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Obama on Jews and American History: A Speech Worth Remembering

Obama on Jews and American History: A Speech Worth Remembering

Shame on me for not knowing that May was Jewish American Heritage Month. To be sure, it lacks the profile of Black History Month, but apparently in Washington it’s a big deal. I was reminded of that when I read about Obama’s closing remarks at the White House on Wednesday, when he took pains to highlight the central anecdote of historian Jonathan Sarna’s new book, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews.”

Sarna, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Week, who adapted an essay for the book for our paper, wrote about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous expulsion of Jews from the Southern territory he captured during the Civil War. After Jews petitioned Pres. Lincoln to reverse the order, Lincoln quickly followed through, and Grant, who became president himself in 1968, eventually apologized for the act. What’s more, as Sarna shows in his book, Grant spent the rest of his political career trying to mend fences with the Jewish community.

In his speech at the White House this week, Obama drew directly from Sarna’s book—a fact confirmed by Sarna, who told Tablet that the president’s speechwriter called him to fact-check. In the finished speech, Obama extolled the Jewish community of the Civil War era for directly petitioning Lincoln to reverse Grant’s act, a form of civic involvement that “could have only happened in America,” he said.

“Like so many groups,” he went on, “Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream. 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.”

Sarna was thrilled to have the Grant incident—a relatively unknown episode in Jewish American history—get the presidential treatment. “Obviously when one writes a book and the President of the United States makes it the subject of a talk it is very gratifying,” Sarna told Tablet. “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.”

Apparently the president responded to one of Sarna’s petitions, too. He told Obama’s speechwriter that it’d be good to have him mention that Grant eventually went out of his way to apologize for his earlier act of expulsion. “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,” Sarna said. Though he added: “although I would have been more specific and said Romania and Russia.”

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