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When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan Sarna (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Volume 6, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 71-72 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0007

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Listen to him lecture, read any of his prodigious writings, or simply share a meal with him, and you will realize that Jonathan Sarna’s range of knowledge about American Jewish history is breathtakingly broad. Yet over the course of his career, he has also dedicated himself to a very particular and often marginalized facet of American Jewish history: the nineteenth century, prior to the massive wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Sarna’s most recent book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, echoes his first monograph, Jacksonian Jews: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (1981), in its insistence that readers have a great deal to learn from the experience of Jews in the nineteenth century.

A dynamic and well-researched account of General Ulysses Grant’s infamous General Order No. 11, this book proposes that for a brief moment during the Civil War, American Jews were forced to wonder whether the distance between the New World and the Old World was not so vast. If Jews “as a class,” in the verbiage of the edict, could be expelled from American territory, then the promises of American democracy were as ephemeral as the promises of the Golden Age in Spain or the European Enlightenment. According to Sarna, Grant wrote General Order No. 11 in a fit of exasperation. He believed the Union would win the war by economically strangling the Confederacy, and yet at every turn his strategy was thwarted by bands of smugglers and opportunists who made quick profit by operating in the margins of the legal economy. As it happened, a number of prominent smugglers were Jewish. Sarna is careful to explain that Jews were not the only smugglers, but he also notes that Jews were well suited for smuggling, having learned how to operate in the periphery of economic life over many centuries of “economic restrictions and confiscatory taxes that weighed heavily upon Jews … [and] encouraged illicit means of gain.” (39) Grant, in a brash move that would, in Sarna’s estimation, haunt him for the rest of his life, took his frustration out on all Jews instead of simply those Jews (and non-Jews) guilty of breaking trade laws.

The irony in Sarna’s telling is that Grant, who was vilified as a modern-day Haman (or devil-like) figure by rabbis and other Jews at the time, was so self-conscious about the error of his ways—indeed, so embarrassed—that he spent the rest of his life going out of his way to appease Jews. Once elected as president in 1869, he appointed an unprecedented number of Jews to government posts, and, in the name of Jewish rights abroad, he radically asserted that the United States should intervene in the affairs of other countries when human rights were at stake.

Grant’s Reconstruction-era conversion from a once-reviled Jew-hater to a champion of Jewish interests emboldened American Jews. As Sarna writes in his introduction (a concise summary of the book that could stand alone), General Order No. 11 “greatly strengthened America’s Jewish community” and made Jews “more self-confident” (xiv). They vociferously protested the edict, believed their protestation was responsible for Lincoln’s revocation of it, and then found themselves most-favored minority in the eyes of gentile power.

Sarna’s clear respect for Grant is consonant with recent historiography, which has redeemed Grant and portrayed him as a true champion of civil rights for recently-freed slaves and other minorities. It is clear that Sarna feels a great deal of empathy for Grant. Sarna’s research reveals that Grant acted in the heat of the moment and that upon reflection, was deeply contrite for his actions against the Jews and for his attack on vaunted American values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Sarna is not only a believer in Grant’s redemption; he is also a believer in the redemptory power of America for Jews and other minorities. “In America, hatred can be overcome,” Sarna intones in the concluding line of his book (148). Readers who have visited the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia will find this same sentiment echoed in the core exhibit, which...

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