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Professor Jonatan Sarna – Lincoln


Brandeis University

Director, Schusterman Center for Israel Studies

Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History

Selected Works:

American Judaism: A History

When General Grant Expelled the Jews

Lincoln and the Jews: A History

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Episode #1

Q: Your background & how you became interested in Lincoln and the Jews?


  • Author of American Judaism

  • Wrote section about Grant’s General Order #11

  • Tuned it into a book

  • Approached by Shapell to create Lincoln & the Jews

  • Outstanding collection of letters, primary sources

Episode #2

Q: Did a young Lincoln encounter Jews?


  • Lincoln knew Jews from the Bible

  • Gets to actually know them in Illinois

  • Merchants in clothing industry

  • Friendly with Jewish attorneys

Episode #3

Q: How did Lincoln view Judaism?


  • Lincoln – deeply religious

  • Civil War enhanced his spirituality

  • Judaism as part of American diversity

  • Introduced – one nation under G-d

Episode #4

Q: Did Lincoln go after the “Jewish vote”?


  • Jews, a growing group in America

  • Lincoln’s birth – 3,000 Jews; Civil War – 150,000!

  • Lincoln paid attention to such trends

  • 1864 election – Republican party courted the Jewish vote

Episode #5

Q: How did Lincoln view Catholics?


  • 1850s – huge anti-Catholic movement

  • Know Nothing Party – Lincoln not a part of it

  • Lincoln – being anti Catholic is not the American way

  • Lincoln, impressive in private as in public

  • No anti-Semitism in any of his writings

Episode #6

Q: Did Lincoln face  an organized Jewish community?


  • Board of Delegates of American Israelites

  • Engaged in fighting to protect Jewish interests

  • Issue of chaplaincy for 8,000 Union soldiers

  • Fischel test case, solved by Lincoln

Episode #7

Q: What kind of Jewish community did Lincoln confront?


  • Still influential Jews like Simon Wolf

  • But Board of Delegates understand need to organize

  • Jewish newspapers play a unifying role for American Jewry

  • Provide a voice for Jewish interests

  • Help create a unified national community

  • Isaac Mayer Wise: “write letters to congress”

Episode #8

Q: What was Grant’s General Orders #11 “Jewish” expulsion?


  • Generals, end smuggling between North & South; war will end

  • Some Jews were smugglers; Generals – all Jews are smugglers

  • Grant’s father and the Mack Brothers from Cincinnati

  • Grant orders expulsion of Jews, AS A CLASS, from Tennessee area

  • Lincoln immediately rescinds the order

  • Strong, organized, Jewish response

Episode #9

Q: How did President Grant refer to the expulsion of Jews?


  • Grant never defended himself

  • Wife Julia Grant wrote that the expulsion order was “obnoxious”

  • Grant does not mention the expulsion in his memoirs

  • Son Frederick, his father told him that the less said, the better. 

Episode #10

Q: President Grant & the Jews


  • From 1886 to death – bent over backwards

  • Grant helps Jews in many ways

  • Helped Romanian Jewry

  • Brought Jews into the government

  • Simon Wolf serves as a key advisor

  • Jewish community does a 180 degree turn

  • Jews mourn Grant’s death

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Full Interview - Professor Jonatan Sarna

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