It is difficult today to imagine a time when American Jewry was not strongly committed to Israel. Before 1914, however, many — if not most — major American Jewish leaders and organizations were either lukewarm or openly opposed to a Jewish state in Palestine. One man – Louis D. Brandeis — did more than anyone else to change that attitude. Following Brandeis’s lead, the majority of American Jews came to see a future state of Israel as essential for saving oppressed Jews abroad. They also came to understand it as the key to American Jewish renewal.
Opposition to a Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine came from many corners. One source was the highly assimilated American Jews, mostly from German-Jewish backgrounds, associated with the Reform movement and the American Jewish Committee. These individuals believed that if American Jews called openly for a homeland in Palestine, they would be accused of divided loyalty or, even worse, disloyalty to the United States. American Jewry, they argued, had found its promised land in the United States. They rallied to the cry, “America is our Zion.” One outstanding secular Jewish leader, Jacob Schiff, thought Zionism would foster “a separateness that would be fatal.” Isaac Mayer Wise, patriarch of American Reform, observed, “We think it about as well to let the old Jerusalem rest under the accretion of ages as it is described in the Bible and Josephus. The consequences to mankind cannot be found under the rubbish of 2,000 years.”
Traditional Orthodox leaders also spoke out against secular efforts at recreating a Jewish nation in what had been ancient Israel. According to historian Melvin Urofsky, these Jews believed that it was God, not man, who would have to restore the Jewish people to Jerusalem. When Zionist advocate Julius Haber tried to fundraise at a Lower East Side synagogue, an elderly man told him, “Young man, you are going against God’s will. If he wanted us to have Zion again, He would restore it again without the help of the so-called Zionists. God doesn’t need apprentices. Please go schnorr somewhere else and let us lament in peace, like good Jews.”
Urofsky indicates that, by 1914, when war broke out in Europe, a silent majority of American Jews may well have supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but that these Jews were mostly recent immigrants from Poland, Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe who had fresh memories of pogroms and widespread anti-Semitism However, many of these new Americans could not or did not vote and had no time for political activity, caught up as they were in making a living, raising their children and adapting to American life.
When Louis Brandeis embraced Zionism, he legitimized the American call for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. On the surface, Brandeis was an unlikely candidate for Zionist leader. Born into an affluent German-Jewish family in Louisville, Kentucky in 1865, his parents were deists and raised him with universalist, rather than strictly Jewish, values. At age 19, Brandeis enrolled directly in Harvard Law School without first attending college. While at Harvard, the young Brandeis met Emerson, Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. A few years after graduation, Brandeis’s highly successful Boston law practice afforded him the income and influence to become the nation’s leading patrician advocate for progressive reforms such as public regulation of utilities, savings bank life insurance and anti-monopoly legislation. Reserved and aloof, almost no one suspected he would become a firebrand for Zionism.
Brandeis’s Jewish involvement began when he learned, in 1910, that his uncle, Louis Dembitz, whom he highly admired and for whom he was named, had been a Zionist. Intrigued by the news, Brandeis undertook to read everything he could find on Zionism. Brandeis’s desire to help Eastern European Jewry find a safe haven in Palestine was heightened by his contact in 1910 with Russian immigrant garment workers, whom he met while mediating a strike. He saw in these Jews a democratic spirit and idealism he had not expected. In 1913, Brandeis agreed to chair a Zionist meeting in Boston. Not content to be a mere figurehead, by 1915 Brandeis became Zionism’s leading public spokesman in America.
Brandeis believed that Zionism and Americanism were compatible. “The highest Jewish ideals are essentially American in a very important particular,” he proclaimed. “It is Democracy that Zionism represents. It is Social Justice which Zionism represents, and every bit of that is the American ideal of the twentieth century.” Brandeis often repeated, “Zionism is the Pilgrim inspiration and impulse all over again.” He told his audiences, “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.“
By 1917, the American Zionist movement increased its membership tenfold to 200,000 members. The American Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs, which Brandeis chaired, raised millions to relieve Jews who were suffering throughout war-torn Europe. American Jewry thenceforth became the financial center for the world Zionist movement. In 1916, despite strong opposition to the nomination, President Wilson appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court, affirming Brandeis’s contention that a Zionist could be a good American. A year later, Great Britain announced its intention to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Zionism, at first only the dream of a small minority, had moved to the center of the world stage, and American Jewish life.