Friday, March 16, 2012

The Wise Also Fail

I knew of then-General Ulysses S. Grant's "General Order No. 11", which expelled all Jews from a huge swath of America. The order proclaimed that "The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order." It was one of the most prominent examples of officially condoned anti-Semitism in American history (though the order itself was reversed by President Lincoln 11 days later).

What I didn't know was the story of the rest of Grant's career vis-a-vis the Jews (via TNC). Grant, it seems, was sincerely and genuinely repentant over what he had done. He recognized that it was incompatible with his broader commitments to human equality. And he committed himself, particularly while as President, to protecting the equality of Jews and fostering their inclusion as full Americans. This included visiting newly opened synagogues in DC, speaking out against abuses of Jewish human rights in eastern Europe, and appointing more Jews to public office than any President up to that point. At the end of his life, Grant was exceptionally proud of the fact that he counted Jews and non-Jews alike amongst his friends and visitors.

This was all the more impressive because Grant was not simply responding to a change in social attitudes. In fact, he was actively resisting social tides, which were trying to aggressively declare America a "Christian nation" and viewed Jews with distrust and contempt. Grant's overt and repeated gestures towards Jewish inclusion helped foster in a "golden age" of Jewish life in America paralleling the high point of reconstruction. Unfortunately, like with reconstruction, this era faded when Grant left office, as other national leaders were not committed to keeping equality on the front-burner.

Grant's response to the depravity of General Order No. 11 wasn't "but I have Jewish friends!" By all accounts, Grant exhibited genuine remorse and genuinely worked to make things better. It was not cheap grace. It was a true impressive commitment by Grant to make up for an acknowledged wrong. And so it was after Grant died that one of the great Jewish leaders of the era, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, remarked "that the wise also fail." They do, and when they do they do so on a more public stage than most. But the wise also repent, and set out to make things right. And the ability to do that, consistently, in public, over the course of a long and powerful political career, is the sign of a great American patriot.

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