This is a brutal political season. In fact, it is getting hard to remember one that wasn’t. But what is new is that the brutality has not really seemed to have much of a break — 2016 has just merged into 2020, and the strife continues.
But as with any campaign, one must have a vision of where one wants to be when the fight is over. This cannot simply be victory at any cost, because such costs cannot be paid. There has to be a path towards reconciliation, and even more importantly, redemption.
Such ideas can’t be confined to our houses of worship. If our politics completely implodes, the fact that there is a First Amendment written on paper won’t mean too much. We must infuse our politics with the courage to work for a real victory, a victory that results in peace and not just further war.
This is not an impossible dream. American history has its moments of political redemption, and they are worth contemplating.
In the intense emotion of a war of brother against brother, terrible things did happen. One of them took place in December 1862. Gen. Ulysses Grant was in command of Union troops in Kentucky. He had been embarrassed by coordinated Confederate raids around Holly Springs that captured many prisoners and destroyed rails, telegraph lines, cotton, and provisions.
The war was not going well for the Union, and Grant was under pressure to perform or else face the dismissal that came to underperforming Union generals regularly. This was the tense background for his issuing of a sweeping order.
Written in Holly Springs, Grant’s General Orders No. 11 stated:
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.
This order was duly enforced, most notably on the Jewish community of Paducah, Kentucky, but binding all throughout Grant’s Department of the Tennessee, which extended from Mississippi to far southern Illinois and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee. Jews were told to pack up what they could carry and, leaving homes and businesses behind, to get out of the entire department.
Thus the United States — the First Amendment and the Fifth Amendment notwithstanding — joined the list of shame of those countries in Europe that had expelled Jews over the centuries.
Cesar Kaskel, a Union supporter and a Jewish businessman from Paducah, was among those expelled. He immediately flew into action, eventually making his way to Washington, where President Lincoln received him. What follows is a contemporary report of the conversation between the two.
Lincoln: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?
Kaskel: Yes, and that is why we have come to Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.
Lincoln: And this protection they shall have at once.
Lincoln took immediate action as Commander-in-Chief, countermanding the order.
When 1868 rolled around, Grant, now famous as the leading architect of the Union victory, was running for president. Due to a large influx from Germany and Austria, the American Jewish community had rapidly grown, and their votes were sought. Jews had a sour memory of Grant because of his order, though many had let his great victorious campaign replace the older memory.
But Grant himself had changed over time. The fierce battle to set men free had led him to a deeper place in his soul. When he gained electoral victory, Grant proved himself by taking an active role in using America’s diplomatic power to make an international stand against persecution of Jews.
In the summer of 1870, American newspapers reported that Jews in Romania were being slaughtered in the thousands. A rabbinic personality visiting the United States, Chaim Tzvi Sneersohn, pushed himself into Grant’s presence to plead the case of those Jews. In response, Grant daringly appointed an American Jew, Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, as American consul to Bucharest, with specific instructions to work for the benefit of the persecuted Jews.
Grant had become a changed person. He was now something no sitting American president had ever been: a fighter against persecution on the international stage. All the while that America had tolerated slavery, American leaders found it impossible to object to human rights violations on the world stage. Grant now declared to the world, “The story of the sufferings of the Hebrews of Romania profoundly touches every sensibility of our nature” and “is evident to prove the imperative duty of civilized nations to extend their moral aid.”
Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, a politically active liberal, wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Dershowitz was unhappy that the rabbi had made friendly overtures to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) through a representative of the rabbi there in Washington. Dershowitz scolded the rabbi, asking if he was unaware of Helms having a reputation as an anti-Semite. The rabbi’s response was, “You are looking at the past. Look instead at what could yet be.”
Dershowitz later recounted publicly at a convention of Rabbi Schneerson’s followers that the rabbi had been right. Sen. Helms’ attitude changed. By that time the Republicans had gained a Senate majority, and Helms was given the chair of the Foreign Affairs committee. And in that position, he showed something not seen in his earlier years — he had become a staunch ally of Israel, and gave their case important and powerful backing from his committee.
One is that both of the rabbis came from one family, direct descendants of the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Schneerson (or Sneersohn or Schneersohn) family.
The other thread is an idea that gets short shrift in this age of the cancel culture — people have the possibility of changing their lives and finding redemption. For even in the smallest change for the good, when one identifies no longer with the bad choice, and one returns to the good, life has been redeemed. Even the smallest change can produce dramatic good.
Without this idea alive and well, no system of law can ever hold a society together. We are all too aware of how natural and easy it is to slip up. We are meant to keep the idea of return and redemption as a living possibility for us and for others, always. Without it, we will simply cancel each other out, everyone relentlessly seeking the mistake of the other before the other finds ours.
Our political battles are real and the stakes unusually high. We must fight to win. But without the idea of return and of redemption, it’s hard to imagine a victory that would be worth attaining. As we fight, let’s realize that the peace we are fighting for lifts our cause. Real inspiration flows from a real vision. It inspires us in the long and hard battle. And it has the possibility to turn enemies into allies and friends. We can hold an open door before our fellows and see in them what might yet be. They will know the difference.
This is a profound weapon in our battle for the good. Gen. Grant would tell you so.