Commemorating the 150th anniversary of a battle against anti-semitism...
President Obama's Jewish American Heritage Month reception on Wednesday evening at the White House was larger than last year's event, thanks to its timing five months from election day. About 400 guests attended, the White House said, which is about 100 more than for the 2011 party. Invitees included rabbis, community leaders, Members of Congress, Israel Ambassador Michael Oren, and notables from the arts, business, and cultural communities. (Above: The President during his remarks)
The event in the East Room was well under way, with the wine flowing and the crowd enjoying themselves against a backdrop of Klezmer tunes from the Marine Corps band when the President first arrived shortly after 5:00 PM to cheers and applause. He commemorated a Civil War-era triumph over anti-semitism, as he noted that Jewish Americans have always had to fight for their piece of the American dream, the same as other minority groups.
"Here at home, we have to rebuild an America where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody is doing their fair share, and everybody is playing by the same rules," President Obama said.
It was exactly 150 years ago, the President told the crowd, that General Ulysses S. Grant had signed an order that would have expelled Jews "as a class" from what was then known as the military department of the Tennessee.
"It was wrong," President Obama said. "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 President Abraham Lincoln, one of Mr. Obama's heroes, stepped in and saved the day.
"What happened next could have only taken place in America," President Obama said. "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 Grant eventually recognized that he had made a "serious mistake," the President said.
"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."
The President directed the crowd's attention to a table where papers from the Library of Congress documenting the events were on display for the reception. These included Grant's order, letters of protest, Lincoln's revocation of the order, and even a receipt for Grant's contribution to the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC, when he attended a service there in 1876.
"Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream," President Obama said. "But this country holds a special promise: that if we stand up for the traditions we believe in and in the values we share, then our wrongs can be made right; our union can be made more perfect and our world can be repaired."
On Israel, President Obama made no news, but stuck to his long-time stance:
"We have to stand alongside our friends who share our commitment to freedom and democracy and universal rights; and that includes, of course, our unwavering commitment to the State of Israel and its security and the pursuit of a just and lasting peace."
Guests were clad in business attire and included many Democratic Representatives: Howard Berman, Sandy Levin, Henry Waxman, Jan Schakowsky, Nita Lowey, Steve Cohen, Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, Eliot Engel, Shelley Berkley, David Cicilline, Susan Davis, Jarrod Polis, Allyson Schwartz, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee. Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Democratic pollster Mark Mellman were also spotted in the crowd.
The University of Maryland a cappella group Rak Shalom performed for the guests before the President's remarks.
The full transcript of the President's remarks.
From the White House, the background on the display of historic documents:
General Order Number 11 - Documents from the Library of Congress
150 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. On display during the reception are four documents from that time that demonstrate how the American Jewish community stood up against that order and fought for their piece of the American Dream and how General Grant came to recognize his mistake.
Background courtesy of the Library of Congress:
Board of Delegates of American Israelites
"Resolutions" to Abraham Lincoln
The outrage of American Jewry against General U.S. Grant's Order No. 11, which expels the "Jews as a class" from territories of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee under the Thirteenth Army Corps, is conveyed to President Abraham Lincoln by this set of calligraphically inscribed resolutions, adopted January 8, 1863.
St. Louis Bné B'rith to Abraham Lincoln
Manuscript letter, January 5, 1863
The first Jewish organization to formally protest against Order No. 11 "expelling and ostracizing all Jews, as a class . . . issued by Maj. Genl. U.S. Grant" was the United Order "Bné B'rith" Missouri Lodge. It protests "in the name of hundreds who have been driven from their homes, deprived of their liberty, and injured in their property without having violated any law or regulation. . . . In the name of religious liberty and humanity [we ask you] to annul that Order and protect the liberties even of your humblest constituents."
Note rescinding Order No. 11
On the envelope in which the Bné B'rith protest came, Lincoln wrote, "I have today, Jan. 5, 1863, written Gen. Curtis about this. A.L." The order was forthwith rescinded.
Receipt for President Ulysses Grant's contribution to Washington Synagogue Adas Israel
Receipt, July 10, 1876
Adas Israel was the first synagogue built in the District of Columbia and is closely linked with the beginnings of Jewish life in Washington. President Ulysses S. Grant and other federal and civic officials attended the dedication ceremony on June 9, 1876. Displayed is an official receipt from the Adas Israel "Hebrew" Congregation to the president acknowledging his ten-dollar contribution.
Collection of Maxwell House Haggadahs
The Maxwell House Haggadah has been part of Passover in America for 80 years, including at the Seder President Obama has hosted at the White House each year since taking office. For today's reception, the company has provided an original collection of the Haggadahs from the 1930's through 2012 along with a brief history of their development.
*Pool photo, White House video