The most important American Zionist ever was the progressive lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. His conversion to the cause 103 years ago had two big consequences: 1, Brandeis helped craft Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917, and got the US government to sign on, thereby committing western powers to the project of establishing the Jewish state. 2, He promoted the view that it was patriotic for Jews to advocate for a Jewish state– “to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists”—a claim that allowed the American Zionist movement to grow by immunizing it against the dual loyalty charge.
Yet a shadow hangs over Brandeis’s Zionism, if only among academics: the strong evidence that Brandeis converted to Zionism after a life utterly removed from matters Jewish because it was his only path to get on to the Supreme Court.
The story is simple. In 1913, President-elect Woodrow Wilson rejected Brandeis, then 56, for his Cabinet because Brandeis was so assimilated many Jews didn’t even know he was Jewish, and Wilson wanted a “representative Jew” in order to woo the masses of eastern European immigrants then entering east coast cities. Within days of the disappointment, Brandeis publicly declared his Zionism, and began appearing at Zionist events, giving Zionist speeches, and taking on offices of Zionist leadership. Before long, his “picture was reverently hung in many Roumanian Jewish homes,” one Zionist wrote.
In 1916 Wilson appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court as the first Jewish justice, and he was confirmed by the Senate after a lengthy battle marked by anti-Semitism. (There have been seven Jewish justices since.)
The suspicion about Brandeis’s calculations is not idle, but based on compelling archival evidence. Six well-placed contemporaries made observations about Brandeis’s need to be a representative Jew in letters: former president William Howard Taft; the financier Jacob Schiff, who was the most powerful Jew of his era; Isaac Ullman, treasurer of the American Jewish Committee; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts; Harvard law professor Arthur D. Hill, and Henry Moskowitz, a co-founder of the NAACP.
Taft’s account is the most vivid. He wrote to a Jewish journalist friend that he had spoken to Isaac Ullman, who told him that Brandeis was “no Jew until he was rejected by Wilson as Attorney General, because the leading Jews of the country told Wilson that Brandeis was not a representative Jew.” Taft continued:
Since that time, Brandeis has adopted Zionism, favors the New Jerusalem, and has metaphorically been circumcised. He has gone all over the country making speeches, arousing the Jewish spirit, even wearing a hat in the Synagogue while making a speech in order to attract those rabbis… If it were necessary, I’m sure he would have grown a beard to convince them that he was a Jew of Jews. All this has made it politically difficult for not only the Jews but for anybody looking for office where there are Jews in the constituency, to hesitate about opposing Brandeis. The humor of the situation I cannot, even in the sorrow of the appointment, escape.
This story was suppressed or ignored by Brandeis’s many adoring biographers until 1971, when it was advanced by a leading Israeli sociologist, Yonathan Shapiro, in an academic volume published by the University of Illinois. Brandeis’s “push” to become a Zionist was his “rebuff on the national scene,” Shapiro said.
His argument met with vehement denial by a succession of historians, for whom Brandeis’s conversion to Zionism is a high point in an idealized history of their movement. Melvin Urofsky, the dean of Brandeis biographers, went so far as to say that Shapiro was prejudiced: “Shapiro displayed the then almost universal Israeli scholarly antagonism toward American Zionism.”
This denial of Brandeis’s calculation is stoutly maintained in the latest Brandeis biography. “What were the ‘public and professional’ experiences that transformed Brandeis’s outlook from indifference about Judaism to crusading Zionism?” Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, asks in Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet, published last August by Yale University Press (and excerpted by the pro-Israel site, Tablet). Rosen’s answer is that Brandeis’s Zionism originated in: his newfound respect for Jewish intelligence and values gained by mediating a garment workers strike in 1910, his discovery that Athenian principles of democracy were embodied by Jewish civilization, his sudden appreciation of his unassimilated Jewish uncle, and his recognition of Jewish agricultural achievements in Palestine that made the desert bloom, etc.
There is not a word about the view held by a former president, by the AJC treasurer, by the most powerful Jew of the era, by Brandeis’s friend who co-founded the NAACP, and by Hill, a progressive lawyer who would represent Sacco and Vanzetti. No: God and Yale Books bless Brandeis; his Zionism stays visionary and idealistic.
Rosen’s coverup is dishonest scholarship, and a proof of the force that he seems embarrassed about in his hero: the power of Israel supporters in our political culture.
Just why Louis Brandeis became a Zionist is ultimately impossible to say. He was famously opaque about his own feelings and desires; he left few clues in the record about his calculations in 1913-1916. There can be no doubt that Zionist leadership and organizing were fulfilling to him; Brandeis gave many ardent Zionist speeches and referred to Zionism in his letters in a proud manner.
But I believe the facts point in one direction: Louis Brandeis converted to Zionism in order to get higher office; and it is dishonest for the head of the Constitution Center and a pack of reverent Zionists to leave out any evidence of that idea to readers today. As if presidential appointments are not laden with ethnic politics.
Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) was brilliant, principled, and ambitious. The son of wealthy assimilated Jews who had immigrated from Prague, he grew up in Louisville and Germany and graduated from Harvard Law School before building his career in Boston as the “people’s lawyer.” By his 40s he was already a progressive hero, taking difficult cases on behalf of workers and the poor against exploitive employers and monopoly businesses.
Brandeis developed ideas that give us freedom to this day: the right to privacy, the curse of bigness, and sunlight being the best disinfectant. “He understood that corporate capitalism, left to its own devices, would widen the gaps between rich and poor and threaten liberty, and after 1910 or so devoted his life to doing something about it,” John Judis has written.
Brandeis called himself a “radical,” and so did his enemies; but he was a reformer, not a revolutionary, and he could be an operator. He “was viewed as a man who could pull the required political strings,” says one biographer, while another says he kept up in “cold roast” Boston society, and a third says Brandeis never even mentioned anti-Semitism in his letters till he was nearly 60. “Cultivate the society of men—particularly men of affairs,” he told an associate.
By his early 50s, Brandeis began wading into national politics. He supported Republican Taft’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1908. But he became disillusioned by the corruption of the Pinchot-Ballinger affair, in which he played a role as a litigator; and in 1912 he backed his friend Robert La Follette, the Wisconsin progressive senator, then when La Follette’s campaign fizzled, reached out to Woodrow Wilson, and took a night boat to see the Democratic candidate in New Jersey. The men formed an immediate affinity. Brandeis gave Wilson a substantial donation for the time ($500) and became a confidante.
After Wilson won, he endeavored to appoint Brandeis to his cabinet, as attorney general or commerce secretary; and Brandeis and friends lobbied for an appointment. The Jewish issue cut both ways. Anti-semites opposed Brandeis and painted him as a scheming socialist; but Wilson wanted a Jew in his Cabinet to help him with Jewish voters. It was a time when there was a “Catholic seat” on the Supreme Court and Jews were beginning to obtain high national positions. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, had put Oscar Straus in his cabinet a few years before; while Taft had considered Louis Marshall, a founder of the American Jewish Committee, for the Supreme Court. Wilson’s chief of staff was anti-Semitic, but Brandeis met with him, and he acknowledged the need “to have a representative Jew in the administration” (according to Shapiro’s account of Edward House’s diary).
The key word here is representative. Imagine if Clarence Thomas had been the first black man appointed to the Supreme Court, not Thurgood Marshall. Black people would have been turned off. That was Brandeis’s problem. Biographer Philippa Strum says, “No one in the Jewish community would have considered him ‘involved.’” Brandeis’s mother had resolutely raised her children with no religion. Brandeis and his wife celebrated Christmas “as a secular holiday for the children, complete with trees and toys,” Strum says, and did not belong to a synagogue. Important Jewish events like the founding of the American Jewish Committee and the relief efforts for the Russian pogroms did not engage him. He gave no money to Jewish charities, quoted the gospels in his letters and kept his horse at the Dedham Polo Club. It can hardly be surprising that a Jewish publication asked him if he was a Christian.
Wilson polled prominent Jews about Brandeis’s Jewishness. The central figure was the banker Jacob Schiff of Kuhn, Loeb. Schiff was a financier with global influence and proudly associated with Jewish causes. He had met with Presidents Cleveland, Roosevelt and Taft, to use his influence to help free Russian Jews.
Schiff’s reply to Wilson’s go-between in February 1913 is a perfect example of the coded rejection:
“I have been asked from time to time recently whether Mr. Brandeis may be considered a representative Jew and to this I was able to give a qualified reply only, but he is without a doubt, a representative American.”
Louis Marshall, another Jewish leader, also helped to put the kibosh on Brandeis, Shapiro reports. While a leading rabbi of the time, E.B.M. (nicknamed Alphabet) Browne, told the White House that Brandeis was guilty of “religious delinquency.”
The word was out. At the height of the consideration battle, Henry Moskowitz, a New York social worker who went on to co-found the NAACP and who worked with Brandeis, reported to another Brandeis friend, the progressive journalist Norman Hapgood, that “a very concerted effort is being made” by “Jewish bankers and Jewish corporate interests” to eliminate Brandeis from cabinet consideration on the ground that he is “not a representative Jew” (according to Brandeis biographer Alpheus Thomas Mason). Moskowitz believed that the objection to Brandeis’s Jewishness was a cover: “a transparent pretext concealing the non-sectarian fear of all the reactionary interests, Jewish and non-Jewish, of Mr. Brandeis.”
Be that as it may, Jewish representativeness was a real issue. Leading Jews, Shapiro writes, “were only interested in promoting into positions of power Jews who were positively identified with the Jewish community.”
Shapiro concedes that it is impossible to know for sure why Wilson did not name Brandeis, but concludes that the “attitude of these Jewish leaders greatly influenced the President-elect.” There was no reason for Wilson to spend political capital getting Brandeis past opposition from anti-Semites and business interests if he did not reap any political advantage from the appointment.
There can be little question that someone as astute as Brandeis knew about this reservation. Schiff and Wilson were friends (and Schiff even supplied Brandeis a copy of his own “representative American” letter two years later). Henry Moskowitz and Norman Hapgood were close political allies; Hapgood considered Brandeis “the ablest lawyer I knew of.”
Within days of his rejection, Brandeis openly declared his Zionism.
”Brandeis’s association with the Zionist Organization,” Shapiro writes, “so closely followed his political defeat that it can only be understood as a reaction to these events. It is likely that his friends in the administration, possibly the President himself, had advised him on this move… He acted swiftly. A few days after Wilson’s inauguration on March 4, he made his first public appearance on a Zionist platform.”
A few days after that, Brandeis enrolled in the Boston Zion Association. His first Zionist speeches included a confession:
“I have been to a great extent separated from Jews. I am very ignorant in things Jewish.”
A year later he became the national leader of the whole American movement, the Federation of American Zionists. “It was this active leadership and his success in attracting influential Jews to the Zionist Organization and in building a powerful Jewish organization to rival the AJC which established him as a representative Jew,” Shapiro writes.
The most startling change was in Brandeis’s philosophy of identity. Seven years before his conversion to Zionism, the 49-year-old Brandeis had forthrightly stated an assimilationist creed:
“There is no place for what President Roosevelt has called hyphenated Americans. There is room here for many of any race, of any creed, of any condition in life, but not for Protestant-Americans, or Catholic-Americans, nor Jewish-Americans, not for German-Americans, Irish-Americans, or Russian-Americans.”
Brandeis doubled down on this declaration when he was 53, in 1910, saying it was “disloyal” to distinguish oneself from other Americans on a religious basis:
“This country demands that its sons and daughters whatever their race—however intense or diverse their religious connections—be politically merely American citizens. Habits of living, of thought which tend to keep alive difference of origin or to classify men according to their religious beliefs are inconsistent with the American idea of brotherhood and are disloyal.”
Following his rejection by Wilson, Brandeis utterly reversed this reservation of disloyalty, in the speech that has played such a dominant role in the discussion of dual loyalty ever since.
Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. A man is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; or for being loyal to his college. Every Irish American who contributed towards advancing home rule was a better man and a better American for the sacrifice he made. Every American Jew 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 Zionist somersaults had an effect. When Wilson nominated Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916, there was furious opposition from business interests; and the confirmation process took weeks. But no one could doubt now that Brandeis was a representative Jew. The appointment was celebrated by the Jewish Daily Forward and by Jews on the Lower East Side of New York; Brandeis had made himself “popular with the Jewish masses,” Shapiro writes.
The support of Jacob Schiff was most crucial. The banker did an about-face, writing to Wilson’s attorney general:
“It is particularly gratifying to the people from whom, like myself, Mr. Brandeis has sprung, and who now form so considerable a percentage of the population of our country, that the president has nominated one of our most eminent co-religionists to the United States Supreme Court.”
Republicans who opposed Brandeis said privately that Brandeis’s Zionism was key to his appointment. I have already quoted Taft — who regarded Brandeis as a dangerous socialist, and who would later join Brandeis on the court. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a blueblood and anti-Semite, wrote to Arthur Hill, a leading Boston progressive, that the nomination was made “with a view to attracting to the President a group of voters on racial grounds.” Hill (who publicly advocated for Brandeis’s appointment) responded: “The Jews, especially since his taking up Zionism, take great pride in his leadership.”
There is evidence of Brandeis’s calculation in his own letters. Even as he was proselytizing Zionism to poor Jews as the answer to “the Jewish problem”, he was hedging the answer for himself. In a letter to a progressive non Jewish friend, Brandeis said, “No treatment of the Russian Jewish question is adequate without a study of Zionism, and the hope that presents.” I.e., This isn’t for me.
The strongest argument against the idea that Brandeis converted to get on to the Supreme Court is the assertion that Brandeis’s conversion could not have stood him in good stead with important Jews. Peter Grose, a dispassionate historian, rejects Shapiro’s theory in Israel in the Mind of America, saying the cause of Zionism had “no standing, was even considered repugnant” by leading Jews. Brandeis idolator Philippa Strum, of the Wilson Center, says that Zionism was anathema to the politically important German Jews. “They viewed Zionism with horror.” Historian Stewart Geller asks, “if Brandeis was seeking a broad Jewish base for political attention, why did he choose the Zionist group when it was not only tiny but unpopular?”
The problem with this criticism is that Zionism gave Brandeis something he did not have, and needed, a Jewish lane: an actual base in the Jewish community. Brandeis was never going to get rich Jews behind him because he was a radical. Zionism was actually hugely popular with Russian Jews, who were filling the east coast cities. One biographer says that Brandeis became as celebrated to poor Jews as Einstein. It would not be long before Schiff himself reversed course and endorsed Zionism, in part because he cared deeply about the fate of Russian Jews.
Another point against Shapiro is that Brandeis first made Zionist noises in 1910, was a Zionist for the rest of his life, and derived evident satisfaction from leading the movement. All true. Yet the 1910 statement is flimsy: an expression of respect for Zionism communicated to journalist Jacob de Haas, an English Zionist drummer dispatched to the US by Theodor Herzl. And though Brandeis seemed to love Zionist organizing, almost all his ardent speeches on Zionism came between 1913 and 1915– later collected in a book that Jeffrey Rosen repeatedly cites in explaining Brandeis’s thinking.
Rosen and other Zionist biographers don’t just dismiss political calculation on their hero’s part: they read deep springs of Jewish affinity into Brandeis’s biography. Strum, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center on whom Rosen relies, cites claims that Brandeis’s mediation of the 1910 garment workers’ strike gave him both the realization that “he himself was a Jew” and “faith in the Jewish masses.” Brandeis was the “Jewish Jefferson!” Rosen enthuses; the jurist saw his “Periclean” and “Jeffersonian” ideals apotheosized in Palestine, where he could envision the “perfect citizen in the perfect state.” Brandeis imagined Palestine as the vessel of a “unique Hebraic culture that could enrich both America and the world,” Rosen asserts, before expanding: When Brandeis met the agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, who specialized in wild wheat, Aaronsohn “kindled” Brandeis’s “sense of the Jews as a uniquely ethical people.”
Even as he leaves out the political playboard of Brandeis’s life, Rosen imagines a rich Jewish life for his hero. Brandeis’s conversion involved newfound appreciation for his unassimilated uncle Naftali Dembitz, whose last name he had taken as his own middle name. A “passing comment” from Jacob de Haas that Dembitz had been a “noble Jew” “helped to persuade Brandeis… to assume the leadership of the American Zionist movement,” Rosen says. Then there was “the strenuous vision of morality and ethics from his beloved mother,” that allowed someone who had “not previously embraced his Jewish identity” to go Zionist.
In a related claim, late Jewish historian Ben Halpern says that with Zionism Brandeis “had come home.” Conversion to Zionism “signified no conversion to new beliefs,” Halpern wrote. Rather it signified a “shift in social attachments and emotional ties to a sharper sense of the American-Jewish terrain and his own place in it and a fatefully deepened personal commitment.”
These scholars are telling themselves a story to ennoble Zionism. There is simply no evidence of Brandeis’s identity conflict or spiritual fulfilment by converting to Zionism. Brandeis was never a religious person, and as for the deep well of alleged Jewishness, as I discovered with dismay 10 years ago when I bought the complete set of Brandeis’s letters hoping they would be as juicy and entertaining as Herzl’s private writings– Brandeis’s personal writings are dry to the point of being soulless.
Rosen imbues Brandeis with lofty thoughts: Brandeis changed “after meeting another Zionist” – Aaronsohn—“and reading several life-changing books… With [Greek historian Alfred] Zimmern’s guidance, Brandeis came to view Palestine as a society that could achieve the kind of small-scale Jeffersonian agrarian democracy that had reached its fullest expression in fifth-century Athens….”
Here Rosen is reading Brandeis’s political speeches as sincere expressions of personal belief. But these speeches don’t reflect any intellectual or spiritual commitment. Brandeis was not a political philosopher. He was a hardheaded and practical man whose intellectual interests were economics and civil rights and whose skills were as an organizer and leader. While there is no question that he threw himself into Zionism, and stayed true to the cause for the next three decades of his life, there are no signs of any ordeal attending his conversion– apart from the political one!
Brandeis’s thoughts about Zionism were practical. His famous formulation about why to be a Zionist was to be a better American was cribbed from the ideas of the philosopher Horace Kallen. And while his speeches are frank about his Jewish pride– Brandeis said that Jewish civilization and persecution had formed Jewish intelligence and education and achievements– these ideas cannot explain his abandonment of his ideals of assimilation. Suddenly the Christmas tree Jew was declaring “Assimilation is national suicide” to Jewish audiences!
Reading his speeches, one could more readily argue that Brandeis urged Zionism on poor Russian Jews because this member of the Dedham Polo Club was embarrassed by his Jewish brethren. He often lamented Jewish crime in America, he said (ingenuously) there was no Jewish crime in Palestine; and he wanted Russian Jews to have “noblesse oblige” as he put it and pride in their tradition.
Shapiro, a renowned Israeli sociologist now deceased, had a firmer grasp on Brandeis’s character than all the hagiographers when he wrote: “Brandeis never immersed himself in Jewish culture, nor ever really comprehended it. In both his writings and his actions, he manifested total commitment to the American cultural tradition and more concretely to the ideals of the American progressives.”
So much so that Brandeis reversed himself on “all the tenets of Zionism” he endorsed in a 1914 organizing letter a few years later, Shapiro said. Just as Brandeis had earlier reversed himself by renouncing his own philosophy of assimilation.
Why would a serious person in his 50s, who didn’t go to synagogue or give to Jewish charities and in the mind of the Jewish community had no involvement, change his mind on such an important point? The political answer, framed by leading political minds of the age– Lodge, Taft, Moskowitz and Schiff– is the only one that makes sense. Brandeis wanted an important job. Political people tack and wiggle when they need to.
Jeffrey Rosen’s Periclean whitewash is particularly dishonest because even the scholars who disagree with Shapiro concede that he raised a real issue. “This charge, that Brandeis manipulated American Jewry in hopes of gaining a presidential appointment, continues to follow Brandeis’s memory,” biographer Leonard Baker writes. “The reasons why Louis Brandeis became a Zionist remain a matter for debate,” Melvin Urofsky allows. In Israel in the Mind of America, former New York Times reporter Grose says that “long after his death historians began reviving the innuendoes, particularly historians in the state of Israel,” Brandeis’s defenders rushed to absolve him, and “the controversy among scholars has simmered ever since.”
You would have no idea about this substantive controversy from the Yale Books biography written by the head of the Constitution Center.
Rosen’s motive for misrepresenting this history is plain. His biography is shot through with Zionist idealism: Brandeis would surely have approved of Israel’s economic miracle as a “start-up nation,” Rosen says. Brandeis was thrilled that the scale and barrenness of the land would allow the Jewish people to display to the world their capacity to “create something out of nothing.” Brandeis regarded Jewish settlers as the “equivalent of the New England puritans.” And though Europeans derided Brandeis’s demand for eradication of malaria in Palestine, “he funneled his own money through Hadassah—which remained loyal to him and to his ideas—and in fact did drain the swamps, eradicate malaria, and create a habitable Palestine.” So Brandeis even drained the swamps!
Rosen goes further when he endorses Brandeis’s claim that “Palestine’s early economic success did indeed attract Arab migration.” Between 1922 to 1948, the Arab population of Palestine doubled from 600,000 to 1.2 million, due to inmigration from Transjordan and Iraq, Rosen says, and offers a Zionist propaganda citation for that assertion. But as Norman Finkelstein documents in Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, the authoritative data show “no evidence of any significant Arab immigration into Palestine during the Ottoman or Mandatory periods.” Rosen also forgives Israel of expansionism and occupation and renews Brandeis’s argument that American Jews are patriotic when they support Israel:
“But regardless of Israel’s successes and failures, Brandeis’s argument for the integrity of the Zionist commitment remains powerful. Israel’s claim upon the support of American Jewry is based on not only the latter’s Jewish identity but also its American identity…. [H]is vision of cultural pluralism is more urgent than ever in a globalized age. It provides a balanced alternative to the separatist tendencies of multiculturalism, which exalts group identity without insisting on universal values…”
I would simply note that the organization Brandeis created, the Zionist Organization of America, is today one of the most intolerant extremist groups in Jewish life, and has rolled out the red carpet to Donald Trump.
The mystery of Brandeis’s conversion will never be fully resolved. The man was too much of a closed book for anyone to say for sure what was in his heart. But concluding that political calculation had nothing to do with his embrace of Zionism is preposterous. It is the same claim that modern Zionists make about the Israel lobby: we must not consider the role of pressure groups in determining US policy because the relationship between the countries is based on affinity– our countries share values, interests, and Athenian ideals of democracy.
These Zionist idealists are taking the politics out of politics, and ambition out of great American lives. Describing Brandeis’s conversion as idealistic is like saying there was an immaculate conception. It is a myth aimed at lifting a hero over other people.
There is good reason for Brandeis-worshipers to try to do so. By preserving the myth of Brandeis’s soulful conversion they preserve Israel as an ideal, and preserve American Jewish commitment to Israel as idealistic. They protect not just their hero but themselves from the truth: When it came to Palestine, Brandeis had bad judgment.
Postscript. I twice asked Rosen, via twitter, to explain his decision to leave out the “representative Jew” discussion of Brandeis in 1913. He never responded. This piece is based on published sources, including Brandeis’s collected letters and letters to family, biographies of Brandeis by Ben Halpern, Philippa Strum, Melvin Urofsky, Alpheus Thomas Mason, A. L. Todd and Leonard Baker, Jacob de Haas’s memoir of the judge, several histories of the period, and Yonathan Shapiro’s landmark book, Leadership of the American Zionist Organization, 1897-1930. Every quotation here is in the record; I can provide sources on request. If any reader has a photograph of Shapiro, I would appreciate getting a copy, and updating this piece with it.