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Zionism: Louis D. Brandeis Versus American Reform Judaism

Zionism: Louis D. Brandeis Versus American Reform Judaism

January 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Louis D. Brandeis’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first Jew to serve on the court and one of the most respected and revered justices in our history, his opinions on free speech, due process, and fundamental liberty are still widely quoted and cited. His representation of poor people, exploited workers, and the public interest helped make America a more humane and just nation, while forcing banks, railroads, and other large business to be more fair to the public. In 1916, he was known throughout the nation as “The People’s Lawyer.”

In the same year, he was also the leader of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the most prominent spokesman in America’s Zionist movement. Indeed, with The Great War raging in Europe and millions of Jews at risk on the Eastern Front, Brandeis took over a moribund and bankrupt American Zionist movement, turned around its finances, raised its membership, and attempted to bring it into the mainstream of middle- and upper-class Jewish America – the Reform Movement.

Brandeis’ connections to Reform Judaism are tantalizing. His parents and other relatives were refugees from Prague, following the failed liberal revolutions of 1848. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1856, he, like many Reform Jews of the time, was raised in a German-speaking home. His parents were ethnically Jewish, but attended no synagogue. His uncle, Lewis Naphtali Dembitz, however, was a practicing Jew who read Hebrew, served on the executive board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), and was a member of the commission that developed the curriculum for Hebrew Union College.

His Uncle Lewis was also an opponent of slavery, and even while living in the slave state of Kentucky, was an antislavery delegate to the Republican convention that nominated Lincoln in 1860. As a young man the future Justice Brandeis changed his middle name from David to Dembitz in honor of his uncle, and studied law to follow his uncle’s professional footsteps.

However, he did not follow his uncle’s footsteps into a synagogue. Brandeis was never a practicing Jew. Nevertheless, he did become a leader of the American Jewish community and of American Zionism. This endeavor led him to a 1915 regional convention of Reform rabbis and to a very odd outcome.

Brandeis addressed the rabbis in his capacity as the head of the ZOA, urging the Reform Movement to embrace Zionism as the best way to preserve Jewish identity. He did not suggest that American Jews move to Palestine – then under Ottoman control. Brandeis believed America was a wonderful place for Jews, and he rejected notions of dual loyalties or even being a “hyphenated American.”  But he did see a Jewish Palestine as a necessary homeland for millions of Russian and Polish Jews who needed to escape the oppression of Eastern Europe. Although he was indifferent to religious ritual and prayer, he was deeply committed to Jewish values of charity, scholarship, hard work, and tikkun olam (repair of the world).

On January 25, 1915, Brandeis addressed the Eastern Council of Reform Rabbis about “The Jewish Problem [and] How To Solve It.” It was instantly recognized as his quintessential statement on how Zionism and Jewish citizenship in America could be reconciled. According to the classical wing of the Reform Movement, Jewish nationalism undermined Jewish claims to citizenship throughout the Diaspora, including in the United States. To the contrary, Brandeis argued, “loyalty demands that each American Jew become a Zionist.”

Moreover, the future Supreme Court Justice maintained,

there is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry. The Jewish spirit, the product of our religion and experiences, is essentially modern and essentially American. Not since the destruction of the Temple have the Jews in spirit and in ideals been so fully in harmony with the noblest aspirations of the country in which they lived.

Although Brandeis’ arguments carried the day for hundreds of thousands of American Jews, the Reform Movement remained a “hung jury” on the issue of Zionism until after Israeli statehood in 1948. Brandeis’ secular arguments failed to counter Reform Judaism’s deep belief in the redemptive purpose of the Diaspora (“Mission of Israel”). Furthermore, Brandeis’ Zionism aggravated the political insecurities of many Reform Jews. Classical Reform Judaism argued that the failure of the two ancient Jewish states liberated Judaism from the burdens of statehood and gave Jews the opportunity to pursue their true spiritual  mission as a people: to bring ethical monotheism to humanity.

The experience of two world wars and the Holocaust ultimately compelled the majority of Reform Jews to accept Brandeis’ message. Anti-Semitism, he correctly prophesied in 1915, could not be overcome by political liberalism alone and Jews living in their own homeland would enjoy a cultural renaissance of benefit to all of humanity. Brandeis urged his rabbinic audience to “Organize, Organize, Organize, until every Jew in America” stood up to “be counted” as a card-carrying Zionist. The prestige of his appointment to the Supreme Court and the persistence and power of his message in the end convinced all but the most stiff-necked Reform Jews to join in the rebuilding of a Jewish homeland and, thereby, the rebuilding of the spirit of the Jewish people.

Photo courtesy of the American Jewish Archives

Paul Finkelman, Ph.D. is the Ariel F. Sallows Visiting Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law and a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA. He has written numerous books and articles in the field of American Jewish history and has taught at Princeton University, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College (CUNY). Currently, Rabbi Sussman and Dr. Finkelman are co-writing A History of Jews and Law in America.

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