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Louis D. Brandeis, Zionist

Louis D. Brandeis

Brandeis University was established in 1948 by the American Jewish community. Located in a suburb of Boston, the 235-acre campus was built at a time when Jews and other ethnic and racial minorities, and women, faced discrimination in higher education.

The University was named after American born Louis D. Brandeis, (1856-1941) one of the greatest minds to serve on the High Court of the United States.

In 1916 Brandeis was appointed a judge on the Supreme Court of the United States by President Woodrow Wilson. He was the first Jew to sit on the High Court and succeeded in winning a bitterly contested process tinged with antisemitism.

Popularly known as “The People’s Lawyer” his representation for the welfare of poor people, exploited workers and items of public interest helped to make America a more human and just society.

Although Jewish, in his early fifties Brandeis was far removed, not just from Zionism, but from other forms of Jewish life.

He was very much an assimilated Jew with few Jewish business associates. He didn’t even belong to a synagogue and socially mixed with non-Jews.

His conversion to Zionism was really an enduring mystery, though an event in New York may have sparked his interest.

Garment Strike

A strike in New York by garment workers in 1910 involved Brandeis in a legal capacity, but what moved him unexpectedly were the number the Jewish workers from Eastern Europe who were involved in the strike.

He had never come into contact with any of them, nor had he recognized their plight.

Perhaps this industrial turmoil prompted him to explore the activities of the Zionist Movement in the United States. He became closely associated with their aims and objectives.

From 1914 to 1921 Brandeis became a leading Zionist in the United States, traveling across the country promoting the need for a Jewish State to be formed.

He attracted huge audiences who looked up to him as a prophet, likening him to Isaiah and pledging their dedicated devotion and faithfulness.

He was instrumental in playing a prominent role in persuading the American Government to support the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

A National Home

The Declaration adopted by the British Government was a promise to view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

Just a few weeks earlier, Brandeis had written a letter to his mother-in-law claiming

“The work for Zionism has seemed to me, on the whole, the most worthwhile of all I have attempted.”

Jewish Values

Although Brandeis was not a practicing Jew, his uncle Lewis Naphtali Dembitz, who emigrated from Prussia to America in 1849, had a very strong connection to Reform Judaism.

Dembitz was also a lawyer, working on the protection of the less affluent members of the community which impressed Brandeis greatly. The two became quite close.

Brandeis, in his capacity as head of Zionist Organization of America, was invited by his uncle to address a regional convention of Reform rabbis in 1915.

He did not advocate for the Jews of America to make aliyah, claiming that America gave Jews freedom to worship as they wished and protection of Jewish institutions, but he pointed out that American Jews should embrace Zionism as a means to preserve Jewish life.

Jewish values, he emphasized, would help to repair a broken world where scholarship, hard work, charity and decency were sadly in decline.

But many American Jews were not impressed. Their claim was, by embracing Zionism the Jews of America would be singled out as having dual loyalty.

Classical Reform Judaism argued that the failure of the two ancient Jewish States liberated Judaism from the burden of Statehood.

Their view was that Jews could pursue their spiritual mission as a people, wherever they lived. As events unfolded in later years, the Jews in Europe, some 50% of World Jewry at that time, were murdered in cold blood.

One Hundred Years On

Louis Brandeis never lived to see the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, but after one hundred years, his legacy lives on. Perhaps not as a biblical prophet, but certainly as a visionary.

What is happening today in America is disturbing for Jews of all religious persuasion. Antisemitism is rife and seemingly out of control.

And despite the difficulty Israel is currently facing, it still remains a safer haven for the continued mission of Judaism. To help create a better world.

Lloyd Masel made aliyah from Perth, Australia in 1999. He had been active in Zionist Federation programs in Australia, and was the Conductor and soloist of the Perth Hebrew Congregation male choir for 30 years.

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