Opinion | Abraham Lincoln and the Jews He Admired, Courted


No president prior to Lincoln had anywhere near as many Jewish connections as he did.

One hundred and fifty years ago, our nation lay prostrate in deep mourning. President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated on what, for Jews, was the intermediate Shabbat of Passover. His body was slowly and circuitously making its way by train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Ill. On April 23, 1865, some 300,000 waited to view Lincoln’s body in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. 
From there, Lincoln’s coffin was transported to New York where more than 20 different synagogues and Jewish organizations joined a solemn funeral procession through the streets of the city, and many congregations conducted special memorial services. 
Subsequently, the Lincoln funeral train wound its way through 11 major cities, including Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus and Indianapolis. From there it traveled on to Chicago and then, finally, Springfield, where the Jewish clothier Julius Hammerslough, who had known Lincoln as a young man, stood among those who met the body; he accompanied the slain president to his final resting place.
Hammerslough, and American Jews generally, had special reason to mourn Abraham Lincoln. They knew him as a friend. No president prior to Lincoln had anywhere near as many Jewish connections as he did, and none had done more to promote the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life.
The Jewish community’s goal back in 1865 was, in the words of the editor of the New York Jewish Messenger, Rev. Samuel Isaacs, “to join our fellow citizens in paying a national tribute to the nation’s lost chief.” And they succeeded in doing so. Subsequently, however, Lincoln’s ties to the Jewish community have largely been forgotten. Lincoln and the Jews: A History, the book that I co-authored ​with Benjamin Shapell, ​and was recently released, attempts to change that.
Astonishingly, more than 100 of Lincoln’s friends, acquaintances and appointees were Jewish — far more than those associated with any previous president. The growth of the Jewish community during Lincoln’s lifetime partly explains this. There were perhaps 3,000 Jews in America when he was born, and 150,000 when he was murdered. Lincoln appreciated the Jews’ growing national significance. 
In one case, Lincoln deliberately appointed a Jew to office, because, as he wrote, “we have not yet appointed a Hebrew” — a sign that he made the inclusion of Jews a priority. He likewise championed other Jews, defending them against prejudice and making sure to include them in White House functions, this at a time when Jews in the United States often faced overt anti-Semitism and social discrimination.
Lincoln felt especially close to Abraham Jonas, a Jewish lawyer and politician from Quincy, Ill., whom he knew for more than two decades and described as “one of my most valued friends.” He also befriended and trusted a skilled Jewish chiropodist (podiatrist) named Issachar Zacharie, employing him as a Union spy in Louisiana as “a means of access to his countrymen, who are quite numerous.”
In 1863, when a long-bearded Christian “prophet” named Henry Monk urged the president to work for the emancipation of the Jews and their restoration to Palestine, Lincoln assured him that “I myself have a regard for the Jews.” 
The diversity of Lincoln’s social network, and the fact that for fully half his life he welcomed Jewish friends and acquaintances, helps to explain why he repeatedly intervened on Jews’ behalf.
On two critical occasions, Lincoln’s intervention ensured that Jews would be treated as equals in the United States. First, he shaped and signed legislation amending the law that formerly restricted the military chaplaincy to Christians. He then appointed Jacob Frankel as the first Jewish military chaplain in American history. This represented a major political victory for the Jewish community, and remains a landmark in the legal recognition of America’s non-Christian faiths.
Second, he overturned Ulysses S. Grant’s 1862 order expelling “Jews as a class” from his war zone. “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners,” Lincoln explained. Years later, Grant apologized for the ill-conceived order. 
Lincoln even changed his personal rhetoric in response to Jewish sensitivities. For years, he had reflexively described America in Christian terms and characterized Americans as a “Christian people.” In the face of Jewish criticism, however, his Gettysburg Address and deeply religious Second Inaugural bespoke a conscious effort to redefine America through phrases like “this nation under God.” 
Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to embrace Jewish Americans as insiders paralleled his far better-known efforts to abolish slavery and grant legal equality to black Americans. In the mid-19th century, persecution of Jews and persecution of blacks were frequently linked in the popular mind. A Canadian religious enthusiast named Henry Wentworth Monk, for example, specifically urged Lincoln to “follow the emancipation of the Negro by a still more urgent step — the emancipation of the Jew.”
Sir Moses Montefiore of England similarly linked Lincoln’s efforts to liberate slaves to his own efforts to liberate Jews. Two plays in Washington that the Lincolns are known to have attended, Gamea and Leah, likewise employed the theme of anti-Jewish persecution in ways that contemporaries considered highly relevant to the situation of blacks. 
To Lincoln, the connection between eradicating the persecution of blacks and ending the persecution of Jews must have seemed obvious. Underlying both, to his mind, was a common philosophy: a passionate belief in human equality.
Jonathan D. Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, is the author with Benjamin Shapell of the recently released Lincoln and the Jews: A History; Sarna is also chief historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where he will be speaking about Lincoln's legacy on April 29, at 7 p.m. For information, go to: nmajh.org.


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