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Sarna discusses General Grant and Jewish politics

Published: October 1, 2010
Section: News

PHOTO BY Andrew Rauner/The Hoot

Professor Jonathan Sarna (NEJS), a historian on American-Judaism, spoke to students and faculty this week about Jewish politics and President Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with the American-Jewish community in the late 1860s.

The presentation, titled “The Beginnings of Jewish Politics in America: Jew, Ulysses S. Grant, and the 1868 Election,” came from a chapter in Sarna’s forthcoming book, “When Grant Expelled the Jews.”

In the presentation, Sarna highlighted General Orders #11, an official order from General Grant. Issued in 1862, during the Civil War, the order expelled Jews from the war zone. He explained that Grant’s goal was to decrease smuggling, but that President Lincoln revoked the act, so as not to punish an entire group because of a few sinners.

“Judaism was synonymous with smuggling … it’s not a surprise that people would blame Jews, even though there were larger economic forces at the time,” Sarna said.

He then related the decree to Grant’s 1868 run for president, one of the first instances of noticeable vocally Jewish political opinions.

Sarna explained that when Grant ran for president, American Jews were generally in agreement about which party was best for the country. Because Republicans were credited with the emancipation of African-Americans, Jews largely supported them.

However, Grant was the Republicans’ nominee, and the Jewish community did not forget his anti-Semitic decree. This led to the still relevant question of Jewish Americans’ allegiances to their country–which part of their identity would be more important, their nationality or their religion?

In the end, Grant’s presidency helped the Jewish community a great deal. Many were afraid that with the emancipation of African-Americans, Jews would become the nation’s new “other” community. Instead, during Grant’s presidency, anti-Semitism declined.

“Grant actually deserved better. In the United States, Jews moved from outsider to insider,” Sarna said. He described Grant’s transition from Haman to Mordechai, a reference to the story of Purim, in which Haman, the king’s advisor, plots to destroy the Jewish people, but Mordechai, a Jew, saves them.

“When Grant Expelled the Jews” will join several other books by Sarna, including “American Judaism: A History,” the 2004 winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and several other award-winning books.

The Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry and the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department sponsored the lecture.

It was part of the Jewish Studies Colloquium, an annual year-long series of presentations of papers and books in progress by graduate students and faculty from Brandeis and other schools.