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May 1, 2016 6:44 am

Zionism as Americanism?

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

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.

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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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