‘Jews were especially drawn to Lincoln,” Henry Feingold wrote.
Lewis Dembitz, grand-uncle of Louis Brandeis, was one of three who placed Abraham Lincoln’s name in nomination at Republican National Convention. His closest Jewish friend, Abraham Jonas, who campaigned for him, was appointed the postmaster of Quincy, Illinois by the president.”
Feingold adds, “The Jews recognized in him a kindred soul in his light, self-deprecating humor, the seeming permanent melancholy, his humanity and his concern for people.”
There have been many studies of Abraham Lincoln and the meaning of his links with American Jews. I must admit that as a youth growing up in the decade following WWII, I was not aware of the theories about why Lincoln was so loved by the Jewish people. Through the years, I have learned quite a bit about this president.
Noted American Jewish historian Professor Jonathan Sarna has offered us much more information in recent years. Several years ago, Sarna’s Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, which he wrote with Ben Shappell, was a real eye-opener. No one had realized how many ties there were between Lincoln and the Jewish community. A tabletop book with wonderful reproductions of Lincoln’s letters to Jews was translated into Hebrew by the Dvir press. Jews in USA and the rest of the world can read it in English.
I have been fortunate to have my own personal experiences with Lincoln. Before we made aliyah in 1977, I was excited to see an original signature of Abraham Lincoln in the Delaware Historical Archives. Located there were original signatures of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay on a document authorizing a military appointment for a Jew in Delaware.
The Lincoln document was especially meaningful to me. Many years before, when I was a Boy Scout in Atlanta Georgia, our scoutmaster held an oratorical contest to see who could, from memory, recite the “Gettysburg Address.” I had a pretty good memory, and I worked hard winning the contest. The prize was a two-week scholarship to our local Boy Scout camp. I thought it was a gift from Lincoln.
The Lincoln signature in Delaware was a commission for Henry B. Nones to be an officer in the “Cutter Force,” later called the Coast Guard. In a Delaware State historical volume, I found his picture – very distinguished, in full uniform. I also located his grave in the city’s main cemetery, which proudly had a tall “Cedar of Lebanon” grown from a seedling brought back by an American Naval officer in the 19th century. Nones’ grandfather was a Revolutionary War veteran who had nine children. He was awarded a special silver cup for helping the United States come into being. That cup is now at the University of Pennsylvania in the collection of Dee and Arnold Kaplan. I was lucky – I saw the actual cup in the home of that wonderful collecting couple.
SINCE WE did not celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in Georgia (nor did any of southern states), our history studies on the Civil War period were somewhat shortened. We did not spend too much time on the conflagration where the South lost. I was curious, so in encyclopedias and other historical works, I was able to learn about Lincoln. I recall that for a masquerade party in my high school years, I wore an “Old Abe” costume. Of course, I knew nothing about the Jews and Lincoln connection.
When I entered the American army in 1965 as a Jewish chaplain, I was unaware of what Lincoln had done to ensure there could be a Jewish chaplaincy. As we all know, politicians love to add their own legislation to large bills that are about to be passed. And so it was in 1861, a bill on some other matter carried with it a law that forbade Jews and Catholics from being chaplains in the Yankee army. The Confederacy was more favorable toward Jews and gave approval from the beginning of the Civil War for Rebel rabbis to be chaplains.
That law for the “Union” about chaplains left a bad taste in the mouths of the Northern Jews. So what do you do? You approach a large donor to the Republican Party to get the ball rolling. In New York, there were a number of rich Republican Jewish Lincoln supporters. The national organization of Jews, the Jewish Board of Deputies, had a letter composed and signed by the right person. Since Reverend Arnold Fischel had been turned down when he applied to be a chaplain, he was sent with the letter to see Lincoln personally. For about a month and a half he sat in the White House just outside Lincoln’s office.
Finally, when he was allowed in to see the president and tell him what the problem was, he learned quickly that Lincoln knew nothing about this discriminatory law.
From what is known, Lincoln immediately went to work with the Republicans in the Senate and the House. Once it was realized that the President wanted the original chaplain bill overturned, his party members in the Congress moved quickly and had a new bill passed allowing Jews and Catholics to be chaplains.
President Lincoln signed that bill into law. All the Jewish chaplains who have served in the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines since 1862 are thankful to Abe Lincoln.
ONE OTHER tale, a little better known, is that in December 1862 General US Grant of the Union army issued an order number 11 expelling the Jews from certain territories with which he dealt. Supposedly, the Jews there were buying and selling in a criminal fashion and so Grant decided to throw them out. Professor Jonathan Sarna wrote the definitive study of “Grant and the Expulsion of the Jews,” which I urge you to read.
You can well understand that American Jews were not going to take this act sitting down. One of the few national organizations in the USA then was B’nai B’rith. While Jews from the Union states overwhelmed Lincoln’s office with letters of protest, one individual is well noted in American Jewish history for his personal action in this trying period.
Sarna describes the culmination of the situation.
“Cesar Kaskel, of Paducah, Kentucky, who was one of the Jews expelled, rushed to Washington.” Kaskel contacted Congressman John A. Gurley of Cincinnati Ohio and together they went to Lincoln’s office at the White House. “The president turned out to know nothing of the order, which he had never seen. According to a revealing, but unverifiable later tradition, Lincoln resorted to biblical imagery in his interview with Kaskel, a reminder of how many 19th century Americans linked Jews to Ancient Israel and America to the Promised Land.”
Read well this noted conversation:
Lincoln: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?
Kaskel: Yes and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.
Lincoln: And this protection they shall have at once.”
This beautiful story demonstrates Lincoln’s concern for the Jews of America. He rescinded Grant’s Order #11 via General Halleck, overall commander of the army of the area where Grant served. The end came swiftly. Halleck’s January 4, 1863 telegram to Grant read, “If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.”
Lincoln concluded with this comment: “To condemn 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.”