The first instance of affirmative action in American Jewish history occurred when Abe Lincoln selected a New York Jew named Chemie Levy to a military position because, the president wrote, “we have not yet appointed a Hebrew.”
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, pointed to this “amazing” letter on display through June 7 at the New-York Historical Society. Sarna, addressed an SRO crowd at a private opening March 19 of the exhibition of Lincoln’s connection with the Jews, based on his book, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” co-authored with Benjamin Shapell (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press).
Experience taught Lincoln to trust Jews even as others around him displayed ugly prejudices.
When Rev. Arnold Fischel of Congregation Shearith Israel (the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue) was elected chaplain of a Jewish-led regiment, the secretary of war had no choice but to turn him down. At that time the military chaplaincy was restricted to “regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination.”
Fischel took his case directly to the White House where Lincoln agreed that something ought to be done. To avoid controversy Lincoln buried his amendment deep within a bill to raise the pay of army officers. Nobody votes against giving raises to popular generals. Lincoln immediately appointed the first Jewish chaplain.
When Ulysses S. Grant expelled “Jews as a class” from his war zone in 1862, allegedly for smuggling, Lincoln overturned that order because, as he explained to Jewish leaders, “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
Not only was Lincoln personally broadened by his encounters with Jews, as president “he worked to broaden America so that Jews might gain greater acceptance as equals in her midst,” Sarna said.
Lincoln’s connections with Jews went further and deeper than those of any previous president. For the last half of his life he cultivated Jewish friends and repeatedly intervened on behalf of the Jewish immigrant newcomers.
“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,” Sarna said.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and a Jewish Week columnist, observed the common connection to words. “Lincoln used words to sway a nation. Jews live with words. When you kiss the mezuzah, you’re not kissing the case, you’re kissing the words.”
Leon Wieseltier, formerly of The New Republic (which has “died,” he sighed) and now of The Atlantic, summed it up: “Lincoln was not a great man because he was a friend of the Jews. He was a friend of the Jews because he was a great man.”
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. At the same time he has been a columnist for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years, and editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com for 16 years. He is the author of Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame, interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.