August/September 1996, Page 38

Middle East History: It Happened In August

Justice Brandeis Was the Savior of Zionism in America

By Donald Neff

It was 84 years ago, on Aug. 13, 1912, that Louis Dembitz Brandeis, a future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, made a personal decision that would have a profound effect in establishing Zionism in the United States and thereby securing America’s eventual support for the Jewish state of Israel. Zionism had been founded 15 years earlier in Europe, but it had failed to gain much support among Jewish Americans. It had probably fewer than 20,000 followers from within the 2.5 million-member American Jewish community before World War I. In the words of a pro-Zionist writer, American Zionism then was “a small and feeble enterprise.”1 A historian of the movement described Zionism at the time as still “small and weak, in great financial distress, and low in morale.”2

This began to change after an August 1912 meeting Brandeis had with Jacob de Haas, editor of the Boston Jewish Advocateand an early Zionist. A decade earlier, de Haas had been an aide to Zionism’s founder, Theodore Herzl. Intrigued by de Haas’ tales of Herzl and the beginnings of Zionism, Brandeis hired de Haas to instruct him in Zionism over the winter of 1912-13. At the end of that time Brandeis was a convert to Zionism.3 Within two years, on Aug. 30, 1914, Brandeis became head of the Provisional Executive for General Zionist Affairs, making him the leader of the Zionist Central Office, which had been removed from Berlin to neutral America just before the outbreak of World War I.

Brandeis, the son of middle-class immigrants from Prague, was a brilliant attorney who had graduated at the top of his law class at Harvard. In 1912 he was 56 years of age, a wealthy Bostonian, a political progressive, a tireless reformer and one of the most famous attorneys in the country, known as the People’s Attorney because of his successful litigation against big business on behalf of labor. His courtroom victories brought him riches as well as the enmity of the business establishment, including the wealthy Jewish communities of New York and Boston.4

What made Brandeis’ conversion so surprising was that he was a non-observant Jew who believed firmly in America’s melting pot and had grown up “free from Jewish contacts or traditions,” as he put it.5 It was not until he was in his 50s that Brandeis began paying attention to the Jewish experience. His sense of ethnic kinship had been sharpened by the turn-of-the-century wave of new Jewish immigrants that had led to rising anti-Semitism in America and at the same time had exposed Brandeis to Zionists. These influences came while his popular causes had estranged him from the Brahmin society of Boston and the New York business community, leaving him isolated from the mainline Jewish community.

New York’s and Boston’s prosperous upper-class Jews rejected Zionism’s pessimistic tenet that anti-Semitism was inevitable. Instead, they believed in keeping an ethnic low profile and seeking social assimilation with other Americans. The elite position and wealth enjoyed by upper-class American Jews proved to them that the American melting pot worked. The last thing they wanted was an ideology that advocated establishment of a foreign country specifically for Jews. They feared this would not only bring into question their place in the melting pot, but also their loyalty to the land that had brought them a comfortable and secure life. Implicit in Zionism was the sensitive issue of dual loyalty toward a Jewish state and toward the nations in which its supporters actually were living.

Opponents of Zionism in America included Jewish socialists and workers, who disdained it as a form of bourgeois nationalism. Ultraorthodox Jewish religious groups went even further, describing Zionism as “the most formidable enemy that has ever arisen among the Jewish people” because it sought to do God’s work through politics.6 Not even the new immigrants streaming out of Eastern Europe were attracted to Zionism, as was obvious from the fact that most of them had chosen to bypass Palestine and go instead to the United States and other Western countries.

Unlike Jews who embraced the melting pot, Zionists openly rejected assimilation. Alienation lay at the heart of Zionism, as explained by Theodore Herzl when he first formulated its purpose and aims in early 1896 in his seminal pamphlet Der Judenstaat: “We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers,” he wrote. “It is not permitted us.”7

At its core, this was the fundamental rationale of Zionism: a profound despair that anti-Semitism could not be eradicated as long as Jews lived among gentiles. Out of this dark vision came the belief that the only hope for the survival of the Jews lay in the founding of their own state.

With his conversion came changes in Brandeis’ embrace of the American melting pot. He now preached the “salad bowl,” a belief in cultural pluralism in which ethnic groups maintained their unique identity. Brandeis maintained:

“America…has always declared herself for equality of nationalities as well as for equality of individuals. America has believed that each race had something of peculiar value which it can contribute… America has always believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress.”8

As for the unsettling question of dual loyalty, the foremost suspicion about Zionism among gentiles, Brandeis asserted there was no conflict between being an American and a Zionist:

“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent…Every American 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 Jewish spirit, the product of our religion and experiences, is essentially modern and essentially American.”9

Brandeis’s Zionism, however, was far from the reality on the ground in Palestine, where Arabs and Jews viewed each other with mutual suspicions. He linked Zionists with the early New England Puritans, declaring that “Zionism is the Pilgrim inspiration and impulse over again. The descendants of the Pilgrim fathers should not find it hard to understand and sympathize with it.” To Jewish audiences he said: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.”10

Brandeis’ Zionism, obviously, was different from the passionate and messianic Zionism of Europe, driven as it was by pessimism about the enduring anti-Semitism of the world against Jews and the need for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s Arabs. His was an ethnic philanthropic vision, a desire to help needy Jews set down a kind of New England town in the Middle East—but with no intention of going to Palestine to live among them. This concept of helping with financial support but not actually moving to Palestine remained central to American Zionists and helps explain why through the years so few Jewish Americans have emigrated to Israel.11 To European Zionists, it was a pale and anemic version of their life’s passion, “Zionism without Zion,” they grumbled.12

While Brandeis’s vision of Zionism was unrealistically idealistic, he would achieve what probably no other Zionist could have. He became instrumental in gaining the support of the United States for a Jewish state in Palestine. Brandeis accomplished this feat by using his friendship with President Woodrow Wilson to advocate the Zionist cause, which he achieved by serving as a conduit between British Zionists and Wilson.

The president was a ready listener. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister and a daily reader of the Bible. Although not particularly interested in the political ramifications of Zionism, he shared the vague sentiment of a number of Christians at the time that there would be a certain biblical justice to have the Jews return to Palestine.

Wilson thought so highly of Brandeis that he appointed him to the Supreme Court on Jan. 28, 1916, thereby enormously increasing Brandeis’ prestige and his influence in the White House. In turn, Brandeis resigned from all the numerous public and private clubs and organizations he belonged to, including, ostensibly, his leadership of American Zionism. His resignation, however, did not mean Brandeis had deserted Zionism or active involvement in its promotion. Behind the scenes he continued to play a leadership role. At his Supreme Court chambers in Washington he received daily reports on Zionist activities from the New York headquarters and issued orders to his loyal lieutenants, many of them graduates of Harvard, now heading American Zionism.13

While on the court, Brandeis was instrumental in 1917 in gaining Wilson’s support for Britain’s Balfour Declaration, a seminal document that thereafter served as Zionism’s claim to have a legitimate right to settle in Palestine (Washington Report, October/November 1995).

The final major diplomatic achievement of Brandeis and American Zionism in the post-World War I period was the passage by Congress on Sept. 11, 1922, of a joint resolution favoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The words of the resolution practically echoed the Balfour Declaration.

“Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the United States of America favors the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of Christian and all other non-Jewish communities in Palestine, and that the Holy places and religious buildings and sites in Palestine shall be adequately protected.”14

Zionists trumpeted the resolution as another Balfour Declaration, evidence that a Jewish state had official support not only from Britain but from the United States. After all, it had been sponsored by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Representative Hamilton Fish and signed by President Warren G. Harding.

However, during the debate leading up to passage of the resolution, a number of speakers had emphasized that it was merely an expression of sympathy by the Congress, had no force in law and in no way would involve the United States in foreign entanglements. This was the interpretation adopted by the State Department, which had opposed Zionism since its beginning, considering it a minority group interfering in foreign affairs.15

Passage of the congressional resolution was the height of Brandeis’ brand of American Zionism, and also the end of its heroic period. Under Brandeis the Zionist membership had burgeoned tenfold, reaching around 200,000 after the heralded victory of the Balfour Declaration. The momentum of that historic event carried over into the halls of Congress and resulted in the joint resolution. But a year before the resolution became a reality, Brandeis himself had been swept from power in Zionist councils in a showdown with European Zionists. Brandeis’ tepid form of Zionism was simply too emotionless and sterile for them.16

Nonetheless, his contribution to Zionism had been enormous, not only in gaining official U.S. support but also in establishing the intellectual framework for the movement in America. It was from Brandeis’ time that American Zionists began a concerted effort to link American ideals and interests with a Jewish state and thereby establish a mutual identity. How successful Brandeis and his successors have been was demonstrated at the two most recent annual meetings of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

In 1995 President Bill Clinton had become the first sitting president ever to appear before the lobbying group. On April 28, 1996, appearing before AIPAC for the second time, he told the applauding audience that the relationship between America and Israel was “based on shared values and common strategies.”17 Two days later at the White House, Clinton told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres that America “stands with Israel through good times and bad because our countries share the same ideals—freedom, tolerance, democracy.”18 However astonishing Palestinians and foreign observers might find that description of a country that continues to occupy foreign territories by force and continuing to deprive their occupants of political and civil rights of any kind, the fact is that Zionists have been successful in selling in the United States Brandeis’ preposterous claim that the Zionist state and America are basically the same.

* Available through the AET Book Club


*Ball, George W. and Douglas B. Ball, The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel, New York, Olive Branch Press, 1993.

Bruce, Allen Murphy, The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection: The Secret Political Activities of Two Supreme Court Justices, Garden City, NY, Anchor Press/Doubleday & Co., 1983.

Grose, Peter, Israel in the Mind of America, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Howe, Irving, World of Our Fathers, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Mallison, Thomas and Sally V., The Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order, London, Longman Group Ltd., 1986.

Manuel, Frank E., The Realities of American-Palestine Relations, Washington, DC, Public Affairs Press, 1949.

*Neff, Donald, Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel since 1945, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestiine Studies, 1995.

O’Brien, Lee, American Jewish Organizations & Israel, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1986.

Sachar, Howard M., A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Tel Aviv, Steimatzky’s Agency Ltd., 1976.

Tivnan, Edward, The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy , New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.


  1. Quoted in Howe, World of Our Fathers, p. 204. Also see Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, p. 45; Manuel, The Realities of American-Palestine Relations, p. 112.
  2. Yonathan Shapiro, quoted in O’Brien, American Jewish Organizations and Israel, p. 38.
  3. Murphy, The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection, pp. 25-26.
  4. Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, p. 48.
  5. Tivnan, The Lobby, p. 16.
  6. Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, p. 72.
  7. Sachar, A History of Israel, p. 40.
  8. Neff, Fallen Pillars, p. 11.
  9. Tivnan, The Lobby, p. 17.
  10. Neff, Fallen Pillars, p. 11.
  11. In the 28 years between Israel’s founding in 1948 and 1976, fewer than 60,000 Jewish Americans migrated to Israel. Of these, 80 percent returned to the United States, the highest rate of any immigrant group; see Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins, p. 197.
  12. Tivnan, The Lobby, p. 19.
  13. Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, p. 57; Murphy, The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection, p. 56.
  14. Manuel, The Realities of American-Palestine Relations, p. 282.
  15. Ibid., pp. 281-82.
  16. Neff, Fallen Pillars, p. 17.
  17. C-SPAN2.
  18. Thomas W. Lippman, Washington Post, 4/30/96.