August/September 1996, Page 38
Middle East History: It Happened In August
Justice Brandeis Was the Savior of Zionism
By Donald Neff
It was 84 years ago, on Aug. 13, 1912, that Louis
Dembitz Brandeis, a future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, made
a personal decision that would have a profound effect in establishing
Zionism in the United States and thereby securing Americas
eventual support for the Jewish state of Israel. Zionism had been
founded 15 years earlier in Europe, but it had failed to gain much
support among Jewish Americans. It had probably fewer than 20,000
followers from within the 2.5 million-member American Jewish community
before World War I. In the words of a pro-Zionist writer, American
Zionism then was a small and feeble enterprise.1 A historian
of the movement described Zionism at the time as still small
and weak, in great financial distress, and low in morale.2
This began to change after an August 1912 meeting
Brandeis had with Jacob de Haas, editor of the Boston Jewish
Advocateand an early Zionist. A decade earlier, de Haas had
been an aide to Zionisms founder, Theodore Herzl. Intrigued
by de Haas tales of Herzl and the beginnings of Zionism, Brandeis
hired de Haas to instruct him in Zionism over the winter of 1912-13.
At the end of that time Brandeis was a convert to Zionism.3 Within
two years, on Aug. 30, 1914, Brandeis became head of the Provisional
Executive for General Zionist Affairs, making him the leader of
the Zionist Central Office, which had been removed from Berlin to
neutral America just before the outbreak of World War I.
Brandeis, the son of middle-class immigrants from
Prague, was a brilliant attorney who had graduated at the top of
his law class at Harvard. In 1912 he was 56 years of age, a wealthy
Bostonian, a political progressive, a tireless reformer and one
of the most famous attorneys in the country, known as the Peoples
Attorney because of his successful litigation against big business
on behalf of labor. His courtroom victories brought him riches as
well as the enmity of the business establishment, including the
wealthy Jewish communities of New York and Boston.4
What made Brandeis conversion so surprising
was that he was a non-observant Jew who believed firmly in Americas
melting pot and had grown up free from Jewish contacts or
traditions, as he put it.5 It was not until he was in his
50s that Brandeis began paying attention to the Jewish experience.
His sense of ethnic kinship had been sharpened by the turn-of-the-century
wave of new Jewish immigrants that had led to rising anti-Semitism
in America and at the same time had exposed Brandeis to Zionists.
These influences came while his popular causes had estranged him
from the Brahmin society of Boston and the New York business community,
leaving him isolated from the mainline Jewish community.
New Yorks and Bostons prosperous upper-class
Jews rejected Zionisms pessimistic tenet that anti-Semitism
was inevitable. Instead, they believed in keeping an ethnic low
profile and seeking social assimilation with other Americans. The
elite position and wealth enjoyed by upper-class American Jews proved
to them that the American melting pot worked. The last thing they
wanted was an ideology that advocated establishment of a foreign
country specifically for Jews. They feared this would not only bring
into question their place in the melting pot, but also their loyalty
to the land that had brought them a comfortable and secure life.
Implicit in Zionism was the sensitive issue of dual loyalty toward
a Jewish state and toward the nations in which its supporters actually
Opponents of Zionism in America included Jewish
socialists and workers, who disdained it as a form of bourgeois
nationalism. Ultraorthodox Jewish religious groups went even further,
describing Zionism as the most formidable enemy that has ever
arisen among the Jewish people because it sought to do Gods
work through politics.6 Not even the new immigrants streaming out
of Eastern Europe were attracted to Zionism, as was obvious from
the fact that most of them had chosen to bypass Palestine and go
instead to the United States and other Western countries.
Unlike Jews who embraced the melting pot, Zionists
openly rejected assimilation. Alienation lay at the heart of Zionism,
as explained by Theodore Herzl when he first formulated its purpose
and aims in early 1896 in his seminal pamphlet Der Judenstaat:
We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national
communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith
of our fathers, he wrote. It is not permitted us.7
At its core, this was the fundamental rationale
of Zionism: a profound despair that anti-Semitism could not be eradicated
as long as Jews lived among gentiles. Out of this dark vision came
the belief that the only hope for the survival of the Jews lay in
the founding of their own state.
With his conversion came changes in Brandeis
embrace of the American melting pot. He now preached the salad
bowl, a belief in cultural pluralism in which ethnic groups
maintained their unique identity. Brandeis maintained:
has always declared herself for
equality of nationalities as well as for equality of individuals.
America has believed that each race had something of peculiar value
which it can contribute
America has always believed that in
differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress.8
As for the unsettling question of dual loyalty,
the foremost suspicion about Zionism among gentiles, Brandeis asserted
there was no conflict between being an American and a Zionist:
Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent
with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they
Every American who aids in advancing the Jewish
settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his
descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man
and a better American for doing so
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.9
Brandeiss Zionism, however, was far from the
reality on the ground in Palestine, where Arabs and Jews viewed
each other with mutual suspicions. He linked Zionists with the early
New England Puritans, declaring that Zionism is the Pilgrim
inspiration and impulse over again. The descendants of the Pilgrim
fathers should not find it hard to understand and sympathize with
it. To Jewish audiences he said: To be good Americans,
we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.10
Brandeis Zionism, obviously, was different
from the passionate and messianic Zionism of Europe, driven as it
was by pessimism about the enduring anti-Semitism of the world against
Jews and the need for the ethnic cleansing of Palestines Arabs.
His was an ethnic philanthropic vision, a desire to help needy Jews
set down a kind of New England town in the Middle Eastbut
with no intention of going to Palestine to live among them. This
concept of helping with financial support but not actually moving
to Palestine remained central to American Zionists and helps explain
why through the years so few Jewish Americans have emigrated to
Israel.11 To European Zionists, it was a pale and anemic version
of their lifes passion, Zionism without Zion,
While Brandeiss vision of Zionism was unrealistically
idealistic, he would achieve what probably no other Zionist could
have. He became instrumental in gaining the support of the United
States for a Jewish state in Palestine. Brandeis accomplished this
feat by using his friendship with President Woodrow Wilson to advocate
the Zionist cause, which he achieved by serving as a conduit between
British Zionists and Wilson.
The president was a ready listener. He was the son
of a Presbyterian minister and a daily reader of the Bible. Although
not particularly interested in the political ramifications of Zionism,
he shared the vague sentiment of a number of Christians at the time
that there would be a certain biblical justice to have the Jews
return to Palestine.
Wilson thought so highly of Brandeis that he appointed
him to the Supreme Court on Jan. 28, 1916, thereby enormously increasing
Brandeis prestige and his influence in the White House. In
turn, Brandeis resigned from all the numerous public and private
clubs and organizations he belonged to, including, ostensibly, his
leadership of American Zionism. His resignation, however, did not
mean Brandeis had deserted Zionism or active involvement in its
promotion. Behind the scenes he continued to play a leadership role.
At his Supreme Court chambers in Washington he received daily reports
on Zionist activities from the New York headquarters and issued
orders to his loyal lieutenants, many of them graduates of Harvard,
now heading American Zionism.13
While on the court, Brandeis was instrumental in
1917 in gaining Wilsons support for Britains Balfour
Declaration, a seminal document that thereafter served as Zionisms
claim to have a legitimate right to settle in Palestine (Washington
Report, October/November 1995).
The final major diplomatic achievement of Brandeis
and American Zionism in the post-World War I period was the passage
by Congress on Sept. 11, 1922, of a joint resolution favoring a
Jewish homeland in Palestine. The words of the resolution practically
echoed the Balfour Declaration.
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives
of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the
United States of America favors the establishment in Palestine of
a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood
that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious
rights of Christian and all other non-Jewish communities in Palestine,
and that the Holy places and religious buildings and sites in Palestine
shall be adequately protected.14
Zionists trumpeted the resolution as another Balfour
Declaration, evidence that a Jewish state had official support not
only from Britain but from the United States. After all, it had
been sponsored by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Representative Hamilton
Fish and signed by President Warren G. Harding.
However, during the debate leading up to passage
of the resolution, a number of speakers had emphasized that it was
merely an expression of sympathy by the Congress, had no force in
law and in no way would involve the United States in foreign entanglements.
This was the interpretation adopted by the State Department, which
had opposed Zionism since its beginning, considering it a minority
group interfering in foreign affairs.15
Passage of the congressional resolution was the
height of Brandeis brand of American Zionism, and also the
end of its heroic period. Under Brandeis the Zionist membership
had burgeoned tenfold, reaching around 200,000 after the heralded
victory of the Balfour Declaration. The momentum of that historic
event carried over into the halls of Congress and resulted in the
joint resolution. But a year before the resolution became a reality,
Brandeis himself had been swept from power in Zionist councils in
a showdown with European Zionists. Brandeis tepid form of
Zionism was simply too emotionless and sterile for them.16
Nonetheless, his contribution to Zionism had been
enormous, not only in gaining official U.S. support but also in
establishing the intellectual framework for the movement in America.
It was from Brandeis time that American Zionists began a concerted
effort to link American ideals and interests with a Jewish state
and thereby establish a mutual identity. How successful Brandeis
and his successors have been was demonstrated at the two most recent
annual meetings of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
In 1995 President Bill Clinton had become the first
sitting president ever to appear before the lobbying group. On April
28, 1996, appearing before AIPAC for the second time, he told the
applauding audience that the relationship between America and Israel
was based on shared values and common strategies.17
Two days later at the White House, Clinton told visiting Israeli
Prime Minister Shimon Peres that America stands with Israel
through good times and bad because our countries share the same
idealsfreedom, tolerance, democracy.18 However astonishing
Palestinians and foreign observers might find that description of
a country that continues to occupy foreign territories by force
and continuing to deprive their occupants of political and civil
rights of any kind, the fact is that Zionists have been successful
in selling in the United States Brandeis preposterous claim
that the Zionist state and America are basically the same.
* Available through the AET
*Ball, George W. and Douglas B. Ball, The Passionate
Attachment: Americas Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the
Present, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.
Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, Original Sins: Reflections
on the History of Zionism and Israel, New York, Olive Branch
Bruce, Allen Murphy, The Brandeis/Frankfurter
Connection: The Secret Political Activities of Two Supreme Court
Justices, Garden City, NY, Anchor Press/Doubleday & Co.,
Grose, Peter, Israel in the Mind of America,
New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Howe, Irving, World of Our Fathers, New York,
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
Mallison, Thomas and Sally V., The Palestine
Problem in International Law and World Order, London, Longman
Group Ltd., 1986.
Manuel, Frank E., The Realities of American-Palestine
Relations, Washington, DC, Public Affairs Press, 1949.
*Neff, Donald, Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards
Palestine and Israel since 1945, Washington, DC, Institute for
Palestiine Studies, 1995.
OBrien, Lee, American Jewish Organizations
& Israel, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies,
Sachar, Howard M., A History of Israel: From
the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Tel Aviv, Steimatzkys
Agency Ltd., 1976.
Tivnan, Edward, The Lobby: Jewish Political Power
and American Foreign Policy , New York, Simon and Schuster,
- Quoted in Howe, World of Our Fathers,
p. 204. Also see Grose, Israel in the Mind of America,
p. 45; Manuel, The Realities of American-Palestine Relations,
- Yonathan Shapiro, quoted in OBrien, American
Jewish Organizations and Israel, p. 38.
- Murphy, The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection,
- Grose, Israel in the Mind of America,
- Tivnan, The Lobby, p. 16.
- Grose, Israel in the Mind of America,
- Sachar, A History of Israel, p. 40.
- Neff, Fallen Pillars, p. 11.
- Tivnan, The Lobby, p. 17.
- Neff, Fallen Pillars, p. 11.
- In the 28 years between Israels founding
in 1948 and 1976, fewer than 60,000 Jewish Americans migrated
to Israel. Of these, 80 percent returned to the United States,
the highest rate of any immigrant group; see Beit-Hallahmi, Original
Sins, p. 197.
- Tivnan, The Lobby, p. 19.
- Grose, Israel in the Mind of America,
p. 57; Murphy, The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection, p.
- Manuel, The Realities of American-Palestine
Relations, p. 282.
- Ibid., pp. 281-82.
- Neff, Fallen Pillars, p. 17.
- Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post, 4/30/96.