This week, we marked Presidents’ Day, which at its heart is a celebration of the birth of two presidents in particular, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Both men deserve warm places in Jewish hearts.
Our first president made it clear that the new republic was dedicated to the equality of all religions. In a letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation, Washington wrote that all citizens “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
The “Government of the United States…,” he wrote, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, [and] requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support….
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Lincoln, our 16th president, acted decisively, beginning in the second half of 1861, to thwart an effort by the House of Representatives to define a military chaplain as someone who is a “regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination,” a definition that existed tacitly until then. Because of his efforts, in July 1862, for the first time in United States history, Congress opened the military chaplaincy to Jews.
That was Lincoln’s first encounter with a “Jewish problem.” The second came in December 1862, when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued his now infamous General Order 11 order expelling all Jews from the military department of Tennessee (there was a war on), saying “that as a class [the Jews were] violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also [Tennessee military] department orders.”
Lincoln reversed Grant’s order, saying that “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.”