In an election year when, as many political pundits agree, so much hangs in the balance, Rabbi Gary Zola thinks voters can learn something valuable from Abraham Lincoln — Jewish voters in particular.
“The Lincoln connection to the Jews in his own time was extraordinary and remarkable,” said Zola, director of the Jacob Raeder Marcus American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, “People who don’t know anything about Lincoln and the Jews would benefit from being exposed to this very fascinating, noteworthy facet of our past.”
Zola, who serves on the Academic Advisory Council of the congressionally recognized Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission in Washington, will deliver a lecture on Lincoln on Sunday, Oct. 19, 8 p.m., at Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Levy Hall. Next year marks the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.
I’m going to try to make the case that, in certain respects, Lincoln might be said to have the first modern relationship with the American Jewish community of any American president,” Zola said. “That means he actually associated personally with Jews, meaning he fraternized with them. He was extremely cognizant of their political prospects.”
In two examples Zola gave to illustrate Lincoln’s special link with the Jews, the Illinois Republican made it possible for rabbis to serve as Army chaplains during the Civil War, and he overturned an order given by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, barring Jewish merchants from Tennessee — the infamous “General Order No. 11.”
As a result, one American Jewish leader of the day and Lincoln’s podiatrist, Isachar Zacharie, promised to deliver to Lincoln the Jewish vote in the 1864 presidential election — a pledge that proved highly controversial among American Jews.
“His promise caused an uproar because many voters said there was no such thing as the Jewish vote,” Zola said. “[They said], ‘we don’t vote as a block; we vote for the best person, as Americans.’”
Today, many historians acknowledge Lincoln as a leader of high intellect and ethical values, someone who was willing to revise his positions as time and circumstances changed (emancipation for example), and a president who wrote his own speeches, unlike most presidents since the 1930s.
But Zola went a step further. He suggested that “providence” played a role in placing Lincoln in the White House.
“I really have been thinking about this a lot because of the financial crisis we’re facing,” Zola said. “You can’t imagine anything more gruesome than the year he started his presidency (the year the Civil War began); it’s impossible for me to think about anything more tumultuous, murderous and grim. I’m not exaggerating when I say most historians think it providential that a man with Lincoln’s moral character and his intellect was selected at that time.”
He hopes voters think of that when they vote this November for the next president.
“It reminds me how very important it is for our nation to find wise leaders intelligent leaders and patriots, people who think about the welfare of the nation over their own personal gain,” Zola said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that because right now we’re facing a grim prospect for our future. One can only hope that whatever the outcome providence will deliver the right person for the job.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)