By Liz Stern
In Jerusalem, there is a beautiful street near the King David Hotel named for Abraham Lincoln. There is a similar one in Tel Aviv and a memorial statue of Lincoln in Ramat Gan. Why is there devotion in Israel to the 16th President of the United States?
Abraham Lincoln was a man with complicated religious beliefs. He did not grow up attending church and was even said to be critical of religious teachings. But as he matured and moved into a more public realm, Lincoln increasingly expressed himself using Biblical references. The deaths of his two sons and the painful reality of the Civil War further drove him to look to religion for solace and answers.
President Lincoln also respected the religious beliefs of others, most strikingly of the Jewish people. On March 20 the exhibition Lincoln and the Jews opens at the New-York Historical Society, taking an in-depth look at his relationship to and interactions with American Jews.
Visit the exhibition and meet Abraham Jonas, one of Abraham Lincoln’s early presidential bid supporters. This exhibition will include a letter from Jonas warning Lincoln of an assassination attempt before his first inauguration. More on this story in a future post when I delve further into the Pinkerton National Detective Agency!
In Lincoln and the Jews, you’ll also meet the interesting character Isachar Zacharie, an English-born chiropodist who healed Lincoln’s feet but also traveled behind enemy lines to seek peace with the Confederacy. He became Lincoln’s closest friend.
The president is credited with changing the law that required all military chaplains to be “regularly ordained ministers of some denomination,” removing the word “Christian” from the decree. Lincoln appointed Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia as the nation’s first Jewish American Military Chaplain.
Possibly Abraham Lincoln’s most tangible legacy in American Jewish anti-discriminatory history is when he overruled General Ulysses S. Grant. On December 17, 1862, General Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from his territory, which covered the area between northern Mississippi to southern Illinois. It was called General Order No. 11 and it remains the only explicitly anti-Semitic official action of the U.S. government. Lincoln ordered its reversal two and a half weeks later saying he did not “like a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” The original document by Grant will be on view in Lincoln and the Jews.
As we mark the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln, it is fitting to look at his legacy with regard to Jewish Americans. He died, after all, in the middle of Passover, a time when Jews revisit the story of the Exodus from Egypt in search of freedom. At the end of the traditional Seder the words “next year in Jerusalem” are recited by all who celebrate.
“There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem,” said President Lincoln to his wife Mary in the balcony of Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. These would be the last words he uttered, according to a family pastor who sat with Mary later. Perhaps he was inspired by Secretary of State Seward’s 1859 trip to Jerusalem? Perhaps the end of the Civil War was driving his interest in exploration? Lincoln was talking to his wife about their future—but he would never visit Jerusalem. Lincoln was shot in that balcony. In the wake of Lincoln’s death, synagogues across the country draped their altars in black and chanted prayers of mourning.
Moses did not reach Israel either.
Holzer, Harold, Lincoln and the Jews, essay reprinted on Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City, jhsgw.org.
Mansfield, Stephen, “Lincoln’s Surprising Last Words: Excerpt from Lincoln’s Battle with God,” December 10, 2012, www.thenervousbreakdown.com.