Appearing in the Summer 2015 issue of B'nai B'rith Magazine, staff curator Cheryl A. Kempler examines the recently published book "Lincoln and the Jews: A History" by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell. Among other things, she highlights B'nai B'rith's early advocacy efforts with the 16th president, and how his actions on behalf of the Jewish community set the tone for Jews in America.
Additionally, B'nai B'rith Magazine editor Eugene L. Meyer critiqued for the Washington Independent Review of Books. He too notes how "the Great Emancipator was a Philo-Semite."
Read excerpts from Kempler and Meyer's reviews of the book and President Lincoln, below:
“More than any previous president,” writes Sarna of Lincoln, “he befriended Jews, defended Jews, and promoted Jewish equality.”
On one occasion, Lincoln acceded to the plea of an accused rebel blockade runner to be released from prison. The captive Confederate, J.G. Cohen, was a nephew of Zacharie, Lincoln’s associate. On March 16, 1864, Lincoln instructed the secretary of the Navy, “Let this man take the oath [of loyalty to the Union] of Dec. 8 and be discharged.”
On another occasion, Lincoln allowed Charles Jonas, a Confederate officer and prisoner-of-war who was the son of his old friend Abe Jonas, to be paroled for three weeks “to visit his dying father.”
“I myself have a regard for the Jews,” Lincoln remarked to Henry Wentworth Monk, a self-proclaimed prophet of peace who visited the White House.
After reading this book, I am tempted to declare: I am a Lincoln Republican. Schooled in the Old Testament, Lincoln was given to quoting from it in his formal speeches and on other occasions.
On a carriage ride with his wife the morning before he was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre, Mary Todd Lincoln later recalled that Lincoln expressed a desire in retirement to travel to the Holy Land. Tragically, he never got his wish. But, fittingly, perhaps, in central Jerusalem, there is Lincoln Street, a crooked road named for the martyred American president.
Just as important, Sarna’s findings open the door to the perception that Lincoln could relate to a variety of Jewish people, from powerful attorneys and civic leaders to local haberdashers and town photographers, not just because he was a politician needing their support but because his ethical beliefs aligned with those of the Jewish religion.
General Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders Number 11, a decree expelling Jews “as a class” from military areas under his control, was issued after he’d received reports of smugglers and speculators colluding with Confederates.
B’nai B’rith St. Louis Lodge President Isidor Bush, a political supporter of the president, sent a letter to Lincoln protesting the decree. Cesar Kaskel, a businessman and Jewish community leader in Paducah, Ky., telegrammed Lincoln, then met with him in Washington. Lincoln rescinded Grant’s order the next day.
One of America’s most eminent Jewish leaders, B’nai B’rith member Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, urged President Abraham Lincoln to appoint Jewish chaplains.
Identified as B’nai B’rith leaders in Lincoln’s concentric circles are Washington-based attorney Simon Wolf, and Bush, who fought for the Union and worked in St. Louis for Lincoln’s election.
Other B’nai B’rith members among Lincoln’s Jewish connections included Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, among a number of clergy who successfully advocated with Lincoln for the appointment of Jewish military chaplains, and Henry Greenebaum, a charter member of Chicago’s Ramah Lodge active in fundraising campaigns for the Union Army.