An ongoing identity conflict

A little-known slice of American history reminds us that being Jewish in America has always been a complex psychological negotiation.

Ulysses S. Grant 521 (photo credit: US Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)
Ulysses S. Grant 521
(photo credit: US Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)
Esteemed Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua recently said that American Jews “are partial Jews while I am a complete Jew.” His incendiary words have drawn fire, but there is no denying Yehoshua sheds an uncomfortable light on the immense difficulties American Jews have always faced in reconciling their dual identities as Americans and Jews.
Jonathan D. Sarna’s remarkably illuminating little gem of a book also reminds us that being Jewish in America has always been a complex psychological negotiation. His new book examines this phenomenon while closely studying a little- known slice of early American Jewish history that will both amaze and distress readers.
In the middle of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army issued an order demanding the expulsion of all Jews from the territory under his command. He was attempting to get rid of black marketeers that were undermining his efforts and believed all the culprits to be Jewish when only a handful were.
General Order No. 11 infuriated the approximately 150,000 Jews then living in the United States and was quickly reversed by Abraham Lincoln. However, this heinous act haunted Grant for the rest of his days.
He spent years afterwards attempting to make amends. When he ran for the presidency in 1868, Jews were divided as to whether to vote for him or not. They supported the humanistic ideals of Grant’s party which encouraged the abolition of slavery, and strong support for Reconstruction, but some Jews had trouble forgetting what he had done to them.
Sarna’s storytelling genius lies in his ability to paint compelling individual portraits of Jews struggling to cope. He tells of Prussian-born Cesar Kaskel, who came to America believing it represented hope and freedom. He settled in 1858 in Paducah, Kentucky, and opened a business.
When the Civil War erupted, and Grant’s troops captured the city where Kaskel lived and worked, he was one of only 30 Jews living there who openly supported the Union cause. Still, the war made it difficult to keep his business afloat, and the area was disrupted by speculators and smugglers, who were looking to profit from all the chaos.
Grant, for reasons that are never made precisely clear since Sarna explains there are varying theories, issued the infamous order evacuating all Jews from the region under his command. Cesar Kaskel faced having to evacuate his home and business and was infuriated that he would once again be adrift. Kaskel was an honest citizen who was targeted simply for being a Jew, just as he had been in Prussia.
Sarna explains the poisonous mind-set of that time: “As is so often the case in such circumstances, suspicion fell particularly upon the Jews, long stereotyped in Christian culture as being financially unscrupulous. Jews became the focus for much of the hatred and mistrust the war unleashed within the city. Even though few in number in Paducah, they played an outsized role in business and trade, and as immigrants they were easily marked by their European accents and foreign ways. Unionists and Confederates alike doubted their loyalties – partly because they doubted the loyalty of all Jews and partly because Jews nationwide were known to be on both sides of the struggle.”
The attention of the national press only made things worse.
The New York Times wrote “All swindlers are not Jews. All Jews are not swindlers,” and concluded that “men cannot be condemned and punished as a class, without gross violence to our free institutions.”
However, it seems the need to defend the Jews only convinced others that they were guilty of crimes such as smuggling, price-gouging and swindling. Sarna demonstrates the outrageousness of these claims by reminding us that Jews at this time made up about one half of 1 percent of the American population.
The corrosive effect of Grant’s order also affected the ability of Jews to fight as soldiers alongside non-Jews. Phillip Trounstine, a Jewish captain in Grant’s army, felt compelled to resign, claiming that he could no longer bear the “taunts and malice” of his fellow soldiers, who were aware of his Jewish heritage.
Ironically, Grant’s shame fueled a great desire within him to make reparations.
After being inaugurated as president in 1869, he appointed the first Jew, Simon Wolf, to advise him on Jewish matters. In 1869, he attempted to assist 2,000 Jews who were being expelled from the Bessarabian frontier by pressuring Russian leaders to revoke their order. He named Benjamin F. Peixotto, a Jew, as consul to Romania after it came to his attention that Jews were being massacred there. In 1882, he tried to rally support for Russia’s persecuted Jews.
Shortly before his death, he told his son he felt moved by the many Jewish luminaries who came to pay him final respects. Sadly, this good feeling was reversed immediately after his tenure and anti-Semitism rose sharply throughout the country.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the author of over 20 books and a professor of history at Brandeis University. He seems drawn to examining how Jews struggle valiantly to survive the roadblocks continually placed in front of them. His father, Nahum Sarna, was a biblical scholar who created notable translations of Scripture that focused on making the meaning of the ancient texts accessible to the lay reader.
His son, dealing in a different vein, does a similar thing. Sarna examines the turbulent subtext that lay beneath the American Jewish mind-set and focuses on how American Jews deal with the persistent tear in their hearts; part of them longing for complete inclusion in America life and part of them striving to remain separate.
How is one to do both?