By Joel Levitt
In 1855 Abraham Lincoln wrote in response to restrictive immigration policies, “I have some little notoriety for commiserating the oppressed condition of the negro (sic); and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor any project for curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages than myself.”
That statement opens the new exhibit Barbara and I viewed at the New-York Historical Society, “Lincoln and the Jews”, and while not directed toward Jews in particular, his words provide ample evidence of Lincoln’s early and consistent inclusive and humanitarian viewpoint, which ultimately benefitted the tiny Jewish minority during his presidency (150,000 Jews out of 31 million Americans).
The exhibit, inspired by the book, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” by Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor at Brandeis, features 80 original artifacts depicting the evolving personal and political relationships Lincoln developed with individual Jews and the Jewish people. It runs through June 7 and is excellent.
His several Jewish friends (including his podiatrist) and associates helped form Lincoln’s political views of Jewish aspirations to become equal partners in American society. He is noted for two executive decisions favoring Jewish equality. In 1862 Lincoln overturned the existing policy that only ordained Christian ministers could be appointed military chaplains, selecting Rabbi Jacob Frankel to serve in that capacity. Also that year, he overturned General Grant’s notorious General Orders No. 11, “expelling Jews as a class” from wartime territory Grant oversaw (due to alleged profiteering). Grant by the way, soon regretted the decree and became the first president to speak out against the persecution of Jews abroad, as well as appointing more Jews than any prior president to public office.
Since this is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, there is much media attention focused on him. One of the very best is an HBO documentary called, “Living with Lincoln” (available free “On Demand” with HBO). Lovingly told and beautifully illustrated, the film explores the complex and sometimes contradictory story of the Meserve-Kunhardt collection, the world’s largest privately owned treasure trove of original Lincoln photographs and ephemera (over 73,000 items). Directed by Peter Kunhardt, a great grandson of the collection’s founder, the film is not only a visual history of Abraham Lincoln and his times, but a loving yet unflinching portrait of the collection’s overwhelming and even haunting presence in the lives of its custodians. Special emphasis is on Dorothy Kunhardt, noted Lincoln historian, daughter of the founder and grandmother of the filmmaker (Dorothy Kunhardt had a parallel career as a children’s book author and is beloved by parents and toddlers for the classic, “Pat the Bunny”). This remarkable collection will soon have a new home in Connecticut, as it has been sold by the family to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and will eventually be open to the public.
When I gazed at some of the photo portraits highlighted in the film, I saw the immense insight, deep sadness and incredible courage residing in the craggy, homely, yet noble features of the Great Emancipator. His visage is mythic and mesmerizing. There’s an oft asked question, “Is it good for the Jews?” and in terms of the Lincoln presidency, the answer is, “Absolutely!”