The Common Good

Father Abraham and the Jews

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln will probably nab a few of its 12 nominated Academy Awards when the Oscars are handed out on Sunday — a sign that Americans never have and probably never will tire of our 16th president.

RNS photo courtesy David James/Disney-DreamWorks II.
Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln in the film ‘Lincoln’. RNS photo courtesy David James/Disney-DreamWorks II.

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Abraham Lincoln’s face is etched in stone on Mount Rushmore and his brooding statue sits enshrined in a Greek-style temple in Washington. His succinct Gettysburg Address (about 270 words) took all of about two minutes to deliver, yet remains this nation’s most famous speech 150 years later. His assassination lifted him to mythic status — a martyr who earned his place in our pantheon of national heroes.

We just marked the 150th anniversary of his Emancipation Proclamation, but that necessary action wasn’t enough. Spielberg’s film revives Lincoln’s second act, in 1865, to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery through a divided Congress. It wasn’t the only injustice Lincoln worked to correct.

In his recent book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Brandeis University Professor Jonathan D. Sarna recounts an important but little-known event in 1863 in Lincoln’s quest for full civil, religious, and human rights for all Americans — this time, for American Jews.

During the Civil War battles in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant became convinced that local civilians in the area, including Jews, were interfering with his efforts to defeat the Confederates. On Dec. 17, 1862, Grant issued General Order No. 11.

“The Jews,” it read,”as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from this department within 24 hours from the receipt of this order.” It was the first and only time in U.S. history that Jews were singled out as a class for physical expulsion from their homes.

Grant’s order sent shock waves throughout the American Jewish community that numbered about 150,000 — including 25,000 Confederate supporters. Especially alarmed was Cesar Kaskel, a 30-year-old Jewish resident of Paducah, Ky., and a friend of the president. Eleven days after Grant’s order, about 100 Jews in Paducah were moved further north. According to Sarna, they were the only ones directly affected by Grant’s order.

An irate Kaskel sent a telegram of protest to Lincoln: “This inhuman order, the carrying out of which would be the greatest violation of the Constitution and our rights as citizens, would place us, besides a large number of Jewish families in this town, as outlaws before the world.”

Kaskel then rushed to Washington to meet with Lincoln, who had no knowledge of the order. When the president learned of the prejudicial edict, he demanded that his favorite general revoke it immediately.

Kaskel publicly reported part of his conversation with the president:

Lincoln: “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”

Kaskel: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”

Lincoln: “And this protection they shall have at once.”

For Sarna, that was not the end of the story. Grant did not mention the infamous anti-Jewish order in his memoirs, but during the 1868 presidential campaign when Grant feared many Jews would vote against him, he confessed in a letter using archaic and inaccurate terms to describe the Jewish people: “I do not pretend to sustain the order … (It) was issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race … I have no prejudice against any sect or race.”

Grant atoned for his biased action. He appointed Jews to his administration and was the first president to attend the dedication of a synagogue. Indeed, in June 1876 he remained for the entire three-hour service at Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, and even contributed $10.00 —worth about $210 today — to the building fund.

Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations. Via RNS.

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