We all know how much Abraham Lincoln did for African-Americans, but until now very little was known of the special place Honest Abe held in his heart for the Jews. In fact, Lincoln showed so much favor to the Jewish community of his time that they called him “Rabbi Abraham.”
When Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 there were fewer than 3,000 Jews in the United States. By the time he died there were 150,000. Many of Lincoln’s contemporaries were alarmed by this development. Anti-Semitism, like the plague, had spread from Christian Europe to the New World, but Lincoln, a staunch Christian Republican, stood up for the Jews, much in the same way he would for African-Americans.
Lincoln was a devote student of the Bible and often quoted from the Old Testament in his public speeches. Lincoln rejected the notion held by many Christians of the time that the Jews were responsible for killing the Son of God. He made it a point to treat the Jews with respect right from the beginning of his career. Lincoln boasted many Jewish friends, often represented them in his law practice, and even appointed Jews to offices in his administration. Many Jews served as President Lincoln’s personal advisors.
A number of Lincoln’s generals regarded the Jews as hostile intruders to the North American continent and tried to have them expelled. General Ulysses Grant tried to force them out by issuing an edict barring Jews from selling goods to Union soldiers. Lincoln would have none of it, and confronting his commanding general immediately rescinded the shameful order.
When the Union Army wanted to “appoint Christian Chaplains to care for the spiritual needs of our brave soldiers,” Lincoln insisted on also appointing Jews to serve as chaplains to the army, something that had never been done before. Lincoln then signed the act into law and Jewish chaplains have been serving in the US Armed Forces ever since.
It was Lincoln who was the first to acknowledge the need to recognize Judaism as an official religion of the United States. At the time it was common to call the United States a “Christian Nation.” In order to make sure that the growing Jewish population also be included, Lincoln insisted that America be called “a nation under God.”
In 1863 Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation declaring that “all slaves under the Confederacy were from then on forever free.” Shortly afterwards, Lincoln met with a Canadian Christian Zionist named Henry Wentworth Monk who explained to him that Jews who were being oppressed in Russia and Turkey also need to be emancipated "by restoring them to their national home in Palestine."
Lincoln replied that this, the rebirth of Israel as a nation-state, was "a noble dream and one shared by many Americans."
When Lincoln was assassinated, the Jewish response was unprecedented as communities around the country mourned him in the traditional Jewish way for seven days by sitting “Shiva.” Eulogizes for the fallen president were offered by rabbis in every synagogue across the nation.
In what surely must have been a divine toss of the coin, the new copper penny minted in 1909 in celebration of Lincoln’s 100th birthday and adorned with his own iconic portrait was designed by the Russian-Jewish immigrant Victor David Brenner.
More of this fascinating story can be found in the new historical documentary “They Called Him Rabbi Abraham” by Gary Phillip Zola.