Garland nomination is moment of humble reflection for US Jews

Merrick Garland

Woodrow Wilson was a bastard when it came to black people but he put the first Jew on the Supreme Court, 100 years ago. It is said that Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous conversion to Zionism in 1912 came about because Wilson planned to nominate him but needed a representative Jew, and all the Eastern European Jews who had come to New York were Zionists.

Since then there have been seven other Jews on the Supreme Court per Wikipedia: Cardozo, Frankfurter, Goldberg Fortas and the three who are on there now, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan. Two others have been nominated to the Supreme Court, Douglas Ginsburg and Merrick Garland. Ginsburg withdrew after it came out that he had smoked weed; Merrick Garland is of course President Obama’s nominee of this week, who faces an uphill battle in an election year. At his unveiling, Garland referenced his ancestors who fled anti-semitic persecution in Europe.

What do these numbers tell us about the Jewish place in America? A hundred years ago it required a real expenditure of political capital (by a racist) to nominate a Jewish justice. Today it’s not just old hat, but Jews are the liberal establishment in Washington. If Garland is confirmed, four  out of five justices named by Democrats will be Jewish. That’s a lot. There have been only two black Supreme Court justices. And one Hispanic.

I knew Merrick Garland a little bit at the Harvard College newspaper in the 70s (guess what, he had judicial temperament, I didn’t; but he couldn’t write this article if his hair was on fire). I sought out the Jewish club of the newspaper in part because I believed anti-Semitism was regnant in America and at Harvard, and so did Alan Dershowitz: he threatened to leave the Harvard Law faculty in the early 70s unless it finally got a Jewish dean. Harvard did name a Jewish dean to the law school, and there have been several Jewish deans and presidents since. Now it’s ho-hum.

Again, the Garland nomination is a reminder that Jews are the blue state establishment. In fact, Garland is seen as the safe pick over various ethnic-er picks that Obama could have made– notably Sri Srinivasan.

And speaking of the establishment, it was said that Wilson was trying to shore up the allies’ claims on Jewish financiers in the First World War when he approved the Balfour Declaration, a year after he nominated Brandeis, and committed the U.S. to Zionism.

Oy what an error. From Brandeis to Garland, our presence in the most exclusive corridors of the power structure should tell Jews that our place in the west is safe; we don’t need so-called Jewish sovereignty in another country halfway around the world that is more than half non-Jewish anyway, though most of them don’t have any rights, can’t even vote, to be safe. No, we need to celebrate the freedom a democracy grants to minorities.

Power is a fluid thing in society, I reflected yesterday as I looked out of a window at the National Press Club at the slate roof of Treasury during the annual Israel influence conference. Scholar Kirk James Beattie had just finished up a discussion of his study showing that legislative staffers fear the Israel lobby but have never been visited by the “oil lobby.” American Jews have real social/political power in this moment in American life. It’s about time we broadly acknowledged this fact, with humility, and praise.