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Letter of Rabbi Fischel to Henry A. Hart

Washington Jan. 2, 1862 

My dear Sir,

I rec'd yesterday yr letter of the 30th ult. in which you do not acknowledge receipt of my letter dated Dec. 27 containing interesting information in reference to the progress of affairs. In case the letter had not reached you, let me know. The postal arrangements to & from this place are so irregular that it is not unusual for a letter to be detained one or two days. Have you rec'd the journal I sent you a fortnight ago?

I have read with considerable attention Mr. B.W. Hart's letter, but must confess that I cannot understand what correction he suggests. My letter to the Military Committee was submitted to gentlemen of experience and intelligence, with whom I had discussed the matter, every word was well weighed, and all agree that the ground I took was the only tenable one. "But", remarks Mr. B.W. Hart, "Dr. Fischel has taken ground which we always carefully shun, in calling our political and religious privileges a boon." In this he is altogether mistaken. If you will refer to the letter as published in the Messenger you will perceive that I invariably spoke of our religious and civil equality as a right and not as a favor, for instance in the 9th line "viewing the same as a violation of the principle of religious equality guaranteed to all American citizens by the Constitution." Again 27th line "equal political rights", and one line before the last "in involves the constitutional rights of a larger etc.". I had advisedly repeated this expression at the commencement middle and conclusion of my letter, and in my conversation with the President (as reported in my first letter) I endeavored to convey the same impression. Mr. B.W. Hart perhaps alludes to the word "boon" used in one part of my letter, which, however, does not refer to our political equality, (for in the two lines preceding it I distinctly speak of our political rights,) but to the fact that at a time when we were persecuted throughout the globe, the framers of the Constitution guaranteed to us our political rights by the abolition of all religious tests. This guarantee was a boon, and I think we do not degrade ourselves, but rather prove ourselves worthy of public sympathy, by acknowledging the services the American patriots have rendered the Jewish people. I do not clearly understand whether Mr. B.W. Hart approves or disapproves of my proposed amendment of the act, for though he says at the conclusion of his letter that it would be "a practical defeat", yet at the opening of the same letter he says that "this will enough calculated to answer the ends Dr. F. proposes viz. the protection of our rights inviolate". If my memory does not deceive me, I believe that this very amendment (viz. the omission of the words "of a Christian denomination") was inserted by Mr. Hart in the petition to Congress; of this I am sure that it was generally understood by all of us at our last Meeting, that this was to be the proposed amendment. I have, moreover, paid considerable attention to the Subject and and consulted gentlemen of intelligence and experience, all of whom have come to the conclusion that we cannot ask for anything else. Suppose we were to ask for "a Jewish Chaplain for a Jewish regiment", we should be worse off than by the omission of the word "Christian", for if we have the latter granted, a majority of Jews will suffice to elect a Rabbi; or should we ask for a Rabbi to be attached to each Military Department? This has grave objections, first because this would be sanctioning special legislation for the Jews the first step towards political exclusion; secondly, in any act of Congress authorizing such an appointment the condition would be attached to it that there must be a certain number of Jewish soldiers, as Govt. is not going to appoint a Jewish chaplain for one or two soldiers. In this case, then, Govt. would assume inquisitorial powers over Jewish soldiers by prying into their religion, whilst Christian soldiers would be permitted to settle the appointment of their chaplains without any Govt. interference. In fact Jews, on enlisting, would have to state their religion. By accepting, however, my proposed amendment all these disadvantages are obviated, we are equal in the eye of the law and that is all we contend for. Why would it be "a practical defeat"? There are at present I believe four regiments in which the majority of staff and field officers are Jews, and if these have the appointment of the chaplains (as the act of Congress provides) then they can appoint a Jewish minister if after my amendment shall have been carried. But granted, that they have not a majority, is this any reason for requiring a special law for Jews? We might as well ask for special laws to provide for Jewish presidents, senators and judges, because the Jewish vote cannot control the election. Mr. B.W. Hart does not suggest what amendment he would have proposed unless what he says about a "chaplain at large" and will know what that means, but I must say that chaplains at large are beings that have not yet come under my notice and I cannot express an opinion, therefore, as to the aid they might be to the Jewish soldiers. He seems to think that Mr. Lincoln supports the introduction of such a person, but in this he is also mistaken. The President has simply submitted to the Military Committee the objections to the present law for chaplains, and has left it to them to frame a law to remove without those objections. Should Mr. B.W. Hart have some other amendment to support let him communicate it to me at once, as it may alter my views and I might then hand it in to the Committee as a substitute. Let it be done at once, if done at all.

I want for the Jewish soldiers the smallest size Prayer books and Psalm books. Mr. Ellinger in Broadway sells I believe a 32.00 carton. Unless they are extremely small they cannot be used as the baggage of a soldier is limited to the smallest compass. Send me fifty at once, the smaller the better. Mr. Joseph Seligman told me that the Temple will collect a large sum. Mr. Cohen says that a collection was made at the Stanton St. Synagogue. Mr. William Horn (from New York) staying at present in the National Hotel Washington is anxious to contribute. Send him a circular. You will collect a large amount. If the American Jews were ready to contribute ten thousand dollars for the Morocco Jews, they will surely not refuse one thousand for the Jews at home defending their country and liberties.

When you see Rev. S.M. Isaacs please tell him that I intended to write him on Sunday last, but on Saturday evening I had a slight attack of Cholera which confined me to my room the whole week. Friday or Saturday I hope to go out again. Let him say nothing in his paper about it, as it may alarm my relatives abroad. I have one thing more to say before I conclude, and that is, that I am ready to receive further remittances from you as my travelling and sickness have made a deep hole in my pocket. Treasury notes will do, if you cannot send gold.

Wishing you a happy New Year, I remain, Yrs truly,

A. Fischel

Henry I. Hart, Esq.

Original letter courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society

Fischell Letters