WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Obama celebrated the values of communities petitioning government at a White House reception honoring Jewish American Heritage Month.
"We don’t just celebrate all that American Jews have done for our country; we also look toward the future," he said. "And as we do, I know that those of you in this room, but folks all across this country will continue to help perfect our union, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful."
Obama focused a large portion of his remarks on the 150th anniversary of an order that was issued by Gen. Ulysses Grant expelling Jews “as a class” from the military department of 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,” Obama said.
He went on to note that American Jews protested the order. "What happened next could have only taken place in America," the president said. "Groups of American Jews protested General Grant’s decision."
Obama described how a Jewish merchant from Kentucky met with President Abraham Lincoln and, following the meeting, the order was revoked.
"Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream," 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."
The order by Lincoln to revoke Grant’s order was on display during the reception, as were letters from two Jewish groups asking for the revocation.
Years later as president, Grant said that he recognized his mistake and apologized for the order. Also on display was a receipt for his contribution to the Adas Israel congregation, which still exists, after attending an 1876 service.
Before he delivered his little history lesson, Obama’s staff consulted with Brandeis University’s Jonathan Sarna, who is an expert on American Jewish history and a JTA board member.
Obama opened his remarks by thanking Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren for “his work representing our great friend, the State of Israel” before emphasizing the significance of the U.S. commitment to Israel.
“Beyond our borders, 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,” the president said.
A number of Jewish members of Congress were present at the reception, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Also, Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Shelley Berkley (D-N.V.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Sander Levin (D-Mich.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).