Jews in the Bosom of Father Abraham — and America

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-16-12

Imagine, if you can, an American Jewish nightmare. What would American Jewish voters do if a presidential candidate they considered good for the country was bad for the Jews – or Israel? Would they vote as “good Americans,” judging governing philosophy, domestic policy preferences, and personal character, or would they act as single-issue voters?

A great irony of American Jewish history is that most people, Jews and non-Jews, consider Jews single-issue voters who always place Jewish interests first– even though voting patterns suggest otherwise. Long before the age of Barack Obama, American Jews have been far more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel. For most, their liberalism has always trumped their Zionism at the voting booths, because so many blur their identities as Jews and Democrats.

Of course, one of American Jewish history’s great blessings is that Jews have rarely faced such an unhappy, Hobson’s Choice. Support for Israel has been a bipartisan tenet for decades, while the United States has welcomed Jews warmly overall.

And yet, despite American Jewish history’s generally happy demeanor, this sense of vulnerability persists. The anxiety partly stems from the community’s reputation as being more particularist than patriotic. Moreover, the opening contrast was unfair – single-issue voting is as “good,” as “American” a political choice as voting for a candidate’s philosophy, policies, or personality.

People fascinated by these questions, and by American Jews’ enduring ambivalence about power, will particularly enjoy reading Jonathan Sarna’s new tour de force, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. An award-winning-historian at Brandeis University and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Sarna begins his short compelling book about Grant’s General Orders No. 11, promulgated in 1862, with this “central conundrum of Jewish politics” from Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign. Most Jews at the time believed that the late Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was best suited to lead the country. But some hesitated to choose Grant as Lincoln’s successor, given Grant’s involvement in what might be the most outrageous act of anti-Semitism in American history, the banning of Jews “as a class violating every regulation of trade” from Tennessee during the Civil War.

Sarna’s book – which he wrote while on sabbatical in Jerusalem, where I was lucky enough to befriend him – provides good news cubed. First, this “worst” act of American anti-Semitism was mild, and quickly rescinded. Second, by the time Grant ran for president six years later in 1868, he had repeatedly done tshuva – repented – for what his own wife Julia called “that obnoxious order.” And third, Grant worked so hard to undo this stain on his honor that, Sarna writes, as president, he relied on a prominent Jewish advisor, “appointed a series of Jews to public office, attended a long, tedious synagogue dedication – staying until the end — and had aides help save “persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania.” “General Orders No. 11 marked a turning point in American Jewish history,” Sarna argues. “Paradoxically, Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment.”

A great historian at the top of his game, Sarna cannot resist telling the story of General Orders No. 11 with all its traditional melodrama, while helping the reader retain enough skepticism in case the tale’s most colorful aspects were embroidered. The irresistible story has one Prussian immigrant who settled in Paducah, Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, defending the Jewish people against expulsion – the smuggling by some Jews had endangered them all — by lobbying the President of the United States. What Sarna subtly calls “the oft-quoted report” claims Abraham Lincoln responded grandly, Biblically:

“And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”

Kaskel responded: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”

“Father Abraham” then replied, “And this protection they shall have at once.”

The kind of broad-minded historian who uses small incidents to make sweeping points effectively, judiciously, Sarna turns the book into a celebration of American exceptionalism. And his ending is not just “happy” but downright poetic. Grant’s transformation from the General who expelled “Jews as a class,” Sarna writes, “to a president who embraced Jews as individuals – reminds us that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.” Sarna finishes, powerfully: “In America, hatred can be overcome.”

That finale makes the book most suited for this season – and for the excellent “Jewish Encounters” Series, a Shocken-Nextbook collaboration, so ably edited by the novelist and essayist Jonathan Rosen. These gems sparkle because, as with Sarna’s book, they take a small moment, or one theme, and in a short, punchy, readable monograph, illuminate bigger, important, dimensions of the Jewish experience.

Sarna’s salute to America captures American Jewry’s optimistic mood today — despite the epidemic political nastiness, despite the lingering economic troubles, despite the looming threats to the American dream. American Jews are feeling good about themselves – as further exemplified by the extraordinary New American Haggadah that leading American Jewish novelists, journalists, and essayists produced this year. In fact, whereas most Israelis and Zionists have learned not to indulge in Shlilat HaGolah – negation of the Diaspora – we are starting to see a new, arrogant, Shlilat Zion – an American Jewish condescension toward Israel as world Jewry’s perpetual headache, viewing America as the Jews’ Promised Land

Sarna’s Grant book focuses on the story’s happiest elements – the public dimensions. An earlier work of Sarna’s, American Judaism, highlights the more ambiguous, fraught, private American Jewish religious story – a story of assimilation, for better and worse. The more humbling assessment that follows reminds us, as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 64th birthday, that the relationship between American Jews and Israelis should be mutual. Each side benefits when the other thrives.

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

Advertisements

How To Model Tolerance

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion, The Daily Beast, 4-16-12

Critics of Israel are having a grand old time turning the proposed Museum of Tolerance under construction in Jerusalem into a symbol of Israeli intolerance, given the museum’s seemingly insensitive decision to build its monument to broadmindedness on a centuries-old Muslim cemetery. Rashid Khalidi’s “Tolerance of Whom?” is the latest attack on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s initiative, this time deeming it “grotesque” and an “abuse of the dead.”

But the outrage over the building is one of those made-in-the-Middle-East cases of selective indignation and political grandstanding. The Wiesenthal Center has every right to build there and is the victim of a political mugging. Nevertheless, sometimes solving a problem with a touch of grace and self-sacrifice is preferable to standing on principle and asserting your rights.

50783022DS030_arnold

Frank Gehry’s proposed 2004 design for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem., Getty Images

In his screed against the Wiesenthal Center, Professor Khalidi overlooked the historian’s favorite text—context—and forgot that scholars are not supposed to fear complexity. Khalidi writes poignantly about the generations of his ancestors buried there and fears that this Muslim presence is being “erased.” In fact, many Zionists welcome modern Israel’s rich Arab heritage. I, for one, share Khalidi’s appreciation for the history that consecrates the ground there for him and for many of us who cherish the traditions of all the peoples of the Middle East.

I particularly love the Mamilla burial grounds. Over the years, my children and I passed many hours on visits to Jerusalem, wandering around, absorbing the history, delighting in some of the elaborate burial structures, and imagining the biographies of the many people buried there.

But Khalidi mislead readers by failing to tell them that the story of the Mamilla Cemetery is a complicated tale of a graveyard no longer in use, no longer considered sacred, and oft-violated already by Muslims, not just Jews. Most dramatically, in the 1920s, the fiery Palestinian nationalist, Haj Amin al Husseini, decreed the end to burials in the cemetery, designated the area as a commercial space, and built the magnificent Palace Hotel on one side of this huge expanse in the heart of Jerusalem. Since then, Muslim religious authorities have considered the cemetery “Mundras,” spiritually abandoned. After 1948, much of the Mamilla area became Gan Ha’atzmaut, Independence Park, and much of the controversial corner where the Wiesenthal Center is building became a parking lot.

Moreover, the Wiesenthal Center people note that for decades, no longer considering the area sacred, Muslims approved of the various commercial activities Arabs and Israelis performed on the site. Even for the first five years after the Museum initiative began, no one filed any religious objections, until some Islamist activists sensed a good opportunity to embarrass Israel—and the trouble began. Living in the Middle East—and especially Jerusalem—means constantly time-traveling through many different historical zones. Layers of history underlie most areas, and bones show up in the most inconvenient of building sites. Here, too, although consistency is a virtue, hypocrisy is rampant. The same progressives who are so outraged at the Museum of Tolerance’s alleged intolerance seethe when ultra-Orthodox Jews try stopping archaeological digs or building projects they deem to be on Jewish burial grounds (while ignoring this controversy, of course).

Ultimately, the legal, historical, and religious record justify the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s decision to build its Museum of Tolerance on the Mamilla Cemetery’s outskirts. Yet, if I were in charge, I would make my blow for tolerance by moving the project. While reaffirming the Jewish claim, while blasting the protesters’ duplicity, while filling in the facts, I would nevertheless build elsewhere. Civility entails knowing your rights but sometimes knowing enough not to assert them fully. Civility emerges from occasionally conceding graciously, even if unilaterally, not solely for the sake of others, but for your own sake. Mamilla Cemetery should be preserved as a Garden of Tolerance, fully administered by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for a generous fee, with a Museum of Tolerance built somewhere else in Jerusalem.

Not all conflicts need be zero sum, with clear winners and losers. To give the Wiesenthal Center and the Israeli Authorities the necessary nudge, deep-pocketed, peace-loving Arabs or Europeans or Americans should help create a rare Middle Eastern win-win. Let these do-gooders tally up all the court costs, real-estate fees, and construction costs to buy out the Center, while finding the Museum of Tolerance a new home. Let the building of the Museum of Tolerance become itself a model of tolerance, achieving its founders’ vision in ways that are all too rarely achieved in the Middle East of simplistic spin and fanatic finger pointing.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.