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In 1821, Moses Elias Levy purchased 53,000 acres of land in northeast Florida. Levy believed that Florida could become a new Zion, a home for the persecuted Jews of Europe. While his dream never reached fruition, his foresight was great. South Florida now has the second largest concentration of Jewish population in the United States.
Born in Morocco in 1781, Moses E. Levy was the son of a Moroccan government minister. After the Sultan’s death in 1790, Morocco experienced an outbreak of anti-Semitic violence and the Levy family fled to Gibraltar. There, at the age of 15, while praying at a synagogue, Levy had a revelation, he later wrote, “surpassing the idea of hellfire.” According to historian Chris Monaco, “During this episode . . . Moses Levy ‘swore never to doubt the Bible.’” While most of nineteenth-century American Jewry took a lax approach to religious observance, Levy remained staunchly traditional, keeping the Sabbath and observing kashrut.
In 1800, the death of Levy’s father and a yellow fever epidemic forced Moses, his mother and his infant sister to leave Gibralter for the Danish Virgin Islands, where they joined a thriving Jewish community. At age 22, he became a partner in a lumber business with Philip Benjamin, father of U.S. Senator and later Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. Levy subsequently moved to Puerto Rico, where he became a munitions contractor and, after separating from his wife, moved to Cuba, where he built a fortune in shipping.
While in Cuba, Levy decided to use his wealth to purchase a tract of land near Micopany in Spanish Florida, which was soon ceded to the United States. Levy built houses and dug wells in hopes of attracting European Jews living under oppressive conditions. Jews in the Diaspora needed a homeland, he observed, because “no amelioration can be expected at the hands of nations for us.” He argued, “The race of Jews has miraculously been continued unmixed with the people of the nations through which they have been scattered” and warned that “every Jew who contributes to the . . . amalgamation of the House of Israel is an enemy to his nation, his religion and, consequently, to the world at large.”
He named his colony Pilgrimage Plantation. Between 1820 and 1824, Levy traveled north to New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk to seek financial support for his plan. Yet, by 1825, few Jews had emigrated from Europe to the wilds of Levy’s experimental plantation. Perhaps the fact that hostile Indians, snakes and alligators inhabited the area discouraged them.
In 1825, Levy traveled to London, hoping to persuade Jewish philanthropists there to support Pilgrimage Plantation. His pleas fell mostly on deaf ears. Through his willingness to address leading English Christians, however, Levy had an impact on the campaign to reestablish full Jewish rights in England. In 1826, a number of upper class Christian Londoners took a genuine interest, on liberal grounds, in restoring full political equality to England’s Jews, whose rights had been abolished in 1290. Levy addressed reform-minded Christian groups on a number of occasions and impressed them with his learning. The sophisticated yet pious Levy helped dispel the notion among affluent Londoners that all Jews were peddlers living in poverty in London’s East End.
Levy also confronted the evangelical London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews, challenging their attempts to “save” the Jewish people through conversion. Ironically, Levy’s contacts with evangelicals, whom he opposed on conversion, gave him a voice in the British antislavery movement. Levy had lived with slavery in the Caribbean and Florida. He was listened to with rapt attention on the subject by the leading group of British evangelical abolitionists known as the Clapham Sect. Because Levy observed the Sabbath, spoke fluent Hebrew and knew the Bible, the Claphamites respected Levy as a lineal descendant of the ancient Hebrews, whose religion, they believed, was the wellspring of Christianity.
British abolitionists advocated for immediate emancipation to save the souls of both slave and slave owner. Levy argued that, first, banks and businesses would have to be created to invest in non-slave agriculture and the children of slaves would have to be educated in agricultural techniques. Levy thought it would require a generation of gradual preparation for emancipation. Despite these reservations, Levy was one of the few individuals living in the American South to propose emancipation –even if he was in the relative safety of London when he made his views public.
Ironically, little that Levy stood for survived his own lifetime. In 1835, Pilgrimage Plantation was burned during the Second Seminole War. Levy’s son, David Levy Yulee, later became a United States Senator from Florida, the first Jewish-born American so elected. Contrary to his father, the younger Levy remained pro-slavery and rejected his Jewish identity. Nevertheless, Moses Elias Levy proved a visionary in predicting that, one day, Florida would make an excellent home for Diaspora Jews to settle in.