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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.