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Interview: Jonathan D. Sarna

Tuesday, May 19, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Lincoln and the Jews: A History by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell chronicles the extraordinary relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and American Jews. Through handwritten letters, maps, and photographs this book shows Lincoln’s impact on Jews being accepted into American society as well as how Jews influenced his presidency. Jewish Book Council had the privilege of interviewing the author, Brandeis Professor Jonathan D. Sarna.

Elise Cooper: Your previous book dealt with Grant and the Jews. How would you compare Grant and Lincoln’s attitude toward the American Jew?

Jonathan D. Sarna: In December 1862 General Grant expelled ‘Jews as a class’ from the war zone encompassing Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky with General Orders No. 11. Grant persuaded himself that the Jews caused the smuggling problem. There is no question that Jews were smugglers, but certainly not every Jew, and non-Jews were smuggling as well. Fortunately, Lincoln was president and knew Jews going back to his days in Illinois. He overturned that order because he did not want to see a class of people indicted for a few sinners. If this order had not been overturned people might say ‘even in America Jews can be expelled,’ but instead Jews saw a defender in the American president. Even Grant after he became president tried to prove he was not prejudiced against Jews by speaking out for Jewish rights and appointing Jews to important government offices.

EC: As with many Americans, Jews also had families torn apart by the Civil War. Do you agree?

JDS: A good friend of Lincoln’s, Abraham Jonas, was Jewish, an Abolitionist, yet his son fought for the Confederacy. He had many relatives in the South including six children. Many Jews had relatives in the North and South where families were pitted against one another.

EC: It was interesting that a sermon delivered by Rabbi Sabato Morais in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1863 used these words as he reminded his constituents that independence is “the event which four score and seven years ago brought to this new world light and joy.” Do you think Lincoln borrowed this phrase for his Gettysburg Address?

JDS: No previous Lincoln scholar noticed that the rabbi used that phrase. We do know that some of Morais’ sermons were sent to Lincoln and that he read them. Good politicians are known for borrowing phrases that will resonate with the public. So it is possible. All we know for sure is that Morais used the phrase before Lincoln and that the president had read some of Morais’ sermons.

EC: Do you think it was significant that Lincoln appointed the first Jewish Chaplain?

JDS: Yes, because it paved the way for minority faiths to gain recognition in the Christian-dominated army. This appointment showed the world Judaism was not a second-class religion in America and allowed Jewish soldiers to have their own clergy. Remember there were thousands of Jews serving in the Union Army. What is even more interesting is how Lincoln used his political skills to get this done. He buried the amendment to the chaplaincy bill inside another bill that gave raises to popular generals, ensuring that the bill would be approved.

EC: Why did Lincoln target the Jewish vote in the 1864 election?

JDS: His podiatrist Isaac Zacharie made a distinct effort to build Jewish support for Lincoln. We now know that the Jewish vote was not just targeted by politicians in the twentieth century. Prior to the 1864 election I am not familiar that anyone running for president sought the Jewish vote the way Lincoln clearly did.

EC: In the beginning of the book there are concentric circles of Lincoln’s Jewish connections. Why?

JDS: It showed that there were over a hundred Jews with whom Lincoln had some tie or connection. He had more Jewish friends and acquaintances than any previous president. Friendships break down stereotypes. Friends like Jonas and Zacharie allowed Lincoln to understand Jews. I think the Jewish population’s growth is also reflected in the diagram. That growth is partly due to Jewish immigration from Central Europe: there were but 3,000 Jews in America when Lincoln was born and about 150,000 in 1860.

EC: What do you want the readers to get out of the book?

JDS: That Lincoln, more than any previous president, promoted the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life and transformed them from outsiders to insiders. I want people to understand that American history is Jewish history as well. Many think that Jewish American history begins in the twentieth century but it is very important to realize that Jews have been a significant part of this country’s history much earlier.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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Saying New Things About Old Historical Episodes

Thursday, March 15, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dr. Jonathan Sarna wrote about writing his most recent book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, in Jerusalem. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I first anounced that I was writing a book about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11, the most notorious official act of anti-Semitism in American history, colleagues were skeptical. “Can there be anything new to say about the subject?” a good friend asked.

Although I pointed out that not one single book had ever been written on the topic, and that nobody had looked at it afresh in many decades, friends wondered aloud whether I was making a mistake. Wasn’t the chapter on General Orders #11 in Bertram W. Korn’s American Jewry and the Civil War, published in 1951, the accepted account of the subject? Why waste my time on an event that had already been written about before?

There were, of course, good reasons to re-examine the subject. First of all, a host of new documents had become available thanks to the publication of 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. They shed new light both on General Orders #11 and on Grant’s subsequent relations with Jews. Second, Grant’s entire career is currently being re-examined by scholars. The image of the drunken, coarse and corrupt general and president — largely manufactured in the twentieth century by opponents of Grant’s benevolent policy toward African Americans during Reconstruction — is giving way to a new image of a fair-minded, far-sighted humanitarian, one of the finest presidents in American history. Grant’s infamous order needs to be studied anew within the context of this revisionist view of his life. Finally, previous studies of Grant and the Jews ended with Abraham Lincoln overturning General Orders #11 and declaring nobly that “to blame a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”

Little has been written concerning the order’s aftermath: how it factored in the election of 1868 and how it affected Grant’s subsequent presidency. I suspected that this would yield an interesting and important story.

It did. In fact, much of what we once believed about U.S. Grant and the Jews turned out to be wrong. Yes, he had expelled Jews from his warzone and President Lincoln had overturned the order. Grant had identified a widespread practice -– smuggling — with a visible group, and blamed “Jews as a class” for what was in fact an inevitable by-product of wartime shortages exploited by Jews and non-Jews, civilians and military men alike. But it also turned out that after being excoriated for the order in the 1868 election campaign, Grant had publically repented of it. “I do not pretend to sustain the order,” he declared in a public statement. “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”

Moreover, as president, he demonstrated his respect for Jews by appointing more of them to public office than all previous presidents combined. He also lent strong support to efforts to aid Jews facing persecution in Russia and Roumania. He even became the first president to attend a synagogue dedication and, after he left office, the first to visit the Land of Israel. When he died, in 1885, he was mourned by Jews as a hero and compared to the greatest Jew in the world at that time, Sir Moses Montefiore of England, who died the same week as Grant did.

All of this reinforced for me the value of looking anew at old episodes. Given new sources, new questions, and a broader perspective than previous scholars had, I can now confidently report that there is lots new to say about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11.

Read my book and judge for yourselves.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Chief Historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. His new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is now available.

Writing the Civil War in Jerusalem

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 | Permalink
Dr. Jonathan Sarna's newest book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

You are working on what?” most of the people I met in Jerusalem asked while I was writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Jerusalem is not where scholars generally go to write a book on the Civil War, even if it involves Jews. The majority of Israelis, in fact, know nothing about Ulysses S. Grant (one of them asked me how he felt about Israel and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank). Still, my wife and I consider Jerusalem our second home; my wife’s research can best be done in Israel’s National Library; and the Mandel Foundation offered me a senior fellowship during my sabbatical. So it was that I found myself writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews in Jerusalem, even as my thoughts centered on such Civil War sites as Holly Springs, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky.

Anyone who writes about Ulysses S. Grant depends upon the magnificently edited 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by the pre-eminent Grant scholar, John Y. Simon. No complete set of those papers may be found in all of Israel. Anyone who writes about the Civil War also depends upon the 130 volumes of the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, published by the Government Printing Office. I could find no set of those records in Israel either. Once upon a time, that would have doomed my project as simply not doable in Israel. But no longer. For the Grant Papers, the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion and numerous other primary and secondary sources required for my study have in recent years all become available via the internet. A high speed connection brought them directly to my desk-top in Jerusalem. Once, when I needed unique materials from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, they kindly scanned them for me and sent them to my inbox the next day.

In time, all of the impediments to researching the Civil War while living in Jerusalem disappeared. To me, of course, this proved a great relief. I actually managed to submit my manuscript to the publisher a few months early. At a deeper level, the experience reinforced for me how the globalization of information is democratizing knowledge by making once inaccessible materials available to anyone with an internet connection. Where one physically resides and the quality of local libraries make far less difference today than they used to.

Nowadays, as my book demonstrates, one can research even the history of General Grant’s Civil War order expelling Jews from his warzone, while living in an Israeli apartment. My Jerusalem neighbors my not have appreciated what I was studying, or why, but I feel confident that American readers will.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Chief Historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. His new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is now available.

Speaking of General Grant...

Tuesday, December 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Speaking of General Grant and the Jews, have you seen the book trailer for When General Grant Expelled the Jews? If not, check it out below: