Jewish justices — and more
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Jewish justices — and more

Historian brings his perspective of Supreme Court and White House to Fort Lee series

Dr. David Dalin
Dr. David Dalin

If Dr. David Dalin did not exactly go into the family business — his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and brother all were congregational rabbis — he at least took a step in that direction. More than 25 years ago, he was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary.

He did not, however, take up a pulpit. Rather, guided by his lifelong fascination with “the history of Jews in politics and public life,” Rabbi Dr. Dalin — who received a doctorate from Brandeis University in history and now is the senior research fellow at the Bernard G. and Rhoda G. Sarnat Center at that university — has written, co-written, or edited some 12 books, primarily on American Jewish history and politics.

Dr. Dalin, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., describes himself as “a full-time author, and rabbi without portfolio.” His wife, Miriam Dalin, teaches American Jewish history at Florida Atlantic University. Dr. Dalin, who grew up in San Francisco, noted that his father was a chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, “one of two chaplains who served at DP camps.”

In 1997 — together with Professor Jonathan D. Sarna, whom Dr. Dalin describes as one of his oldest and closest friends — Dr. Dalin produced “Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience,” published by the University of Notre Dame Press and named by Choice Magazine as an Outstanding Academic Book of 1998. His most recent book, “Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court, from Brandeis to Kagan,” published by Brandeis University Press, was selected as a finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award.

Dr. Dalin will speak about that book, and several of his other works, at the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee on June 8– 9, as scholar-in-residence there (see box).

With a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Brandeis — together with a second M.A. as well as rabbinic ordination from JTS — Dr. Dalin has no shortage of material to draw from. His focus, however, will be on his first love, American Jewish politics.

“I wrote a major article 20 years ago about Jewish presidential appointees, and that got me interested in Jews and the Supreme Court,” Dr. Dalin, who calls himself “basically, a historian of Jewish political thought,” said. He was surprised to learn that although there were books on Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and Benjamin Cardozo, there were no other works about Jewish justices; he set out to fix that.

Dr. Dalin said that as a group, Jewish Supreme Court justices tend to differ from other justices in terms of both their politics and their Jewishness. “All of those appointed have been liberal Democrats,” he said, and except for Benjamin Cardozo — who was appointed by the Republican Herbert Hoover — all were appointed by Democratic presidents.

Today, he said, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is considered the most liberal member of the Supreme Court. She is now the longest serving Jewish justice, beating Frankfurter’s 23-year record. She and Justice Stephen Breyer, who also is Jewish, both were appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Interestingly, Dr. Dalin said, while Justice Ginsburg is in her mid-80s and Justice Elena Kagan, also Jewish, is 28 years younger, they both have the same personal trainer. (Justice Ginsburg works out two or three times a week.) He also noted that Ginsburg’s closest friend on the court was the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, whom she met during the 1970s at a law conference at Columbia and with whom she shared a love of opera. “They took family vacations together, to the surprise of their supporters and critics,” Dr. Dalin said. “There is a great photo of them in India, Ruth on one elephant and Scalia on another, shaking hands.”

With President Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court appointments including 21 conservative Republicans, “it’s very difficult” for Ginsburg to retire, Dr. Galin said. “She has become an icon.”

Dr. Dalin said that Louis Brandeis, despite being the acknowledged leader of the American Zionist Movement, “had the least Jewish background of any justice.” Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, his parents and his children all celebrated Christmas, “and his favorite dish was ham.” Justice Cardozo, on the other hand, came from a traditional Sephardic family. This proved awkward when Brandeis invited him for a Sunday dinner — the main course was ham. Cardozo did not go to synagogue often, Dr. Dalen said, “but when he did, it was Orthodox.”

Felix Frankfurter, born in Vienna and raised as an Orthodox Jew, left Judaism as a teenager, later marrying the daughter of a Protestant minister. Nevertheless, he too was a leader of the Zionist movement. “He wanted to become a Boston Brahmin, and he accomplished that,” Dr. Dalin said. And yet, he added, in his will, Frankfurter asked one of his law clerks, an observant Jew whom he admired, to say kaddish for him.

Justice Arthur Goldberg “had more of a Jewish and Zionist background,” Dr. Dalin said. “He and his wife, both Yiddishists, were close friends with Golda Meyerson — later Meir — before she made aliyah. “An active and informed Reform Jew, Goldberg was the first Jewish justice to have a seder,” inviting both Jewish and non-Jewish notables.

“His invitation list was the talk of Washington,” Dr. Dalin said. “The labor leader George Meany added Irish folk songs” to the traditional seder songs of the seder. And then there’s this — “On his Supreme Court letterhead, he sent a caterer the Goldberg family recipe for charoset.”

An anecdote: Goldberg, who was visiting his mother, overslept. The phone rang and his mother answered. “Who’s this?” she said. “This is the president,” John F. Kennedy answered. “The president of what synagogue?” his mother replied.

In 2000, Dr. Dalin tackled a different political subject, with “The Presidents of the United States and the Jews.” He will talk about that in Fort Lee. “That came about when a friend of my father’s heard that I gave a lecture on the subject and asked me to collaborate on a book. It goes through the Clinton administration.”

Asked whether any American presidents were overtly racist, Dr. Dalin said that ironically, while “stereotypical comments about Jews” can be found on the Nixon tapes, “he appointed more Jews to high office than any president before him. And when push came to shove during the Yom Kippur war, he came to Israel’s help.”

Harry Truman, however, who is remembered for his help in securing recognition for the state of Israel, was no friend of the Jews. “His wife, Bess, wouldn’t allow Jews in the house, including his business partner Eddie Jacobson,” Dr. Dalin said. As for Franklin Roosevelt’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz or to accept the passengers from the SS St. Louis, if this was not a reflection of his racism, it certainly reflects his indifference.

“He took the Jewish community’s vote for granted,” Dr. Dalin said. He did not care about what was happening to the Jews in Europe. “He was oblivious.” In fact, “Most people said that if FDR had still been president, there would have been no recognition of the Jewish state.”

Dr. Dalin will also speak about another of his books, “Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam,” published by Random House.

“I have taught courses on the Holocaust and I was amazed to discover that in most books on the Shoah, he only gets a paragraph — two at the most,” Dr. Dalin said. The mufti, a great admirer of Adolf Hitler, ultimately became a close member of the dictator’s inner circle, working with Goebbels and charged with mobilizing the Muslims in Europe. “He spoke on German radio several times a week and was responsible for mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Muslims to support Hitler. He was not indicted at Nuremberg because the Vichy government in France hid him for 10 months in a palatial villa. He left Paris in the dead of night and returned to the Middle East.”

In addition, Dr. Dalin added, the mufti became a mentor to Yasser Arafat, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Anwar Sadat. “He brought in former SS men to train them,” Dr. Dalin said, adding that the mufti also was responsible for translating “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” into Arabic and distributing the works throughout the Middle East.

“This should be better known,” he said.


Who: Scholar-in-residence Dr. David Dalin

What: Will present four lectures

When: June 8-9

Where: At the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, 1449 Anderson Ave.

Also: Lectures are free. Friday evening dinner at 6 p.m. is optional and reservations are required; it costs $10 for members and $12 for non-members. Children under 12 are free. For more information and reservations, call the synagogue office at (201) 947-1735.

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