Our magnificent, diverse world is comprised of 7.7 billion people, residing in nearly 200 countries. The world’s Jewish population is approximately 14 million, with 86% of the world’s Jews living in Israel and the US, 8.1% in France (at least as of publication), Canada and the U.K. The vast majority of the world’s 200 nations have zero Jews. Of the countries boasting any Jewish population, the majority have fewer Jews in their entire country than the membership of my synagogue.
With nearly 200 countries on the planet, why are more than 94% of us in only 5 countries? The primary answers are freedom of religion and the absence of state sponsored or endorsed anti-Semitism. Jews migrated to lands free from government-lead inquisitions, pogroms, forced conversions, conscription, persecution, payment of oppressive taxes (such as jizya and similar taxes assessed on non-Muslims in Muslim countries), and so on.
The US Constitution was ratified in June 1788, followed in December 1791 by the adoption of the Bill of Rights – the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. The very first sentence in the First Amendment addresses freedom of religion.
For more than two centuries people have risked their lives to immigrate to America and relish in our oasis of freedom; to enjoy the liberties and protections afforded to all Americans. However, even in the greatest democracy in the world, sometimes things run afoul.
In the United States, the first and ostensibly only time government sponsored antisemitism took place was on December 17, 1862. We were in the middle of our Civil War. Cotton trade between the north and south continued, as textile manufacture and farming were critical components of both the northern and southern economies. Cotton trade was regulated by the government, creating a black market in cotton.
Major-General Ulysses S. Grant believed that the black market was run “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.” In response, he issued his infamous General Order No. 11, expelling all Jews in his military district, comprising areas of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. The order read, in part:
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.
A copy of General Order No. 11 reached Paducah, Kentucky on December 28th. Cesar Kaskel, a Jewish merchant and immigrant from Prussia, along with other Jews in Paducah, were handed papers ordering them “to leave the city of Paducah, Kentucky, within twenty-four hours.” Kaskel immediately sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln describing their plight, then raced to Washington with the hopes of meeting Mr. Lincoln.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to this day one of the most important and revered presidential statements, was to take effect four days later, on January 1, 1863.
Cesar Kaskel arrived in Washington on Jan. 3, 1863. He conferred with influential Jewish Republican Adolphus Solomons. The following day he made his way to the White House and was received by President Lincoln – notwithstanding the other very pressing issues on his agenda. The President reviewed Kaskel’s copies of General Order No. 11 and the specific order expelling Kaskel from Paducah.
Lincoln is quoted as saying: “And so, the children of Israel were driven from their happy land of Canaan?”
“Yes,” responded Kaskel, “and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”
“And this protection,” declared the President, “they shall have at once.”
Grant revoked General Order 11 four days later.
The Civil War was ushered in with a growing wave of antisemitism. Jewish immigration swelled, with the majority of American Jews not being native born. Jews in America were met with the similar economic and political stereotypes that plagued them in other countries, and this was only exacerbated with the tensions of war. When wartime opportunists inflated prices on substandard military supplies, Jews, easily identified and differentiated from other Americans, were scapegoated.
It was during this time that the word “shoddy,” describing poor quality or workmanship, became an antisemitic pejorative. The term expanded to include individuals who bilked the government and short-changed military personnel in dire need. Ultimately the term was transformed to denigrate Jews, suggesting that they were behind unpatriotic activities.
General Order 11 received widespread opposition, from President Lincoln to state and federal legislators to the newspapers that covered the order extensively. The notion of singling out a class of people rather than individual offenders was found to be repugnant and contrary to our national values.
During the Civil War, Jews comprised only about one-half a percent of the American population. Nonetheless, they were empowered by their ability to bring attention to this injustice, reverse General Order No. 11 and gain personal and political confidence because a few Jews, lead by Cesar Kaskel, took it upon themselves to effectuate change.
This chapter of the American Jewish experience is not only fascinating but instructive and inspiring. If a few Jews from Paducah, Kentucky, including the immigrant Cesar Kaskel, can navigate their concern all the way to the president of the United States and reverse an unfair law, consider how much we can accomplish.
While the surname “Kaskel” is not common, it’s not likely I am a descendant of Cesar Kaskel. However, I’d like to think that in some small measure I am following his laudable example.