I’m a negotiator like you folks, we are negotiators. Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? This room negotiates them, perhaps more than any other room I’ve ever spoken in.
—Donald Trump, to the Republican Jewish Coalition, December 3, 2015
I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.
—Donald Trump, February 16, 2017
Donald Trump surrounds himself with two types of people: those who think Jewish bankers rule the world, and Jewish bankers. He’s also the only president ever whose daughter’s synagogue stands a good chance of being vandalized by white supremacists acting in his name.
Plenty of presidents have nurtured ambivalence about Jews. Thomas Jefferson, the father of religious freedom, complained to John Adams of their “wretched depravity.” Adams’s son, John Quincy, wrote in his diary that “Israelites” were a “miserable looking people” who “would steal your eyes out of your head if they possibly could.” John Quincy apparently didn’t think the situation hopeless, however, so he joined a missionary organization called the Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews. But when it comes to being confused about the Chosen People, nobody beats Ulysses S. Grant.
The Jews will defeat Grant as they defeated Haman. The Jews will elevate Grant to office as they elevated Haman. The Jewish merchants of Atlanta, Georgia
Derided for the past century or so as a drunk, a butcher (because so many people died under his command), and a crook (because so many people in his administration stole), Grant is currently in the process of being rehabilitated. As for the butchery, historians now say, essentially, “Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.” Or, in a 19th century rendering—and as his friend General Sherman put it—“War is hell.” And although Grant was bizarrely permissive about other people’s frauds, historians have started pointing out that he himself never perpetrated any. They’re even beginning to try to mitigate his alcoholism by observing that he may have had an especially low tolerance for spirits. On the positive side of the ledger, Grant is finally getting the credit he deserves for being much, much more sensitive to the basic humanity of African Americans and American Indians than anyone he might be compared to. The final piece of the puzzle is that Ron Chernow is about to come out with a Grant biography, so get ready for 1,104 pages and a breakout hip-hop musical called Grant!
For those of us who attended Mr. Abador’s Hebrew School class at Synagogue Emanuel in the late 1980s, though, there’s still the thorny issue of General Order No. 11 to consider. In 1862, General Grant kicked “Jews, as a class” out of his war zone, giving them just 24 hours to leave, after which time they would be subject to arrest. President Lincoln countermanded the order almost immediately, but it’s still universally understood to be the most anti-Semitic action ever taken in the name of the United States government. Can Grant be absolved of that, too?
Surprisingly, it turns out that the answer might be yes. The historian Jonathan Sarna recently wrote a delightful (and delightfully short) book describing how Grant spent the rest of his life trying to live General Order No. 11 down. Less than a decade later, he made one Edward Salomon governor of the Washington Territory, a historic first that went terribly awry when Salomon made himself what we call a shande far di goyim by stealing from the Territorial Treasury and then trying to bribe the agent investigating him. More importantly, Grant tried to stop pogroms in Romania and Russia, breaking with a long tradition of presidents who said they didn’t meddle in other country’s affairs when those affairs involved murdering Jews. Grant overcame his mistrust of Jews because he was an unusually decent, thoughtful person. But if that’s so, why did he banish Jews in the first place?
To answer that question, you have to put yourself in an 1862 frame of mind. The Jews Trump thinks he knows, Eastern Europeans who eat bagels and lox, tell neurotic jokes, and used to be kept out of country clubs, haven’t arrived yet, the Holocaust hasn’t happened yet, and Israel isn’t a country, or even really an idea, yet. In short, no Auschwitz, no Mossad, no pastrami.
When Grant was born, in Ohio in 1822, there were only about 5,000 Jews in the entire United States, mostly concentrated in a few cities on the Eastern Seaboard. He learned about them not as actual people in his world but as contemptible, pitiable characters in church sermons and schoolbooks that drew on a millennium’s worth of European hatreds. Jews were freer here than in Europe (because this was a freer country) but not necessarily more popular.
The (English) founder of Methodism, the church in which Grant was raised, said that Jews, who were “uncircumcised in heart,” engaged in “horrid, senseless” worship that made a “mockery of God.” This kind of rhetoric was standard fare in Christian churches on both sides of the Atlantic, where Jews were known first for killing Jesus and second for stubbornly refusing to admit that he was the Messiah.
Secular stereotypes about Jews—particularly those about our unscrupulous greed—were served up in primary schools. A textbook called The American Reader included a poem entitled “Economy,” which tells the story of Moses Levi, a pushy young man who elbows his way through a crowd to get to the front row at the theater, only to get his comeuppance when he overshoots his mark and falls to his death in the orchestra pit. In the end, his mother asks the proprietor for half her money back. One of the Mother Goose rhymes on which children were reared went like this: “Jack sold his egg/To a rogue of a Jew/Who cheated him out/Of half of his due.”
These accusations hung in the air that young Grant breathed, and it would have been easy for him to cherry-pick real-life evidence to support them as he grew older. By the time the Civil War began, when Grant was almost 40, the American Jewish population had increased to 150,000, many of whom worked as merchants. (Of the 16,000 “peddlers” listed in the 1860 census, more than half were Jewish.) Historians argue about what led to this pattern of employment, but whatever the explanation, it guaranteed that most Americans’ first contact with real, live Jews was when we were taking their money. It didn’t take much to see the stereotypes in the human beings. As one journalist joked, “Ever since they parted [the Savior’s] raiment at the crucifixion, [they] have been dealing in ready-made clothing.”
Then, in 1862, General Grant faced a smuggling epidemic in his war zone. This was no surprise. The Civil War created stunning financial opportunities. Blockades were up and running, Southerners badly needed manufactured goods, Northerners badly needed cotton, and you could make a fortune trading one for the other. As far as Grant was concerned, however, such smuggling amounted to providing aid, comfort, and, most importantly, military supplies to the enemy. In short, treason.
Grant was probably predisposed to blame the Jews—in fact, smugglers were Jew and Gentile alike—and the people around him kept encouraging his prejudices. General Sherman warned that “the country will swarm with dishonest Jews.” Major General Benjamin Butler wanted to stop “the Jews from gathering up all the gold in the country to exchange it with the Confederates for cotton,” probably because, as a big-time smuggler himself, he didn’t want the competition.
On December 17, 1862, Grant signed General Order No. 11. Three days later, Confederate troops tore up Union telegraph lines in the area, preventing Grant from communicating the order effectively, so it ended up affecting exceedingly few Jews. (One general who did receive it refused to execute it, saying he “was an officer of the army and not of a church.”) Then, on January 4, 1863, three days after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln revoked it. It didn’t take long for Grant, who was running for president but who also seemed genuinely contrite, to try to start making amends. “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit,” he said after his election. “Order No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order.”
Anti-Semitism has changed a lot in the 150 years since then. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mainstream preacher casually spouting anti-Semitism. Christians commonly refer to the United States as a “Judeo-Christian” nation, even though there are almost as many Muslims as Jews living here, and Christians outnumber them both by 220 million. Lots of people still associate Jews with money, I have no doubt, but with less specificity and less spleen than before. Not only that, but Jews can golf pretty much wherever they please, including at Trump’s clubs.
The problem is that every third basketball practice at the Jewish Community Center is cancelled because of a bomb threat from some Aryan Nation asshole who thinks Trump symbolizes his salvation. The scary part of being a Jew today is finding out that there are more of these assholes than we realized—and that Trump seems to be winking at them. Still, I’d rather live in a world where some disturbed people secretly want to kill me than one in which all people absorb hatred and suspicion of me from the atmosphere. 1862 turned normal people like Ulysses S. Grant into anti-Semites. 2017 is helping anti-Semites feel like normal people.
I really liked Jonathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Sarna also wrote one of the standard overviews, American Judaism: A History, and it’s interesting enough. For some reason, though, the books specifically surveying American anti-Semitism are bad. I read two, one by Leonard Dinnerstein and the other by Frederic Copel Jaher, and they both read like an Excel file of all the anti-Semitic things anyone ever did or said. I wanted more help pulling it all together into a story. I must have missed a book, because it’s close to impossible that nobody has nailed this subject. On Grant, there really is a Ron Chernow biography coming out, but it’s not out yet, so you’ll have to rely on Ronald C. White for your well-done if ponderous biography. If you get to page 864 and are angry the journey is over, don’t worry! Chernow is coming soon! The entry in the American Presidents series, by Josiah Bunting III, is insufferable. For example: “There is much acidulous curling of the lip in depictions and opinions and judgments about him, an irremediable condescension stamped, it sometimes seems, on every page–even in the tartly acute, often funny chapters of the only single-volume major history of the Grant presidency.” I wonder how much acidulous curling of the lip there was in what I wrote. And I worry that it may not have been “tartly acute,” or even just “tart” or just “acute.”