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May 1, 2016 6:44 am

Zionism as Americanism?

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

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Louis Brandeis. Photo: Wikipedia.

Louis D. Brandeis. Photo: Wikipedia.

A curious coincidence: with Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court on indefinite hold in the Senate pending the November election results comes a reminder, reported in The Times of Israel (April 27), of outrage over President Woodrow Wilson’s nomination of Louis D. Brandeis exactly a century ago.

A scathingly antisemitic letter by former President William Howard Taft has just come up for auction. Garland’s Jewishness has nothing to do with current Republican opposition, but Brandeis’s Jewishness had everything to do with Taft’s diatribe. Writing to a Washington (Jewish) journalist, he cited President Woodrow Wilson’s “Machiavellian” and “satanic skill” in choosing the “cunning” Brandeis, a “hypocrite” and “a power for evil.”

“Intelligent Jews,” Taft asserted, “are as much opposed to Brandeis’s nomination as I am.” These “leading Jews,” who are “not bound up in emotional uplifting, and who do not now tend to socialism,” shared Taft’s indignation. Citing Brandeis’s “extreme Judaism” as a “plant of very late growth,” Taft focused on his recent embrace of Zionism. Brandeis, he wrote, “has adopted Zionism, favors the new Jerusalem, and has metaphorically been re-circumcised.”

Yet Brandeis, raised in a family whose primary identification was German, had remained distant from Jewish life for 50 years. He had even been shunned for a leadership position in the American Jewish Committee because “he has not identified himself with Jewish Affairs and is rather inclined to side with the Ethical Culturists.” Insisting that 20th century American ideals were “the age-old ideals of the Jews,” Brandeis turned his back on Zionism.

When Brandeis was persuaded to assume the mantle of American Zionist leadership after the outbreak of war in 1914 crippled the European Zionist organization, he candidly acknowledged: “I have been to a great extent separated from Jews. I am very ignorant in things Jewish.” Until then he had given only passing attention to Zionism, “far as it was from me.” Yet this thoroughly assimilated American Jew came to identify with the most nationalistic expression of Judaism and urged American Jews to do likewise.  How did Brandeis bridge the chasm between his American patriotism and Jewish nationalism?

As he explained, in the non sequitur designed to erase nagging allegations against Jews of divided loyalty that elevated him to leadership of the American Zionist movement: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” Even if American Jews were Zionists, indeed precisely because they embraced Zionism, they demonstrated their American loyalty.

Brandeis’s reconciliation of Judaism with Americanism was designed to ease nagging concerns over the loyalty of American Jews just when Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe reached its pre-war peak. Once described by his Boston law partner as “more Brahmin than the Brahmins,” he was determined to demonstrate the unimpeachable loyalty of American Jews to the United States.

His apprehension over divided loyalty, which tormented many American Jews of his generation, impelled him to conflate “American” and “Jewish” attributes. “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism,” he asserted. The “Jewish spirit,” he continued, “is essentially modern and essentially American.” Therefore, he concluded, “Our loyalty to America can never be questioned.” Zionism was Americanism.

But the Balfour Declaration of 1917, with its promise of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, left Brandeis uneasy. Challenging his synthesis of Zionism and Americanism, it prompted him to describe Jewish statehood as “a most serious menace” that could undermine his fervently professed loyalty of American Jews to the United States.

Amid current expressions of loathing for Israel by American Jewish millennials and their leftist academic mentors, the belated emergence of William Howard Taft’s vitriolic display of antisemitism is a reminder that the world’s oldest enduring hatred has some deep American roots.

Jerold S. Auerbach is professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College.

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  • Sherlock Holmes

    In 21st Century language the roots of the USA are the British settlers who occupied the 13 colonies along the East Coast of North America. The greatest supporter of Zionism in terms of building the foundations for the Jewish national home was Winston Churchill, who had a British father and an Ameican mother. Christian Zionism was a part of Victorian British religion and the Return and Rebuilding of Zion was consistent with Britain’s role as the great Empire and the post-WW1 restructuring of the Near East. For Churchill’s role see Sir Martin GHilbert, Churchill and The Jews, Simon and Schuster 2007.

  • American

    There is not room for racist zionists in the American way of life. 🙂

  • Valery Amiel

    Today, and increasingly so, for Jews, not just the Israelis, equally critical to who is right is, once again, who’s left. The self-preservation-instincts-bereft Jewish progressives encourage the predators who hate the Jews for the inventions they bestowed on others, including God, for which the others ever since, must be now grateful grateful for, God forbid…

  • I know this will come as a shock to many, but Judge Merrick Garland, is very well known in Oklahoma City for the role he played as Janet Reno’s deputy during the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19th, 1995. Though I have been living in Israel since 1968, I lecture on global Islamic terrorism and was in Oklahoma during the bombing and have published seven books, two of which: :Is Fanatic Islam a Global Threat? 1997 and Islamic Threat Updates Almanac #1 2003 deal with Saddam Hussein’s “state terrorism” background of that attack also supported by a very courageous OKC journalist Jayna Davis. The Christians were blamed for the bombing when it was Islamic/Iraqi in character. Judge Merrick Garland together with the Clinton’s are guilty of a terrible coverup of the truth regarding this heinous blaming of the Christians for a heinous Islamic attack on America in 1995.

  • It provides a reminder to the Jews of America that holding anti Israel sentiments will not make them immune to antisemitism, even if they are given the patronizing title of ” progressive Jews” which in British spelak means a well behaved Jew who does not challenge the anti Zionist views of the Left.

  • Jew-hatred also has some deep roots in England, Europe, and the Middle-East. The current hatred for Israel is Anti-Semitic. It is normal for Jewish people to have an affinity for Israel, since it’s their historic homeland. As for divided loyalty, Jews have always been exemplary citizens. However, wherever Jews are persecuted, they are welcome in Israel.

  • jack

    I would not characterize Taft’s letter as “scathingly” antisemitic. It’s not worse than what many people said about
    Kennedy as a Catholic 44 years later.