The Supreme Court once again is poised to define the role of government in United States society, and Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, who served on the court from 1918 to 1938, would have recognized the terms of the debate. Brandeis helped shape many of the issues that occupy the 21st-century court, from theories of privacy to questions of the government’s relationship to private corporations.
He also helped shape the relationship of American Jews to Zionism.
During the 1910s and 1920s, Brandeis introduced an ideology focusing on the cohesion between American values and Zionist aspirations. He de-emphasized anti-Semitism and the need for aliyah in favor of the social idealism and progressive values he saw at the heart of the Zionist movement.
By focusing on values such as national self-determination and democracy, Brandeis framed Zionism as a quintessentially American movement. During the critical days of World War I, Brandeis served as chair of the Zionist executive council. He reorganized its finances and expanded its fundraising, and his stature lent legitimacy to the movement around the world.
There is an untold story of the Zionism of Brandeis, however. His earliest statements reflect the social ideals of the American Progressive movement. He envisioned the creation of a small state with publicly owned land and “employer-employee democracy.” But what began as an expression of Jewish commitment rooted in social idealism eventually became a fervent political commitment to Jewish nationalism.
In fact, three distinct stages in the evolution of the Brandeis American Zionist ideology can be traced. His first statements in 1905 decried any sort of “hyphenated Americans.” His second phase, which encompassed the majority of his career, found its clearest expression in the intensely progressive Pittsburgh Program of 1918. And his third phase, beginning in the mid-1930s, focused on combating growing anti-Semitism and getting the necessary arms and settlers to Palestine.
Stage 1: Awakenings
Before 1910, Brandeis showed very little interest in Jewish affairs. He grew up in Louisville, Ky., in a home that celebrated Christmas. Even after he achieved enormous financial success in the 1880s, Brandeis gave very little to Jewish charities, and he rarely expressed feelings of communal attachment to the Jewish people. He was rejected for membership by the American Jewish Committee in 1907 because “he has not identified himself with Jewish affairs.” His wife, Alice, belonged to a Unitarian church.
Brandeis first spoke publicly about Jewish affairs in 1905. Invited to address a Boston-area celebration of the 250th anniversary of the first Jewish settlement in America, Brandeis warned against “hyphenated Americans” and argued that “habits of living, of thought which tend to keep alive differences of origin or to classify men according to their religious beliefs are inconsistent with the American idea of brotherhood and are disloyal.” These sentiments echo the charge of dual loyalty that hindered the development of Zionism in America in the early 20th century. Many Jews in the United States saw supporting a Jewish state as inconsistent with their loyalty to this country. This view persisted in many quarters until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. In expressing his concern about dual loyalty, Brandeis fell well within the mainstream of United States Jewry.
Stage 2: Hebraism and Zionism
Between 1905 and 1910, however, something changed. In a 1910 interview in the American Hebrew, a New York weekly, Brandeis noted his “great deal of sympathy with the Zionists. The movement is an exceedingly deserving one. These so-called dreamers are entitled to the respect of the entire Jewish people.”
This positive feeling strengthened further in 1912 and 1913. In 1912, Brandeis spent several hours with Jacob De Haas, who had come to visit him at the request of presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson. De Haas was a former secretary of the Zioist leader Theodor Herzl and was then editing the weekly newspaper The Boston Jewish Advocate. De Haas, who also was active in the American Progressive movement, had an enormous effect on Brandeis. It was from De Haas that Brandeis first heard of the Zionist work of Brandeis’s own uncle, Lewis Dembitz. (Brandeis later would change his middle name from David to Dembitz in his uncle’s honor.)
Brandeis was also influenced in this period by the social philosopher Horace Kallen, who coined the term “cultural pluralism.” Raised in an Orthodox home, Kallen rejected traditional Judaism in favor of what he called “Hebraism,” which he defined as the Jewish approach to the world rooted in morality, democracy, and social justice. Hebraism needed a homeland that would exemplify its application to the real challenges of human life, and Kallen saw Palestine as that home. Only in a “functioning sovereign state” could the Jewish people achieve their purpose of serving as a model for and teacher of democracy and morality to the world.
In 1913, Kallen wrote a letter to Brandeis in which he outlined his Zionist philosophy.
“In Palestine,” he said, “we aim at a new state and a happier social order. But a state which from its very beginnings repeats the foreseeable and avoidable waste and misery throughout all the industrial forms and the injustice throughout human relations, is hardly worth aiming at.”
Moved by this vision, Brandeis replied that he had “great sympathy with your point of view.”
This was the case to such an extent that one of his biographers, Sarah Schmidt, said that Brandeis’s speeches often read like a restatement of Kallen’s writings. Brandeis also valued Kallen’s grasp of the social sciences, and during his leadership of the American Zionist movement between 1914 and 1921, Brandeis linked Progressive-era American social and political goals with his justification and vision for a Jewish state in Palestine.
Stage 3: Takhlis
In 1921 Brandeis lost a political battle with Chaim Weizmann, who saw Brandeis as an outsider and insufficiently committed to the Zionist dream of gathering the entire Jewish people in Palestine. This marked the end of Brandeis’s formal role in American Zionism, although he remained an informal adviser to many of the movement’s leaders and served as a liaison to government officials. In the 1930s, however, his approach to and justification for creating a Jewish state began to shift.
Whereas anti-Semitism rarely had been a part of Brandeis’s Zionist ideology in its formative years, it became much more prominent in that decade. He began to echo the arguments made by Herzl and other early Zionist leaders that only in Palestine could the Jewish people live in safety and freedom. Part of this shift was due to the rise of Nazism in Germany, as well as to growing displays of popular anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe. Other factors contributed to Brandeis’s concern, however. In 1939, Great Britain issued its White Paper on Palestine, which formalized several years of increasing restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. At the same time in the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declined to raise Jewish immigration quotas.
The early optimism of Brandeis’s Zionist vision faded. His emphasis on universal values shifted to a focus on self-protection. He devoted significant philanthropic efforts to arms purchases so that Jewish settlers in Palestine could defend themselves against Arab attacks.
Letters exchanged between Brandeis and Israel’s first prime minister and a founding father of the Jewsh state, David Ben-Gurion, convey his implicit support for the massive illegal immigration coordinated by the Revisionist Zionist Irgun. Here and elsewhere, Brandeis was notably at odds with the vast majority of American Zionists, including Brandeis’s close friend and ally, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. For Brandeis, the critical imperatives were arms and people. Jewish survival demanded this pragmatic and nationalist focus. As he wrote his cousins, who moved with their families to Palestine in 1935: “Our righteous cause must prevail.”