Imagine, if you can, an American Jewish nightmare. What would American Jewish voters do if a presidential candidate they considered good for the country was bad for the Jews – or Israel? Would they vote as “good Americans,” judging governing philosophy, domestic policy preferences, and personal character, or would they act as single-issue voters?
A great irony of American Jewish history is that most people, Jews and non-Jews, consider Jews single-issue voters who always place Jewish interests first– even though voting patterns suggest otherwise. Long before the age of Barack Obama, American Jews have been far more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel. For most, their liberalism has always trumped their Zionism at the voting booths, because so many blur their identities as Jews and Democrats.
Of course, one of American Jewish history’s great blessings is that Jews have rarely faced such an unhappy, Hobson’s Choice. Support for Israel has been a bipartisan tenet for decades, while the United States has welcomed Jews warmly overall.
And yet, despite American Jewish history’s generally happy demeanor, this sense of vulnerability persists. The anxiety partly stems from the community’s reputation as being more particularist than patriotic. Moreover, the opening contrast was unfair – single-issue voting is as “good,” as “American” a political choice as voting for a candidate’s philosophy, policies, or personality.
People fascinated by these questions, and by American Jews’ enduring ambivalence about power, will particularly enjoy reading Jonathan Sarna’s new tour de force, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. An award-winning-historian at Brandeis University and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Sarna begins his short compelling book about Grant’s General Orders No. 11, promulgated in 1862, with this “central conundrum of Jewish politics” from Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign. Most Jews at the time believed that the late Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was best suited to lead the country. But some hesitated to choose Grant as Lincoln’s successor, given Grant’s involvement in what might be the most outrageous act of anti-Semitism in American history, the banning of Jews “as a class violating every regulation of trade” from Tennessee during the Civil War.
Sarna’s book – which he wrote while on sabbatical in Jerusalem, where I was lucky enough to befriend him – provides good news cubed. First, this “worst” act of American anti-Semitism was mild, and quickly rescinded. Second, by the time Grant ran for president six years later in 1868, he had repeatedly done tshuva – repented – for what his own wife Julia called “that obnoxious order.” And third, Grant worked so hard to undo this stain on his honor that, Sarna writes, as president, he relied on a prominent Jewish advisor, “appointed a series of Jews to public office, attended a long, tedious synagogue dedication – staying until the end -- and had aides help save “persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania.” “General Orders No. 11 marked a turning point in American Jewish history,” Sarna argues. “Paradoxically, Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment.”
A great historian at the top of his game, Sarna cannot resist telling the story of General Orders No. 11 with all its traditional melodrama, while helping the reader retain enough skepticism in case the tale’s most colorful aspects were embroidered. The irresistible story has one Prussian immigrant who settled in Paducah, Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, defending the Jewish people against expulsion – the smuggling by some Jews had endangered them all -- by lobbying the President of the United States. What Sarna subtly calls “the oft-quoted report” claims Abraham Lincoln responded grandly, Biblically:
“And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”
Kaskel responded: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”
“Father Abraham” then replied, “And this protection they shall have at once.”
The kind of broad-minded historian who uses small incidents to make sweeping points effectively, judiciously, Sarna turns the book into a celebration of American exceptionalism. And his ending is not just “happy” but downright poetic. Grant’s transformation from the General who expelled “Jews as a class,” Sarna writes, “to a president who embraced Jews as individuals – reminds us that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.” Sarna finishes, powerfully: “In America, hatred can be overcome.”
That finale makes the book most suited for this season – and for the excellent “Jewish Encounters” Series, a Shocken-Nextbook collaboration, so ably edited by the novelist and essayist Jonathan Rosen. These gems sparkle because, as with Sarna’s book, they take a small moment, or one theme, and in a short, punchy, readable monograph, illuminate bigger, important, dimensions of the Jewish experience.
Sarna’s salute to America captures American Jewry’s optimistic mood today -- despite the epidemic political nastiness, despite the lingering economic troubles, despite the looming threats to the American dream. American Jews are feeling good about themselves – as further exemplified by the extraordinary New American Haggadah that leading American Jewish novelists, journalists, and essayists produced this year. In fact, whereas most Israelis and Zionists have learned not to indulge in Shlilat HaGolah – negation of the Diaspora – we are starting to see a new, arrogant, Shlilat Zion – an American Jewish condescension toward Israel as world Jewry’s perpetual headache, viewing America as the Jews’ Promised Land
Sarna’s Grant book focuses on the story’s happiest elements – the public dimensions. An earlier work of Sarna’s, American Judaism, highlights the more ambiguous, fraught, private American Jewish religious story – a story of assimilation, for better and worse. The more humbling assessment that follows reminds us, as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 64th birthday, that the relationship between American Jews and Israelis should be mutual. Each side benefits when the other thrives.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.