Brandeis, Louis Dembitz

(1856–1941)
   US Supreme Court judge and Zionist leader. Brandeis was the most eminent American Jew in his time, and his accession to Zionism late in life gave the movement a new political dimension in the United States.
   His parents came from liberal and cultured Prague families, that emigrated to the United States after the crushing of the 1848 uprising in Europe. They settled in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father was a grain and feed merchant and where Louis was born. A brilliant student, he finished high school at fifteen, spent two years at Dresden, Germany, and at the age of twenty graduated from Harvard Law School with the highest grades ever recorded. He set up a law partnership in Boston and within the next decade became one of the most celebrated lawyers in the country.
   There was something about him that reminded people of the young Abe Lincoln. He was tall and spare, with finecut features, and was a man of austere habits and deep moral convictions. His powerful sense of social justice had an impact on his law practice. He fought the large corporate interests on behalf of the small man - the consumer, the investor and the wage-earner - and became known as the ‘people’s attorney’. When Woodrow WILSON, an intellectual and a reformer, was elected president in 1912, Brandeis was drawn into his circle of advisers.
   In 1916, the president nominated him for a vacancy as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court, but the Senate confirmation ran into heavy weather, and it took four months. Conservative opinion and big business regarded him as too radical. Besides, there had till then never been a Jewish member of the court. On the bench, Brandeis was in a liberal minority, together with the illustrious Oliver Wendell Holmes. His dissenting opinions were erudite, closely reasoned and lucid. He applied his broad philosophy of government and society to such matters as labour legislation, freedom of speech, and the over-centralization of power and responsibility at the federal level. He sought to adjust the American Constitution to change, and regarded the court as an instrument of such change. In his twenty-three years on the Supreme Court, Brandeis saw these views gain ground, though the dichotomy between the judges of conservative and liberal bent has continued.
   Judaism and Zionism
   Brandeis had no formal Jewish upbringing, and was on the fringes of Jewish life until he was in the middle fifties. In 1911 he mediated a labour dispute in the New York garment industry, where most of the employers and workers were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. He came away impressed by the outlook and qualities of these Jews about whom he had known very little. Soon after, he was introduced to Zionism by Jacob de HAAS, an English Jew producing a Jewish periodical in Boston. In the early days of the movement, Haas had been secretary to Dr HERZL in London. Brandeis avidly read the background material he was given and concluded that ‘to be good Americans we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews we must become Zionists’. The following year, he took the chair at a meeting in Boston ad dressed by the Russian Zionist leader Dr Nahum SOKOLOW.
   After the outbreak of World War I, the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs was set up in the United States, with Brandeis at its head. Its first task was to organize aid for the yishuv in Palestine, which was cut off from Europe by the war, repressed by the Turkish authorities, and suffering economic stagnation. The United States was still neutral, and its relations with Turkey were intact. Brandeis also threw his weight behind the efforts of Rabbi Stephen WISE and others to organize the democratic and broadly based American Jewish Congress as a representative body to uphold Jewish interests after the war.
   Brandeis played a key part in the political lobbying led by Dr WEIZMANN in England that produced the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. He kept in constant touch with Dr Weizmann, used his influence with President Wilson in favour of a post-war British protectorate over Palestine, and neutralized the anti- Zionist attitudes of a number of wealthy and influential American Jews. The prestige of Brandeis was valuable to Weizmann, since the British ambassador in Washington was reporting to London that American Jewry was divided on the question of the Balfour Declaration. Brandeis had a chance to talk directly to the British foreign secretary, Arthur BALFOUR, when the latter visited Washington in April 1917, a month after the United States had entered the war. In 1920, Brandeis led a strong US delegation at the Zionist conference in London, the first international gathering of the movement since before the war. It soon became apparent that there were serious differences of opinion between Brandeis and Weizmann - ‘between Washington and Pinsk’, as one delegate aptly put it. Brandeis and his most important US colleagues regarded the political mission of the Zionist movement as fulfilled by the Balfour Declaration and the grant to Britain of a League of Nations mandate committed to a Jewish National Home in Palestine. What was now required was to put the yishuv on a sound economic footing, mainly through encouraging private investment. Each national Zionist federation should sponsor specific development projects. At the centre should be a small co-ordinating body, including a few major figures in the business world like James de ROTHSCHILD, Sir Alfred MOND and one or two American magnates. Brandeis had paid a brief visit to Palestine the previous year. He had been appalled by the neglected and rundown look of the Jewish colonies he had seen and the lack of modern efficiency and proper financial controls of Zionist funds. Moreover, he was exasperated by the conference rhetoric, which he thought a waste of time. He saw no need for a costly international Zionist apparatus, for an enlarged Jewish Agency or for the Keren Hayesod (Foundation Fund), the central fund-raising institution Weizmann was about to initiate.
   From Weizmann’s point of view, Brandeis had failed to grasp the essence of Zionism for the European Jews, and especially for those of eastern European origin. For them, it remained a national movement that aimed at a new society in the Homeland, and the revival of Jewish cultural life in the Diaspora. The colonization work in Palestine could not be judged just by economic criteria. In any case, Weizmann held that Brandeis had made unduly harsh judgments on the basis of a two week visit, and had not allowed for the blighting effects of the war years. For Weizmann’s supporters what Brandeis was proposing was ‘Zion without Zionism’. In spite of the disagreements Brandeis accepted the post of honorary president.
   The clash of concepts came to a head at the Cleveland Convention of the Zionist Organization of America in 1921, attended by Weizmann and other European leaders. The proposals put forward by the Brandeis group were heavily outvoted, and Brandeis resigned from his official position, together with other prominent colleagues such as Judge Julian MACK, Rabbi Stephen WISE, and Professor Felix FRANKFURTER. The leadership was assumed by Louis LIPSKY and others who supported the Weizmann position. In the ensuing years Brandeis concentrated on stimulating economic opportunities in Palestine. He set up the Palestine Economic Corporation as an investment channel and the Palestine Endowment Fund to handle bequests and trusts. Whenever required, his counsel was available to the Zionist leaders. In his will, he left half the residue of his substantial estate to Hadassah, and that organization established in his name a vocational centre for boys in Jerusalem.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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