Universally regarded as one of the greatest criminal defense lawyers in American history, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) is also remembered and respected as a civil rights advocate and fierce champion of the underdog. He is perhaps best known for defending teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb for murdering 14-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks and for going up against three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan in the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial of John Scopes for violating a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution.
A great friend of the Jews, Darrow regularly denounced anti-Semitism and supported Jewish causes. For example, he actively led community protests against Russia in the wake of the April 1903 Kishinev Pogroms; aggressively opposed the then-circulating anti-Semitic fraud The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and, responding to a call from the Anti-Defamation League, joined more than 100 prominent citizens, including President Woodrow Wilson and former presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, in signing The Perils of Racial Prejudice, which denounced Henry Ford and his anti-Semitic publication The International Jew.
Well before the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, Darrow was among the first to publicly condemn Hitler, warn about Nazi Germany, and speak out on behalf of Jewish victims of the Nazis.
In the December 15, 1928 correspondence (pictured with this column) on his personal letterhead to Martin M. Weitz of the Menorah Society, Darrow writes:
If I can get a chance I will try to write you something but my time is very much occupied. I ought to do it, for I never had any better friends than the Jews. My son Paul is now here and I will show him your letter.
Rabbi Martin Mishli Weitz (1907-1992) would go on to be ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1934. He served as a congregational rabbi in Des Moines, Iowa; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Syosset, New York; and Wilmington, Delaware. He was also editor of American publications for the World Union for Progressive Judaism and wrote numerous books.
American opposition to the reestablishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael was led by Darrow’s social and political colleagues and, notwithstanding his philo-Semitism, he shared their view on this matter.
In a famous debate at Sinai Temple in Chicago on October 24, 1927 against Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, America’s leading Reform rabbi and Zionist spokesman, Darrow described Zionism as “not a progressive policy for Israel and America.” As to the Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael, he noted that the Jews had conquered the land, held on to it for about 500 years, and then lost it in a war, commenting drolly: “Of course, we lawyers know that the statute of limitations would run against any title like that.”
Characterizing the Zionist movement as “absurd,” he argued:
You cannot attack this: the foundation of this movement [Zionism] is a religious movement, to bring back Zion…. How is it that in this Zion, only ten to fifteen percent are Jews? There are 10 percent Christians, and all the rest are Arabs. All were living in this desolate “Holy Land.” Who is going [there] anyway? … Why, even my friend Stephen Wise would not want to establish a church [sic] there; there would be nobody to listen to him. And to revitalize the land? How much would it cost? Why, all the Jews in the world haven’t enough money to do it – and for what? Do you suppose that there is any one of them [who] would ever think of it as a business proposition, connected with anything else but a religious movement?No sane person would ever think of going to Palestine, except for religion. It has been the home of myths and fables and sleight-of-hand ever since we knew it…. [The land] cannot be farmed because there is no soil there. Oh no, you won’t till the soil. The Jews are not given to cultivating the soil…. Jews are a commercial people. They may have been farmers once, but they got over it. They are traders. They have no mission except to live like other people….
I am willing to concede right off that the Jews have not been fairly treated. And what of it? Nobody else has.
In taking Darrow to task, particularly with respect to his insensitive final statement, Wise asked: “Is it fair, Brother Darrow, to speak of the hell of Russia, to speak of the foul and fiendish treatment of my people for 1,900 Christian years as if they [merely] had not been fairly treated?” Darrow responded:
I have many friends who are Zionists. I think a great deal of them. I love the idealist. I cannot help being a dreamer myself. Neither can I help waking up…. For a proposition that is absolutely impossible, a proposition which goes against space and time and all the laws of nature, I tell you, you cannot do it, and many of you will be bound to regret that you even undertook such a foolish thing.
From the prospective of history – it was only a mere 21 years later that Israel was reborn – it is stunning to consider just how wrong Darrow was about everything — except, in this writer’s view, with respect to two points:
First, that the essence of Zionism is and always was principally a religious movement: the return to Eretz Yisrael as the land that had been given to the Jewish people by the God of Israel as an eternal inheritance.
Second, as I have previously written in these pages, that the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, unique in history, is, indeed, a proposition, in Darrow’s words, “which goes against space and time and all the laws of nature” and can only be understood as dramatic evidence of God’s divine involvement directing the fate of the Jewish nation.
Darrow had visited Eretz Yisrael a few years earlier and he was – to say the least – unimpressed. For example, he described what he had witnessed at the Western Wall as “a lot of old, dirty, decrepit men and women standing holding a tin cup in their hands, saying `Baksheesh’ or something like that, picking up pennies, and little children with sore eyes, the worst, most base-looking people I ever encountered, and I have seen beggars everywhere.”
He further declared that “I walked up to the top of Mount Olive [sic], up a narrow dirty street, down a filthy impossible land, which everybody tramped down; the poor, the ragged, the illiterate.” Darrow was neither a fan of the Zionists or of the land to which they aspired.
Finally, there is an interesting and generally unknown “Jewish angle” to some of Darrow’s most famous cases.
For example, in the middle of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which highlighted the fundamentalist–modernist divide, Darrow called Louis Ginzberg, the top Talmudist at the Jewish Theological Seminary – on the Sabbath – to help prepare his cross-examination of Bryan on the issue of reconciling evolution with biblical teaching. Ginzberg, who declined to speak on the phone on Shabbat, nonetheless forwarded pointers from his monumental work Legends of the Jews, which Darrow used to question Bryan and to demonstrate that the biblical account of man’s origins was incomplete.