“This year, we celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month, and we’re also commemorating an important anniversary. One hundred-fifty years ago, General Ulysses Grant issued an order – known as General Orders Number 11 – that would have expelled Jews, ‘as a class,’ from what was then known as the military Department of the Tennessee. It was wrong. Even if it was 1862, even if official acts of anti-Semitism were all too common around the world, it was wrong and indicative of an ugly strain of thought.
But what happened next could have only taken place in America. Groups of American Jews protested General Grant’s decision. A Jewish merchant from Kentucky traveled here, to the White House, and met with President Lincoln in person. After their meeting, President Lincoln revoked the order - one more reason why we like President Lincoln.
And to General Grant’s credit, he recognized that he had made a serious mistake. So later in his life, he apologized for this order, and as President, he went out of his way to appoint Jews to public office and to condemn the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream. But this country holds a special promise: that if we stand up for the traditions we believe in and the values we share, then our wrongs can be made right, our union can be made more perfect, and our world can be repaired.”
- President Barack Obama, commemorating Jewish American Heritage Month on 5/30/12. Watch the full speech here, and read more about General Orders Number 11 in When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna, out now from Schocken Books.