During recent debates about what to do in regard to Confederate monuments, there were calls to remove those venerating General Ulysses S. Grant. For Jewish activists, the rationale to support such a move was Grant’s infamous General Order No. 11, which proposed evicting Jewish traders from the “Department of Tennessee” — a swath of land that covered parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee — an overt act of anti-Semitism which President Abraham Lincoln almost immediately revoked.
But for the rest of his life, Grant tried to make amends for what he considered a shameful act; he appointed more Jews to public office than any previous U.S. president, condemned the persecution of Jews overseas, and opposed a constitutional amendment designating Jesus “as ruler of the nations.” As Jonathan Sarna noted in his book “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” Grant’s death in 1885 was mourned in synagogues nationwide.
Recent calls for the removal of monuments honoring Grant reflect the frenzy of the moment without taking into account the full measure of the man; they lack perspective.
Locally, what has turned out to be the last year of the long tenure of U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11) was arguably unsuccessful, arousing credible political opposition that hastened the recent announcement of his resignation. The anger against him in many circles was palpable and heated.
While I understand what actions generated so much opposition to Frelinghuysen — his failure to appear at town hall meetings is one example — I was taken aback by NJJN editor Gabe Kahn’s Garden State of Mind column “Rep. Frelinghuysen: A stranger among us” (Feb. 1).
Frelinghuysen was not a stranger to the Jewish community.
As former CEO for close to 20 years of what is now known as the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, I knew all too well that the congressman could be counted on for support of U.S. military and political aid to Israel, sometimes beyond what a presidential administration requested.
Domestically, he was a key player in providing millions of dollars’ worth of security grants in the aftermath of 9/11, a significant proportion of them allocated to Jewish organizations. He was also a champion of seniors, supporting the federation’s program that provided social services in communities where seniors live, allowing them to stay in their homes longer and avoid premature admission to nursing facilities.
Frelinghuysen consistently came to Super Sunday, the federation’s annual major fund-raising event, making phone calls to solicit contributions to the UJA.
We asked for his help in support of an IRS regulation that potentially would have saved millions of dollars in pension costs. Although the efforts were not successful, Frelinghuysen responded strongly when we reached out to him, making many calls on our behalf and arranging meetings with IRS officials.
He also had the best interests of the state in mind. For example, as chair of the House Budget Committee, he engineered a $900 million grant for the Gateway Tunnel, so desperately needed for our economic future. I worry whether his successor will have the political clout to continue to leverage federal funding for this essential project, which has bipartisan support.
Frelinghuysen has served in Congress for nearly 24 years and should be judged on his entire tenure, rather than his final chapter alone.
This is not a partisan call for support for one candidate or another, but a plea to keep things in perspective when judging any politician’s career.
If Grant were judged only by his infamous anti-Semitic measure, the verdict on him would callously disregard his acts of “teshuvah” in its aftermath. This is how we must judge Frelinghuysen — not as a stranger to the Jewish community, but as a strong advocate. His two dozen years in office should be the barometer for assessing his service, not his last, albeit difficult, year.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.