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When President Obama Extolled the Jews

The President turned to Nextbook Press’ author for his speech

Dan Klein
May 31, 2012
(National Archive/Newsmakers; Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
(National Archive/Newsmakers; Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Prof. Jonathan Sarna got a call from the White House yesterday morning.

The topic of Sarna’s new book from Nextbook Press When General Grant Expelled the Jews was going to be discussed during the president’s speech at that evening’s hot Jewish D.C. ticket—not the party celebrating the 25th anniversary of Congressman Barney Frank’s coming out, but the White House reception for Jewish Heritage Month. Sarna had written about the historical context of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s order that would have expelled the Jews “as a class” from the military department of Tennessee and how after being petitioned by the Jewish community, President Lincoln swiftly revoked the order.

That night in a room with historical documents from the episode, President Obama praised the Jewish community for directly petitioning the government, “which could have only happened in America.”

Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream,” the president continued. “But this country holds a special promise: that if we stand up for the traditions we believe in and in the values we share, then our wrongs can be made right; our union can be made more perfect, and our world can be repaired,” Obama said.

“I was impressed that the President picked a different episode that many people even in that room might not have known. I thought that was classy in a lot of ways,” Sarna told me this morning.

The speechwriter that contacted Sarna wanted to clarify some facts (like where the hell is the military department of Tennessee), but Sarna also suggested that the President note that Grant had made amends later in his life—a suggestion that made it into the speech.

“And to General Grant’s credit he later realized he had made a serious mistake,” the president said in his speech. “So later in his life he apologized for this order and as president went out of his way to appoint Jews to public office and to condemn the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe.”

I asked Professor Sarna about the speech this morning. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What did you think of the President’s speech?

Obviously when one writes a book and the President of the United States makes it the subject of a talk it is very gratifying. I know that the book was the backdrop for the talk, I guess in my dreams he would have mentioned the book itself. It was certainly nice to hear an episode that I helped put on the historical map be discussed by the president.

How did he approach the material?

It was extremely brief. It wasn’t even the readers digest version, but what he said was accurate and he, like many people, focused on the Order. He did not mention how Grant’s father had cooked up a scheme with the [Jewish clothing manufacturer] Mack brothers to smuggle cotton from the south to north, which made Grant furious. But that wouldn’t have fit into the speech’s focus.

I was very glad that the president added the paragraph about how Grant apologized and how he went out of his way to add Jews to office and be sensitive to the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe, although I would have been more specific and said Romania and Russia.

He also might have added that Grant was the first person to attend a synagogue dedication and sat in the Washington heat for three hours. That’s real penance. He added the line about Lincoln which was very clever. I was very pleased as any author is gratified when his words are taken up by the President.

He could have picked any number of episodes, so I was impressed that the President picked a different episode that many people even in that room might not have known. I thought that was classy in a lot of ways.

Frequently presidents talk about the coming of Jews to America in 1654, or the well-known story of Peter Stuyvesant not wanting the Jews to stay in New York and how it was overridden. That’s a common foundation story or creation story and it’s been the subject of any number of presidential talks before Jewish communal gatherings including President Bush’s. And the other one is about Jews in the American Revolution and the letter to the Newport Synagogue—stories the audience likely already knew a great deal about.

Instead of choosing one of those tropes, the president went to a historical anniversary and a moment when Jews had been persecuted on American shores. The others are foundational stories; this is a different kind of episode.

The speechwriter called you, what did he want to talk about?

He wanted to make certain that facts were correct and I admired him for that. As the president learned a day before [the President described concentration camps in occupied Poland as “Polish death camps,” sparking an international incident] you cannot be too careful in checking your facts and nuances.

That’s what a presidential speechwriter should do. Every word should be as correct as possible. It gave me a new found appreciation for the power of the President’s word.

I did make a plea for the talk to not just include General Order no. 11 and to also talk about what happened afterwards.

Obviously General Order no. 11 is timely this year, but I was wondering if there might be an underlying parallel between the President, who made—depending who you ask—actual or perceived slights towards the Jewish community and Grant, who spent the rest of his life rehabilitating himself for Gen Order no 11.

Grant’s apology for the order took years—not until ’68. There is a huge difference but in both cases they did not fully appreciate the sensitivities of the Jewish community until they found themselves under attack and forced to defend their actions—or in President Obama’s case, words—that they probably had not realized would be hurtful to many in the Jewish community.

I think we should not see any parallel between Grant’s action, which is the most anti-Jewish act in American history, and early comments about Israel’s borders and policies and settlements and the like by President Obama, which I think he was surprised to find how much they upset many within the Jewish community.

In both cases they were surprised for different reasons. Grant barely knew Jews, and Obama tended to know liberal Jews and did not realize they were anything but a microcosm of the Jewish community as a whole.

I would not want anyone to feel that I was ungrateful here, any historian would be grateful to have the president refer to his work. Nothing could have made this episode better known than the exhibit on display and the President’s remarks on Jewish Heritage Month.