I love the streets of Jerusalem whose inspiring names bring thousands of years of Jewish history to life. And yet, one of my favorite streets in central Jerusalem is named after Abraham Lincoln. Many years ago, while taking a taxi to a meeting on that block, I could not contain my smile when the cabdriver pronounced the street name “Linc-o-lin” (his pronunciation was actually quite understandable because, in Hebrew, the second to last letter is a “lamed”).
Humorous Hebrew pronunciation aside, what did Lincoln do for the Jewish people to merit having a street named after him?
Arguably America’s greatest and most morally virtuous president, Abraham Lincoln is most famous for abolishing slavery and granting legal equality to black Americans. Lesser known is the fact that Lincoln championed and defended the rights of Jewish Americans during a time period when it was difficult and unfashionable to do so. To Lincoln, eradicating persecution against blacks and Jews was synonymous, as one of his core principles, as articulated in many of his speeches but immortalized in his monumental Gettysburg Address, was that “all men are created equal.”
Abraham Lincoln grew up in a religious household and his parents were members of the Calvinist Baptist Church, which – unlike most other churches during that time period – strongly opposed missionizing Jews. The anti-proselytizing environment of his youth left an indelible mark on Lincoln, helping foster his deep love of humanity and empowering him to include Jews in his diverse social network. Indeed, Lincoln’s valued friend, philosophical brother and trusted confidant was a proud Jew named Abraham Jonas, which probably helped sensitize him to the repugnance of ethnic and religious prejudice.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln commissioned Jews to a broad variety of military and civilian leadership roles. For example, he appointed the army’s first Jewish military chaplains to serve the thousands of Jews fighting for the Union. However, his most famous public action was reversing a wartime order by the Union’s most successful General, Ulysses S. Grant, expelling Jews from areas under his control. The day after the order was revoked, a delegation of Jewish leaders traveled to Washington D.C. to thank the President. According to Isaac Mayer Wise, editor of The American Israelite newspaper, Lincoln assured his visitors that he knew “of no distinction between Jews and Gentile.” Rebuking Grant, whose mistrust of the Jews unfortunately reflected the general feelings of society towards the immigrant population which had ballooned from 3,000 in the early 1800s to more than 150,000 by 1865, Lincoln didn’t mince words in stating that “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
Abraham Lincoln mentioned to his wife on the afternoon before he was tragically assassinated that, after completion of his second term in office, they should travel to Europe and Palestine, and ironically expressed a desire to see Jerusalem before he died. Perhaps naming a street in Jerusalem fulfills Abraham Lincoln’s unrealized wish. Or perhaps it merely reflects American Jewry’s tremendous gratitude to Lincoln who, as Jonathan Sarna in Lincoln and the Jews eloquently wrote, “promoted the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life and helped to transform Jews from outsiders in America to insiders.”
[Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell’s groundbreaking historical book, Lincoln and the Jews, was the primary resource for this article.]
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at email@example.com.