Paul Finkelman, President of Gratz College in Philadelphia, wrote an excellent article in the Jewish Exponent about Jews and President’s Day. I found it very informative and thought I would share an abbreviated version with you.
Monday is President’s Day, an amalgamated birthday celebration for two of our greatest presidents: George Washington (Feb. 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12, 1809).
For Jews, President's Day has a special meaning. Both Washington and Lincoln were remarkable friends of American Jews, and their lives and careers resonate as models for religious liberty and the treatment of minorities.
From the moment of independence until the end of the Lincoln administration, the United States was overwhelmingly Protestant, with few Catholics and even fewer Jews. In 1776, there were no more than 2,500 Jews. When the Civil War began, Jews comprised about one-half of 1 percent of the population, or roughly 200,000 of the total 31.5 million.
Numerically, Jews were insignificant. They were easily ignored, and the Protestant majority was either hostile or indifferent toward them. In 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was written, Jews were prohibited from holding public office in 12 of the 13 new states.
When Lincoln took office, there was little formal discrimination against Jews, who by this time had served in the U.S. House and Senate and in many state and local offices. But prejudice was common in much of the nation.
In August 1790, President Washington wrote his famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., affirming religious liberty in America:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Washington asserted that the United States would reject all religious bigotry and refuse to aid in any religious persecution. Jews would be free to practice their faith on equal terms with other Americans. This letter signaled a dramatic change in how most western countries treated Jews. It set the stage for the United States to ultimately become the destination for millions of Jews escaping the “bigotry” and “persecution” Washington promised would not be supported by the new nation.
Even more than Washington, Lincoln was a friend of the Jews. Unlike Washington, or indeed any other previous president, Lincoln had a number of close personal friends who were Jewish. He openly and vigorously opposed the Know-Nothing Party, which would have restricted non-Protestant immigration. While aggressively anti-Catholic, the Know-Nothings were unconcerned that their anti-immigration platform would also harm Jews.
In 1852, President Millard Fillmore signed a treaty that discriminated against American Jews who traveled to Europe. When Jews protested the treaty, Fillmore ignored them. In 1856, Fillmore was the Know-Nothing candidate for president. Lincoln, on the other hand, like Washington, would give “bigotry no sanction” and “persecution no assistance.”
As president, Lincoln supported the rights of Jewish soldiers to have chaplains of their own faith, promoted Jews to important political and military positions, and quickly and vigorously overruled Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous order expelling Jews from his military district.
The chaplain issue seems quaint today, yet when the Civil War began, federal law required that every chaplain be an “ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” This discrimination created a political issue in September 1861, when a Protestant visitor to a military camp complained that a Pennsylvania regiment, under the command of Col. Max Friedman, chose a Jew as chaplain.
In his annual message to Congress in December, Lincoln urged Congress to allow Jewish and Catholic chaplains. The next July, Congress passed the appropriate legislation, and Lincoln signed it.
The most infamous official act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history took place in December 1862 when Gen. Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from his military district in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. The order was blunt: “The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also Department orders, and are hereby expelled from the Department.”
This was not an act of “legislation,” as some scholars mistakenly claim, but an order by a military commander in a war zone. It was not official U.S. policy, and the president knew nothing about it.
Immediately, Cesar Kaskel, a leader of the Jewish community in Paducah, Ky., and an acquaintance of the president, went to Washington, DC to protest the order. He arrived on Jan. 3, 1863, and met with Lincoln. The next day, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck telegraphed Grant, telling him, “If such an order has been issued,” it “will be immediately revoked” at the direction of the president.
The language helps explain why it took a personal audience with the president to achieve this result. Jews in Kentucky, Mississippi and elsewhere sent letters and telegrams to the administration, protesting the order, but the War Department and the White House had not believed such an order existed. When Lincoln saw the order, he immediately overruled Grant.
Both Washington and Lincoln built strong records of judging people by their abilities and contributions to the nation, and not by their religion. From the Revolution to the Civil War, when anti-Semitism was common and rarely condemned, Washington and Lincoln stand out for their courage and their common sense. They make President’s Day an especially important holiday for Jews.
Shabbat shalom and enjoy the holiday weekend.