Lincoln and the Jew

February 19, 2021 Lincoln and the Jews by Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow
I think if you ask most American Jews which POTUS is known for his relationship to the Jewish community, most would
understandably say President Washington, because of his famous letter to the Jews of Rhode Island.  Others might choose President Truman, because of his famous friendship with a Jewish man who urged the President to acknowledge the fledgling State of Israel.  But according to two relatively recent books, we should be including another President on that list.

We Called Him Father Abraham, by Rabbi Gary Zola, and Abraham Lincoln and the Jews:  A History by the great scholar
Dr. Nahum Sarna are the books I am talking about.  I am especially excited to read the Sarna book, because his writings
on Genesis and Exodus are so outstanding.  Let’s take a peek at what these books hold in store.

“Nobody realized that Lincoln played such a crucial role in making Jews equal in America. Nobody paid attention to
Lincoln’s rhetorical shift away from ‘Christian America’ language, and toward inclusive language,” Sarna wrote.  This
may have stemmed from the President’s unusual religious upbringing.  The roots of Abraham Lincoln’s Judeophilia can be traced back to his childhood in Indiana.  His parents, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, were Protestants who belonged to a church that opposed the conversion of Jews. They believed that missionaries were assuming responsibilities for the fate of others that properly belonged to God alone, so Lincoln would not have grown up hearing anything negative in church with regard to Jews.

According to a review of the two books, Abraham Lincoln first had actual contact with Jews when he moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1837, where he encountered Jewish neighbors, clients and political allies.  Abraham Jonas, who, like Lincoln, was an attorney and state legislator, became the only person Lincoln is known to have dubbed “one of my most trusted friends.” Jonas’s support at a crucial moment may well have changed the course of history:  Before Lincoln took office, Jonas received word from a relative of a conspiracy to prevent his inauguration, possibly with violent means, and urged his friend to take precautions.  His warnings were taken seriously: Lincoln was smuggled into
Washington at night.

Once Lincoln was in the White House, he displayed his empathy and tolerance for Jews on numerous occasions.  The
Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry had a Jewish commander and over 30 Jewish members, and, in 1861, elected Michael M. Allen, a Jewish liquor dealer, as the regimental chaplain.  The unit was unaware that Congress had just established a requirement that military chaplains must be ministers of “a Christian denomination.”  Once Allen learned his election violated that standard, he resigned.  But the Fifth Pennsylvania was not daunted by this setback.  The regiment promptly elected Arnold Fischel, a teacher and lecturer from New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, as their chaplain—only to have the choice nixed by the secretary of war.

This congressional declaration that amounted to second-class status for Jews became a rallying point for American
Jewry.  Fischel showed up at the White House on December 11, 1861, even though he had been told that Lincoln was too busy to meet.  Amazingly, he was invited to speak with Lincoln.  The president agreed that the legislation was unjust, and crafted a compromise that allowed Jews to minister to their coreligionists in the army.

Lincoln again displayed his sensitivity and sense of justice about a year later, when General Ulysses S. Grant issued the
infamous General Orders No. 11, dubbed by Sarna and Shapell as “the most notorious official act of anti-Semitism in American history.”  Grant’s concern about smugglers in the areas under his command led to the order, after he decided that since some of the smugglers were Jewish, all were.  His decree expelled all Jews from the Department [of the Tennessee] within 24 hours from the receipt of the order.

Lincoln could have ignored it, but instead took a considerable risk in telling Grant’s commander to rescind
General Orders No. 11:  He did not want to alienate Grant, as he needed his military skills to win the Civil War, and viewed the general as a potential political rival for the 1864 presidential election. Notwithstanding those concerns, Lincoln viewed the expulsion order as unjust, and overturned it.  “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners,”  Lincoln told a Jewish delegation that had come to thank him in January 1865. (Somewhat ironically, Grant went on to appoint a record number of Jews to office, and to become the first president known to have attended synagogue services —Kabbalat Shabbat at an Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C.)

Lincoln’s handling of General Orders No. 11 exemplifies what was special about him. “It shows us how different Lincoln
was, how alone he was in standing for freedom and justice —while, at the same time, his revered general is punishing one group based on religion, Lincoln is freeing a race.”  There is more, much more, my friends, but as I have only
read a review of the Sarna book, both you and I will have to wait to find out what other nuggets it will reveal.  In the meantime, when we think of Presidents who have been especially good to the Jewish people, as Lincoln’s birthday week comes to an end, let us remember that our sixteenth president (too bad he wasn’t #18, right?) belongs right up there with Washington and many other occupants of the White House.

© 2021 by Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow