Did Abraham Lincoln Tell American Rabbis That He Was of Jewish Ancestry? And If So, Why?

Feb. 14 2019

In 1863, Isaac Mayer Wise—American’s foremost rabbi at the time—led a delegation of Jewish leaders to the White House where they met with President Lincoln. According to Wise’s account, the president stated that “he believed himself to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh” and “supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage.” Wise further claimed that Lincoln “preserved numerous features of the Hebrew race, both in countenance and character.” Stuart Schoffman writes:

[T]he learned consensus stands [that] Lincoln spoke to Wise metaphorically, and the Jewish roots are merely a tantalizing rumor, like Ulysses S. Grant keeping kosher. . . . And yet, if Isaac Mayer Wise, grand panjandrum of American Reform Judaism and founder of Hebrew Union College, said Lincoln looked Jewish, and took seriously his claim of Hebrew ancestry, why on earth haven’t dogged scholars picked up the bone of our bone and run with it? . . .

In this case, there may indeed be more to it. Educated speculation has it that Lincoln was of Melungeon stock, an ethnic mélange possibly derived in part from Muslims and Sephardi Jews who landed with Spanish explorers in the American southeast in the 16th century and migrated to Appalachia. According to Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman, a professor of marketing at Rutgers University and the author of the 2005 monograph Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America, not only Lincoln but also Daniel Boone was of Judeo-Melungeon lineage. “Anyone who looks at photographs of Abraham Lincoln,” she wrote, “is no doubt struck by his distinctively Semitic features.”

Raised as a Protestant in Tennessee, Hirschman converted to Judaism after discovering her own Melungeon roots. Her intriguing book, alas, makes no mention of Lincoln’s remark to Isaac Mayer Wise in 1863.

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More about: Abraham Lincoln, American Jewish History, History & Ideas, Sephardim

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat