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Jews4Cruz Or “Lincoln And The Jews”?

March 23, 2015

If one wanted to experience something Republican in New York today would it be a high-priced fundraiser titled Jews4Cruz or might you instead be interested in attending a historical look at one side of the president I believe to be the most important person to win the White House?

Yup, me too.

As the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln approaches, the New-York Historical Society is looking back at the iconic president’s legacy through the lens of his relationship with the Jewish people.  

“Lincoln and the Jews,” which opened Friday, features rare letters, photos, paintings and objects that tell the story of Lincoln’s rise to power, his friendship and support of Jews, and the history of the first wave of Jews in America. 

During the Civil War, Lincoln became close friends and allies with many Jews despite the fact that less than 1 percent of Americans were Jewish, the exhibit explains.

While anti-Semitism ran rampant during the 1860s, Lincoln’s perspective made sense for the legendary leader, said Harold Holzer, the chief historian for the exhibit. 

“In a way it’s surprising, but in another way it’s not surprising,” Holzer said. “He was not prejudiced against African Americans; he was advanced beyond the overwhelming majority of people of the day in terms of racial prejudice.”

On the other hand, Holzer reminds visitors that Lincoln’s views were based on what worked politically. 

“Abraham Lincoln liked Republicans and he liked people who were going to be part of the big tent, which included progressives, abolitionists, lots of Germans who had come here after the revolutions of 1848 and these included Jews,” he said. 

However, Lincoln was openly defamatory to Irish immigrants, penning derogatory articles about them, Holzer noted. The Irish were almost universally Democrats, helping to explain Lincoln’s attitude toward them.

“He was a real politician,” Holzer said.

The exhibit begins with Lincoln’s rise to power, aided by the help of his Jewish friend Abraham Jonas, including letters between the two about his early loss of the Illinois Senate seat. 

It quickly delves into the defining era of Lincoln’s presidency: the Civil War. 

During war, the Lincoln had to be careful when it came to his relationship and support of Jewish people. His most important generals — Gen. William Sherman and Gen. Ulysses Grant — were both openly anti-Semitic, the exhibit explains. 

“Those two people were prejudiced, but they also won battles — so Lincoln had to tread very carefully,” Holzer said. 

When Grant issued an order expunging Jews from his territory within 24 hours, Lincoln overturned the order via a proxy, sidestepping a direct conflict with the general.

He also decided to allow rabbis to join chaplains in tending to soldiers during the war and to travel with the Union army, another of Lincoln’s defining moments as a friend to the Jewish people.

The end of the exhibit focuses on one of the last wishes Lincoln expressed before his death: to travel to the Holy Land and see Jerusalem. 

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