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Donít Fool Yourself: America IS Truly Exceptional for Jews

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On a warm Friday morning in 1876, Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, arrived in front of the newly built, Washington D.C. based, Adas Israel synagogue for its three hour long dedication ceremony - officially marking the first time that a sitting president attended any type of synagogue service.
Now Grant, the Union Civil War general turned president, had a very unique relationship with the American Jewish community. No, it wasn’t that Grant had appointed more Jews to political office than any other previous US President. And, no, it wasn’t that Grant earned the vast majority of the Jewish vote during his presidential runs. It wasn’t even that Grant spent much of his presidential career railing against the proliferating Jew hatred in Europe and ensuring that human rights, especially as they applied towards Jews, was placed front and center on the American foreign policy agenda.
 
So what, you may ask, defined this relationship between Grant and the Jews?
 
Roughly 14 years before that famous day at Congregation Adas Israel, during the heat of the Civil War, then General Grant committed what many historians believe to be the most anti-Semitic incident in United States history.
 
In December of 1862 the Union ran a widespread campaign against a black market that was capitalizing on illegal southern cotton. As the ranking official on the ground during the war, Grant decided that he needed to clear areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky of anyone potentially linked to the black cotton market. Drawing on a mixture of classical anti-Semitic tropes, mixed with a touch of statistical reality, Grant decided that Jews as a class of people were responsible and subsequently he expelled all Jews from these areas under the infamous General Order No. 11.
 
So why am I using an anti-Semitic incident within an article about the greatness and exceptionality of the American Jewish condition?
 
Because this episode, along with the amends that Grant made throughout the rest of his life, highlight just how much better Jews have fared in America compared to virtually everywhere else. A couple of days after Grant’s order President Lincoln immediately revoked it, haranguing Grant along the way. Later in his life Grant would offer many public apologies and undertake a multiplicity of actions to ensure his solidarity with the Jewish community. This was how the most anti-Semitic event in American political history ended.
 
It isn’t even necessary to point to the most anti-Semitic occurrences in other countries throughout the globe as a point of comparison. The differences are so striking that it is incomprehensible. And I am not just talking about the most anti-Semitic events per country but the rates of anti-Semitism propagated by citizens, the rights that Jews have enjoyed or lacked in various countries, and the general feeling of ease and safety amongst the local Jewish population.
 
When people create false equivalencies to, and hyperbolize about, the “dangers” of being a Jew in modern day America, they are doing a disservice to Jewish history and the Jewish community. They are failing to recognize the greatness and uniqueness of this country, especially vis-a-vis Jews. Furthermore, they lose sight of where anti-Semitism is having its most lethal and widespread consequences. The proliferation and return of European Jew hatred, the holocaust denial rampant throughout the Middle East, and the insane lies and views about Jews straight out of the anti-Semitic masterpiece, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book included in the core educational curriculum of a handful of Muslim countries, and widely disseminated internationally .
 
Yes, there is anti-Semitism in America, and the rate of occurrences is rising as the alt-right are clearly gaining traction. Yes, the government could be doing a bit more to squash it and the current administration should be held (partially) accountable for the increased anti-Jew rhetoric, if only for not speaking out more forcefully against it. And yes, a gunman just killed 11 Jews in the bloodiest anti-Semitic attack carried out on American soil - but we need to keep some measure of perspective.
 
This is not Russia in the early 1900’s, Germany in the 1930’s, Iraq in the 1940’s and it is not Iran in the late 1970’s, etc., etc., etc. It isn’t even any of these places in 2018. It is a slight downward blip within a larger history and trajectory that has made America the safest country both currently and in history for Jews to reside as a minority.
 
    Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
 
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
 

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