University of Calgary [43] specializing in academic integrity and plagiarism, notes that plagiarism cases among faculty members are not treated the same way as students. Eaton, in her journal article, “Comparative Analysis of Institutional Policy Definitions of Plagiarism: A Pan-Canadian University Study,” notes how faculty perceive plagiarism. Eaton explains, “Plagiarism remains a topic of debate among educators and academics (Bruton and Childers 2016), and it is not confined to the student body. It is also an issue among the academic ranks (Anekwe 2009; Bartlett and Smallwood 2004; Bosch 2011). Professors often know their institutions have formal policies, but such policies are not well enforced or even understood by individual instructors (Glendinning 2014; Hodgkinson et al. 2016). Scholars themselves debate where to draw the line with plagiarism and what the consequences for it should be.” [44]

Some of the most well-known writers in fiction and non-fiction and even the current President of the United States experienced a plagiarism scandal. In 1987, during Joe Biden’s first run for the presidency, Biden was rocked by two scandals that forced him to withdraw from the race. The New York Times discovered Biden had plagiarized his speeches from British politician Neil Kinnock of the Labor Party and famous Democratic politicians of the sixties, including President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. [45] Biden not only plagiarized in his speech, but he also did so while in law school. In his first year of law school at the Syracuse University College of Law, in 1965, Biden “used five pages from a published law review article without quotation or attribution” for a 15-page paper in his legal methods class. The review committee decided to fail Biden in the class, which affected his ranking upon graduation; he graduated 75th from 85. [46]

In a Politico article reviewing the top plagiarism scandals, journalists and politicians were among the worst offenders among the top ten scandals. They listed among their offenders, Sen. Rand Paul, Mike Barnicle of MSNBC News, Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Fareed Zakaria of Time Magazine and CNN, Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker, and Alex Haley. In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Martin Luther King, Jr. both plagiarized their theses. Most claimed it was a mistake; some made monetary settlements, while the punishment ranged from suspensions, firings to nothing at all. [47] From past cases, it is easy to understand why Traub believes he could liberally take from my research with attribution or even acknowledgment. He considers me a lesser-known writer, he does not believe he would be found out, and if he is, he does not think it will be a blip on his reputation.

If the college president, Traub, Smith, or Yale University Press, thought they would deter me from continuing my biography on Benjamin or dismiss its influence, they are wrong. In 1965, the doyen and founder of Southern Jewish History, Leonard Dinnerstein, discovered an author he confided in about his thesis, copied the idea, and published a book. In 1963, Dinnerstein was a doctoral student at Columbia University. His adviser, Professor William E. Leuchtenburg, approved Dinnerstein to write about civil rights until a friend, who finished his dissertation, gave him the idea that the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati had boxes on Leo Frank. Dinnerstein responded was: “Who’s Leo Frank?” He recounted in the preface to the new edition in 2008, “Nonetheless, I pursued his recommendation, found out that no one else was working on the topic (or so I was led to believe), and embarked upon my project.” [48]

Dinnerstein, too faced another writer taking his topic. Dinnerstein confided in Harry Golden about his research into Leo Frank, and then Golden authored a book about Frank. In the latter part of his career, Golden was a writer and newspaper publisher of The Carolina Israelite. In 1929, Golden was a stocker broker and, in the crash, held onto investors’ funds and was charged with fraud and spent four years in federal prison until 1933. [49] In 2008, Dinnerstein recounted in the revised preface of his book “The Leo Frank Case”:

“After I had completed seven chapters of the dissertation, Harry Golden’s A Little Girl Is Dead, another work exclusively on the Frank case, appeared. I was extremely upset because in 1963, Harry Golden, a popular American Jewish writer, and publisher of the Carolina Israelite, had written to me that he had a vast material on the Frank case, and your proposed dissertation will not really go over the same materials. My Frank book uses the case only incidentally for the story of Populism, the growing pains of the South, and of the Jews, the Bible Belt, etc.’ However, when Golden’s “A Little Girl Is Disappeared” in 1965, I thought that I would have difficulty getting my manuscript published. My apprehensions proved to be unfounded.” [50]

Dinnerstein’s “The Leo Frank Case” became the starting point for the field of Southern Jewish history. Moreover, it is still one of the essential books in the area and the history of anti-Semitism in America. Dinnerstein noted, “I had no way of knowing the impact that it would have on scores of students and general readers as well as the contribution it would provide to the development of a more professional analysis of the American, and especially the Southern, Jewish past.” [51]

James Traub, Ileene Smith, and Yale University Press owe an apology to the readers for writing an introductory survey of an important historical figure at a controversial revisionist period, without the background or experience to write about it. Authors are not supposed to gain an education by being paid and authoring a book to educate students. That is not how it works; we expect experts in their field to write these books. Yale University Press is a publisher of the highest standards in putting out the best scholarly works; academic publishers should have their books peer-reviewed. Academic presses are supposed to hold their publications to a higher standard than popular trade publishers. Unfortunately, with YUP allowing Smith to choose Traub to write the Benjamin biography, they released a sub-standard monograph.

They owe an apology to students of history who are being introduced to Benjamin without considering the entire historiography and with a moralistic bias. Yale University Press owes an apology to the numerous scholars of Southern Jewish History, who have dedicated their careers to the field. All of them qualified to write a biography of Benjamin and place it into the context of American Jewish and Southern history. Traub owes an apology to the scholars he omitted from his biography, ignoring the historiography of the past decade. Finally, Traub needs to apologize to all the female writers who had written about Benjamin. Traub conveniently dismisses and fails to acknowledge in any way in his monograph. Among them, Traub needs to apologize to Catharine MacMillan. The latter is giving a legal scholar’s analysis of Benjamin’s prolific legal career and is contributing so much to the literature on the Confederate secretary.

Traub owes me an apology for not acknowledging my essay as a work in the historiography of Judah P. Benjamin. It is difficult to imagine an intelligent and accomplished journalist who was unaware of my essay or my plans to write a book. Still, he went forward. Traub also blatantly borrowed from my Benjamin essay and my Masters’ thesis. Traub must apologize for liberally taking from my essays without any attribution or acknowledgment. Traub’s act, like the many academic and high-profile plagiarists before him, was because of arrogance, arrogance that their position afforded them. For most, their reputations recouped and even soared, their brushes with plagiarism just a blimp on their careers. Society needs to stop forgiving them because of their profile or positions and make them just as accountable as students, whereas plagiarism destroys their academic futures for the majority.

Most of all, Traub needs to apologize to Judah Benjamin. Benjamin never wanted biographers to write about him because of the writers’ slants and judgments with his life. Near the end of his life in 1884, he declared in a letter, “I would much prefer that no ‘Life,’ not even a magazine article should ever be written about me…. I have never kept a diary or retained a copy of a letter written by me…. I have read so many American biographies which reflected only the passions and prejudices of their writers that I do not want to leave behind me letters and documents to be used in such a work about myself.” [52]

Traub’s biography is the exact reason Benjamin destroyed all his papers and did not allow a biographer to write about him. While Traub wants to justify the reason because he claims Benjamin was gay, putting a modern basis rather than one that fits the historical context. Benjamin destroyed all his papers, not just his letters but all his professional papers. In 1988, even the great southern historian C. Vann Woodward found fault with Eli N. Evans’ fair and sympathetic biography of Benjamin. In the New York Review, Woodward wrote of Evans that he was “The latest biographer to defy Benjamin’s wish and the frustrating measures he took to fulfill it.” [53] Eli Evans’s 1988 book, the leading biography, Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, took nine years to write.

If there was a legitimate reason for Benjamin to destroy all his papers from his time in the Confederate cabinet, it was because he was a fugitive who had committed to treason towards the United States. Benjamin also never returned to the US after his adventurous escape; he wanted to avoid prison and Jefferson Davis’s experience. Traub wrote a sub-standard biography; he used modern morals and sensibilities in accessing a historical figure, serving as judge and jury on his professional and personal actions; this was Benjamin’s worst fear about biographers. Although Sarna called Traub’s biography “by far, the best and most readable, short biography of Benjamin that exists,” a balanced complete, and updated biography of Benjamin is still needed to do him justice. Although, like Dinnerstein, Traub’s volume and plagiarism will not dissuade me, I still plan, and I am determined to complete my book restoring the faith Benjamin lacked in biographers.

[1] https://bonniekgoodman.medium.com/mysterious-prince-of-the-confederacy-judah-p-benjamin-and-the-jewish-goal-of-whiteness-in-the-65aadc2ba377

[2] https://bonniekgoodman.medium.com/mysterious-prince-of-the-confederacy-judah-p-benjamin-and-the-jewish-goal-of-whiteness-in-the-65aadc2ba377

[3] https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300229264/judah-benjamin

[4]

[5] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/sanders-views-on-judaism-similar-to-last-jew-close-to-presidency-judah-benjamin/

[6] https://www.jewishlives.org/

[7] https://www.jewishlives.org/books/benjamin

[8] https://www.jewishlives.org/books/benjamin

[9] https://cic.nyu.edu/people/james-traub

[10] https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300229264/judah-benjamin

[11] https://www.academia.edu/44561920/Unconditional_Loyalty_to_the_Cause_Jews_Whiteness_and_Anti_Semitism_in_the_Civil_War_South_1840_1913

[12] https://www.academia.edu/51084916/Dual_Loyalties_in_the_Civil_War_Rabbinical_Responses_and_Support_for_the_Union_and_Confederacy

[13] https://www.curatorialleadership.org/about-us/staff/

[14] https://jewishinsider.com/2021/10/reckoning-with-judah-benjamin-the-jewish-slave-holder-and-confederate-mastermind/

[15] https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/judah-benjamin-counselor

[16] https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/judah-benjamin-counselor

[17] https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/judah-benjamin-counselor

[18] https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/judah-benjamin-counselor

[19] “How Judah Benjamin — a Jewish Confederate Slave-Owner Who Decried Slavery — Came to Embody so Many Contradictions.” The Forward, 20 Oct. 2021, https://forward.com/culture/476897/how-judah-benjamin-a-jewish-confederate-slave-owner-who-decried-slavery/.

[20] https://bonniekgoodman.medium.com/mysterious-prince-of-the-confederacy-judah-p-benjamin-and-the-jewish-goal-of-whiteness-in-the-65aadc2ba377

[21] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2562677

[22] https://sites.law.lsu.edu/worldwide/2014/08/27/catherine-macmillan-discusses-judah-benjamin-and-the-influence-of-louisiana-civil-law-on-the-english-common-law/

[23] https://law.wm.edu/news/stories/2018/william-mary-law-hosts-marshall-wythe-lecture-in-legal-history.php

[24] https://law.wm.edu/news/stories/2018/william-mary-law-hosts-marshall-wythe-lecture-in-legal-history.php

[25] https://www.supremecourt.gov/publicinfo/speeches/sp_02-18-02.html

[26] https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/judah-benjamin

[27] Bertram W. Korn, “JUDAH P. BENJAMIN AS A JEW.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 38, no. 3, 1949, pp. 153–171. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43059749.

[28] https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/11/classified/paid-notice-deaths-evans-emanuel-j.html

[29] Marcie C. Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg. Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History. (Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University Press, 2006), ix.

[30] https://www.academia.edu/44561920/Unconditional_Loyalty_to_the_Cause_Jews_Whiteness_and_Anti_Semitism_in_the_Civil_War_South_1840_1913

[31] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-confederacy-hostile-to-african-americans-safe-haven-for-american-jews/

[32] https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2FJewishBookWorld.org%2F2021%2F10%2Fjudah-benjamin-counselor-to-the-confederacy-by-james-traub

[33] https://www.wsj.com/articles/judah-benjamin-review-confederacy-the-ultimate-outsider-11632493587

[34]https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/29/books/review/new-this-week.html

[35] https://history.princeton.edu/people/nell-irvin-painter

[36] https://www.jewishlives.org/books/benjamin

[37] Nell I. Painter, The History of White People, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

[38] https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300229264/judah-benjamin

[39] https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1081

[40] https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2002/01/why-stephen-ambrose-s-plagiarism-matters.html

[41] https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2002/01/why-stephen-ambrose-s-plagiarism-matters.html

[42] https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2002/01/why-stephen-ambrose-s-plagiarism-matters.html

[43] https://werklund.ucalgary.ca/sarah-eaton

[44] Eaton, S. E. (2017). Comparative analysis of institutional policy definitions of plagiarism: A pan-Canadian university study. Interchange: A Quarterly Review of Education. doi: 10.1007/s10780–017–9300–7. http://rdcu.be/oCx2

[45] https://www.politico.com/gallery/2014/07/10-high-profile-plagiarism-cases-001770?slide=0

[46] E.J. Dionne, “Biden Admits Plagiarism in School But Says It Was Not ‘Malevolent’”, The New York Times, Sept. 18, 1987, Section A, Page 1.

https://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/18/us/biden-admits-plagiarism-in-school-but-says-it-was-not-malevolent.html

[47] https://www.politico.com/gallery/2014/07/10-high-profile-plagiarism-cases-001770?slide=0

[48] Leonard Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case, (Athens : The University of Georgia Press, 2008), ix, x.

[49] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Golden; https://www.nytimes.com/1981/10/03/obituaries/harry-golden-an-editor-and-humorist-79-dead.html

[50] Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case, ix, x.

[51] Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case, x.

[52] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1988/04/14/a-southern-romantic/

[53] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1988/04/14/a-southern-romantic/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” “We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism,” and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.

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Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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