Do you ever wonder what, one hundred years from now, historians will make of Obama’s record? And how about something more specific: his record with Jews? I do. But reading Jenna Weissman Joselit’s review of a new book on Ulysses S. Grant—and his infamous expulsion of the Jews from territory he conquered during the Civil War—reminded me what a futile task that would be. After all, historical interpretation is no less immune to revision as anyone’s initial opinion.
That’s the lesson I drew from Joselit’s review at least. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Prof. Joselit both professionally—she’s been a source—and as a student and mentor. Same goes for Prof. Sarna, whom I asked to write an essay on the Grant book for our paper.) She shows that Grant’s expulsion of Jews from southern territories in 1862—reversed by Abraham Lincoln two weeks later—sullied Grant’s reputation among Jews for decades. When Grant was running for president, a pamphlet by a proto Jewish super-PAC declared: “As a CLASS, you have stigmatized and expelled us! As a CLASS, we rise up and vote against you, like one man…With God’s blessing, [we] will defeat you!”
But Sarna wants to move beyond Grant’s one undeniably atrocious act, Joselit writes. Grant “deserves better,” Sarna writes, then he goes on to describe the many ways Grant sought to regain the trust of the Jewish community. Grant hired more Jews in his administration than any other previous president. When the czars in Russia were trampling on the rights of their local Jewish population, Grant stuck his neck out to support those Jews. And in 1876, he made a wonderful P.R. move, something presidential handlers like Plouffe and Axelrod would undoubtedly approve: when the Jewish community in Washington was dedicating a new temple, President Grant spent three hours at the festive event, the first U.S. president every to do anyting of the kind.
It turns out, Sarna uncovers, that several Jews ultimately reversed their stance. By the time of Grant’s death in 1885, an early and powerful Jewish critic of Grant, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, did a one-eighty, telling his fellow Jews to mourn Grant’s passing. Looking to the future, one can only imagine possible parallels—Sheldon Adelson eulogizing Obama, circa 2050?
Still, Joselit thinks Sarna takes it too far. Sure, she suggests, Grant wasn’t the villain Jews once made him out to be. But neither does he deserve to be on the Jewish Mount Rushmore, if there were such a thing. “These days,” Joselit concludes, “few would argue that the eighteenth president of the United States should not be a candidate for reassessment. But for such high praise? Was he really all that good for the Jews?”
I summarize. You decide.