Louis Dembitz Brandeis is best known for serving as the first Jewish Justice of the United States Supreme Court after his nomination by President Woodrow Wilson and for playing the key role in developing the constitutional right to privacy.
He is also remembered for looking out for the interests of the common people and for serving as a powerful advocate for the idea that the law must adapt to the prevailing social order. Before his elevation to the high court, he represented interests that had previously been disfavored in the law, including consumers, investors and taxpayers, and he fought to curb the power of large banks, money trusts, powerful corporations, monopolies, public corruption and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were manifestly detrimental to American values and culture.
Much revered today, Brandeis was then a broadly despised figure who was characterized as a “radical” – and much worse – by the major media and whose elevation to the high court was opposed by six former presidents of the American Bar Association. However, it is indisputable that a huge factor in the opposition to his nomination was unadulterated anti-Semitism.
In response to the wide-ranging protest against him, the Senate held its first ever Judiciary Committee hearing on a Supreme Court nominee. One-hundred twenty-five days after his nomination – still the all-time record for a nominee to the high court – and after months of ugly and hard-fought debate, Brandeis was ultimately confirmed on a 47-22 vote, which he saw as a vindication of his Zionist activism.
He went on to serve for 22 years, often taking minority positions to challenge the old order and to write into law “the hopes and necessities of present-day America.” He believed in the federalist idea that it was both a moral imperative and a practical necessity for the federal government to disperse power to the states, and he became a great defender of the First Amendment in general and free speech in particular.
Brandeis (1856-1941) was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to Jewish immigrant parents who, shocked by the anti-Semitic riots that erupted in Prague, left for the United States. Though his extended family practiced Judaism, albeit in a non-Orthodox form, his parents were Frankists (an 18th-19th Sabbatian religious cult which recognized Jacob Frank as the Jewish messiah) who celebrated the main Christian holidays as part of their community.
Brandeis was influenced greatly by his uncle, Lewis Naphtali Dembitz, who regularly practiced traditional Judaism and was known as “the Jewish Scholar of the South.” Lewis, who was an avid follower of Theodor Herzl and was actively involved in Zionist activities, encouraged his nephew to enter Harvard Law School, where he graduated first in his class after two years. Ironically, given his later progressive career path as “the People’s Lawyer” who rallied against Big Business, Brandeis became wealthy by serving as a corporate lawyer at a time when the free-enterprise system was being transformed into a structure of corporate monopoly.
Although Brandeis was wholly assimilated and never belonged to or attended any synagogue, did not observe Jewish holidays, including even Yom Kippur, and was otherwise entirely remote from the institutions of Jewish life, his “Jewish consciousness” was nonetheless raised by two experiences in his mid-fifties.
First, as arbitrator in a strike in 1910 involving the overwhelmingly Jewish New York garment industry, he encountered and was impressed by the Jewish idealism and democratic spirit of the East European Jewish masses. As a result, he became more connected to the Jewish people and their way of life, and thus learned much about his people’s heartfelt hopes for a homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
Second, after an August 13, 1912, meeting with Jacob De Hass, the editor of a Boston Jewish weekly who also served as Herzl’s secretary, De Haas essentially became his personal guide to Zionism and convinced him that American and Zionist ideals were wholly complementary. Visiting Eretz Yisrael in 1919, he emotionally declared that “the ages-long longing and the love is all explicable now.” Yet, inexplicably, this was to be his only trip there.
Considering the promotion of economic development in Eretz Yisrael as a high priority, he helped to create and organize the Palestine Economic Corporation to promote self-supporting projects there, and he established the Palestine Endowment Fund to administer funds for self-supporting projects.
Brandeis became a leader in American Jewish life, joining the Zionist Organization in 1912 and accepting the chairmanship of the U.S. Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs (1914-18), which changed his life. He became arguably American Jewry’s greatest Jewish leader and was viewed by American Zionists as both their prophet and high priest, as he introduced much-needed organizational efficiencies to the American Zionist movement; raised unprecedented funds for it – including his own donations, which exceeded over $1.6 million (in early 20th century dollars) – and transformed it into an effective political force. He also served as honorary president of the Zionist Organization of America (1918-1921) and of the World Zionist Organization (1920 – 1921).
Some commentators criticize Brandeis’ Zionism, totally devoid of G-d and with never a reference to the Bible or rabbinic authorities, as more a manifestation of his progressive American idealism than Judaism. While accurate, this essentially secular philosophy was actually a godsend for the Zionist movement, which drew far more supporters by appealing to their Americanism.
Brandeis’s leading role in securing President Wilson’s approval of the Balfour Declaration (1917) is well known, but less known is the fascinating back story of how his motive and inspiration for doing so came from Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man who single-handedly revived the modern Hebrew language.
Ben Yehuda was then in America to raise funds for what became his seminal Hebrew Dictionary. During his speech at a massive reception arranged for him, he argued passionately for a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. In the audience was Brandeis who, impressed with the Hebrew lexicographer and his pure Zionism, invited him to repeat his speech to an assembly of America’s leading Zionists, who were all inspired and impressed by Ben Yehuda.
Determined to seize the moment and to take advantage of his friendship with the Supreme Court Justice, Ben Yehuda convinced him to urge President Wilson to recognize the legitimate right of Jews to their ancestral homeland. Brandeis asked if there existed sufficient infrastructure in Eretz Yisrael to establish a sovereign state and, receiving his assurances that there indeed was, he repeated Ben Yehuda’s arguments to a highly skeptical Wilson and ultimately convinced the president to support the Balfour Declaration.
Although Brandeis was a leader in promoting Jewish interests, both at home and abroad, and his words generated substantial attention and carried great weight even outside the Jewish community, he never presumptuously assumed that he had the right to speak for all Jews on any subject, as evidenced by the December 29, 1939, correspondence exhibited here. Responding to a plea from a correspondent that he, as a Jewish Supreme Court Justice and a leader of American Jewry, should take an unspecified “beneficial” position on behalf of Jews, he writes:
Re yours of 26th, my thanks for your thoughtful letter. Kindly write me of the “simple” “measures which would have a beneficial effect.”
Except from your letter, I know nothing of the occurrences or the persons to which it refers. Obviously, no one has more authority to speak “for all Jews” than you would have to speak for all Protestants or for all Catholics.
Brandeis saw Zionism as a solution to the anti-Semitic pogroms and atrocities in Europe and Russia while at the same time being a way to “revive the Jewish spirit.” At a time when most American Jews feared supporting the Zionist cause, lest they be seen as unfaithful to the United States, he challenged such allegations of “dual loyalty” and argued, “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism . . . loyalty to America demands that each American Jew become a Zionist.” Exhibited here is Call to the Educated Jew, a pamphlet containing the text of the address that he delivered at the Menorah Conference on November 8, 1914.
The purpose of the Menorah Movement, which originated at Harvard University in 1906, was to win for the field of Jewish history and culture its rightful place at Harvard; to provide an opportunity for Jewish students to participate more fully in Jewish life; and to dispel misconceptions about Jews and Judaism. The group was formally neutral on essentially every Jewish issue, including Zionism, but, in his address to the group, Brandeis expressed the passionate Zionist views that came to characterize his oratory on the subject.
Perhaps unusual for a non-practicing Jew, he presented a strong belief that, due to assimilation, the Jews cannot survive in the Diaspora, even in the American “Goldena Medinah,” and that the only chance for the Jews to survive as a people is in Eretz Yisrael:
Mind, body, and character are Jewish qualities that have not come to us by accident but were developed by three thousand years of civilization and nearly two thousand years of persecution; developed through our religion and spiritual life; through our traditions; and through the social and political conditions under which our ancestors lived. They are, in short, the product of Jewish life . . . The Torah led the “People of the Book” to intellectual pursuits at times when most of the Arayan peoples were illiterate. Religion imposed the use of the mind upon the Jews, indirectly as well as directly, and it demanded of the Jew not merely the love, but also the understanding of G-d. This necessarily involved a study of the law . . .
The fruit of three thousand years of civilization and a hundred generations of suffering may not be sacrificed by us. It will be sacrificed if dissipated. Assimilation is national suicide. And assimilation can be prevented only by preserving national characteristics and life as other peoples, large and small, are preserving and developing their national life . . . [Should we not] have a land where the Jewish life may be naturally led, the Jewish language spoken, and the Jewish spirit prevail? Surely we must, and that land is our father’s land: Palestine. . . .
The establishment of the legally secured Jewish home is no longer a dream. For more than a generation, brave pioneers have been building the foundations of our new-old home. It remains for us to build the super-structure. The ghetto walls are now falling. Jewish life cannot be preserved and developed, assimilation cannot be averted, unless there be established a fatherland, a center from which the Jewish spirit may radiate and give to the Jews scattered throughout the world that inspiration which springs from the memories of a great past and the hope of a great future.
The glorious past can really live only if it becomes the mirror of a glorious future; and to this end the Jewish home in Palestine is essential.
Given his strong feelings about aliya as being central to both Jewish existence and Jewish life, a theme to which he often returned throughout his life, it is interesting that Brandeis never himself came to live in Eretz Yisrael. Nonetheless, as Golda Meir (she signs here as “Meyerson,” as she did not change her name to “Meir” until 1956) argues in the August 30, 1954, correspondence to Yaakov Chazan on her Ministry of Labor letterhead exhibited here – specifically using Brandeis as an example – it is possible to be a loyal Zionist without ever making aliya:
I was very disturbed with your view as published in the recent issue of “Al-Hamishmar” that – “The ultimate purpose of Zionism is aliya,” which reminded me due to its tenor the old saying “the end of a thief is hanging,” though these cases are inherently different. So I do wish to ask you, what is going to happen if a Zionist is unwilling to make aliya to Israel? Should we deny the title Zionist to the late Judge Brandeis, may his memory be for a blessing – who never ultimately made aliya? On the other hand, there were many American Jews who came to Israel but did not call themselves Zionists [a reference to the many charedi Jews who made aliya but remained firmly in the anti-Zionist camp], [so] how can you make such a generalization?
At the bottom, Moshe Sharett, then Israel’s prime minister, wrote: “I cannot understand why she is causing trouble for Chazan.” Golda was a great supporter of Ben-Gurion and urged him to return from his 1953 retirement, which he eventually did in November 1955 for a second tenure as prime minister. In contrast, Sharett did everything he could to convince Ben-Gurion to remain in his home at Sde Boker. Al-Hamishmar was the official organ of the Mapai Party for which Chazan was, at the time, an important party leader.
In 1927, Kfar Brandeis, named for the Supreme Court Justice, was founded as a rural village South of the moshav Hadera with money endowed by Brandeis and his Palestine Economic Corporation. Each of the original 40 families settling there received a farm, 20 chickens and a cow, a share in a joint orchard, and a small one-room home. Ten years later, Brandeis spearheaded the founding of what became Ein HaShofet (“the Judge’s Spring,” also named for him), the first American-established kibbutz in Eretz Yisrael, for which he raised some $70,000 dollars from American Jews – including his own $50,00 donation. Located about 15 miles southeast of Haifa, it remains an active industrial and agricultural kibbutz today.
Brandeis died of a heart attack in 1941 and, in accordance with his own arrangements, he was buried beneath the portico of the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. His largest bequests after providing for his family were to the Palestine Endowment Fund and Hadassah, and the Brandeis Memorial Colony was established in Eretz Yisrael the following year as a haven for Jewish Holocaust survivors.