by: Ralph Seliger on March 8th, 2012 | 3 Comments »
The Jewish holiday of Purim began last night, concluding at sundown tonight (Thurs., March 8). Published last week in the NY Jewish Week, the following article (excerpted below) is written by Jonathan D. Sarna, a distinguished professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the author of “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” just published by Schocken/Nextbook:
Purim serves as an appropriate moment to recall a man known for a time as “America’s Haman.” …
On Dec. 17, 1862, … Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued the most Haman-like order in American history: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” Known as General Orders No. 11, the document blamed “Jews, as a class” for the widespread smuggling and cotton speculation that affected the area under Grant’s command. It required them to leave a vast war zone stretching from northern Mississippi to Cairo, Ill., and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River.
…. Cesar Kaskel, a staunch union supporter, as well as all the other known Jews in the city, were handed papers ordering them “to leave the city of Paducah, Kentucky, within twenty-four hours.” ….
Kaskel decided to appeal to Abraham Lincoln in person. Paul Revere-like, he sped down to Washington, spreading news of General Orders No. 11 wherever he went. With help from a friendly congressman, he obtained an immediate interview with the president, who turned out to have no knowledge whatsoever of the order, for it had not reached Washington. …
General-in-Chief of the Army Henry Halleck, ordered by Lincoln to countermand General Orders No. 11, chose his words carefully. “If such an order has been issued,” his telegram read, “it will be immediately revoked.”
In a follow-up meeting with Jewish leaders, Lincoln reaffirmed that he knew “of no distinction between Jew and Gentile. To condemn a class,” he emphatically declared, “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.”
…. We now know that Grant’s expulsion order was linked to a visit he received from his 68-year-old father, Jesse R. Grant, who was accompanied by members of the prominent Mack family of Cincinnati, significant Jewish clothing manufacturers. The Macks, as part of an ingenious scheme, had formed a secret partnership with the elder Grant. In return for 25 percent of their profits, he agreed to accompany them to his son’s Mississippi headquarters, and act as their agent to “procure a permit for them to purchase cotton.” According to an eyewitness, General Grant waxed indignant at his father’s crass attempt to profit from his son’s military status, and raged at the Jewish traders who “entrapped his old father into such an unworthy undertaking.” In a classic act of displacement, he “expelled the Jews rather than his father.”
Subsequently, Ulysses S. Grant never defended General Orders No. 11. … His wife, Julia, … characterized General Orders No. 11 as nothing less than “obnoxious.”
…. Many Jews could not bring themselves to vote for “Haman.” [for president in 1868] Following his victory, though, Grant released an unprecedented letter that told Jews just what they wanted to hear: “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit. Order No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order.”
During the remainder of his life, Grant demonstrated that his apology was genuine. He appointed more Jews to public office than all previous presidents combined, and spoke out for Jewish rights on multiple occasions. As a result, when he died of cancer in 1885, Jews mourned him deeply. …
… His transformation from “Haman” to “Mordecai,” from a general who expelled “Jews as a class” to a president who embraced Jews as “individuals,” serves as an apt Purim-time reminder that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes. Hatred can be overcome.