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Zionism, Ethics and the New Birth of Freedom

Once upon a time, Zionism was considered one of the most progressive of causes among American liberals. Support for Zionism was thought to go hand in hand with noble goals such as civil rights and the advancement of freedom, free speech and tolerance, cultural pluralism and the rights of minorities. And the American Zionist movement was led by one of the nation’s most powerful, influential and innovative figures, Louis Brandeis.

During the years which marked the heyday of his Zionist involvement, which lasted from 1913 to 1921, Brandeis not only put the American Zionist movement on its feet, he laid down the basic conceptual framework through which Americans, Jews and non-Jews, articulated and channeled their support for Zionism and the state of Israel down to the present day. He also articulated a vision of Zionism rooted as much in liberal values as in Jewish concerns, which owed as much to Thomas Jefferson as it did to Theodore Herzl, perhaps more. Remote as that vision seems to be from the realities of Israeli life today, it is worth recalling and exploring, for its own sake and for what we can learn from its power, as well as limitations.

The first Jew ever to sit on the US Supreme Court, Louis Bandeis was, for years before that, a cutting-edge figure in American law, social policy and constitutional thought. His path to Zionism, like that of many others, of whom Herzl is only the most prominent example, took him from the circles of power and influence which he had attained as an assimilated Jew, to the concerns and hopes of the Jewish people, and in particular to the distresses of East European Jewry. In the end, Brandeis was unable fully to identify with Eastern European Jews, and with the style of politics which they brought to the Zionist movement. After several years at the helm not only of American Zionism but the Zionist movement worldwide, he and his supporters went their own way.

Brandeis was born in Kentucky in 1856 to a family of largely assimilated German Jews. His intellectual brilliance and drive led him to Harvard Law School where, among other things, he founded the Harvard Law Review, the first major American scholarly journal of law. He stayed in Boston, and over the decades established himself as a successful corporate lawyer while coming to be known, by virtue of his innovative work on behalf of the Progressive movement and its causes, as "the people’s attorney."

Louis Brandeis came of age during a period of great changes in American life. Factors such as industrialization, mass migrations, increasingly bigger corporations and the rise of densely populated major cities created great dislocations, new masses of the poor in both urban areas and the countryside – and new, hitherto unimaginable degrees of wealth and power for a lucky few.  Brandeis saw here a structural inequality, "the curse of bigness," and in particular of unregulated corporate monopolies and the political interests supporting them, which cried out for remedy, to be delivered by law.

Up to that time, lawyers and the law had been seen, correctly enough, as largely conservative elements in society, which served chiefly to protect the social and economic status quo. Brandeis was one of the first American advocates to see the possibility of the law as an instrument of social change. He began to take on cases aimed at promoting social causes and rectifying systemic injustices (such as monopolies and unjust wage structures) and he developed a new legal methodology to do so: the "Brandeis Brief" marshaled information derived from the new social sciences of economics, sociology and statistics to frame legal arguments.

This new method in turn reflected his belief that the law was not a fixed entity in itself, but rather a set of responses to changing human circumstances, properly guided by enduring values, above all respect for individuals, their dignity and their freedom. To his mind, while basic values were eternal and commanding, the law was a never-ending experiment, and America’s local governments in all their diversity were "laboratories of democracy."

Brandeis became a leading figure in America’s Progressive movement, a coalition of rural populists, economic nationalists, and liberals – the group with which he identified. Brandeis was not a socialist; he believed in free markets and competition, regulated by the state, to protect small businessmen and limit the political influence of big business. He greatly influenced the leader of the Progressives’ liberal wing, Woodrow Wilson, who, when he became President in 1916, appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court. There he emerged as the champion of civil rights and liberties.

Through most of his career, Brandeis had very little Jewish involvement. In 1905 he addressed a Jewish audience for the first time and said that he had high hopes for the Eastern European Jews arriving in America in droves because, unlike the German-Jewish circles in which he had been raised, they possessed "idealism and reverence." In 1910, Brandeis mediated a strike of New York garment workers and this brought him into contact with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, struggling workers and activist intellectuals. He found himself deeply moved by them and their struggles even as – in a hint of things to come – he found that his very American pragmatism regularly collided with their ideological fervor.

And so Louis Brandeis began his own journey down the road traveled by so many Westernized modern Jews, whose encounters with Eastern European Jewry brought them in touch with parts of themselves they had hardly known existed, and to political and cultural commitments they never would have imagined.

The fledgling American Zionist movement sensed an opportunity and began to court him, a task made easier by the fact that many of the progressive intellectuals and activists with whom he was already engaged on social and political issues were Zionists themselves. At first Brandeis began to advise the Zionists, much the same way that he advised and lent his name to any number of worthy causes. With time his involvement deepened, in part due to his relationship with the young Jewish philosopher who first coined the phrase "cultural pluralism," Horace Kallen.

Brandeis had known Kallen, twenty-five years his junior, at Harvard, and in 1913 as Brandeis’ Zionist involvement deepened, he had Kallen send him some of his writings, in which he was developing the idea that rather than being a ‘melting pot,’ American culture should aim to be "a harmony…to which each [nation] contributes its unique tone." His exchanges were Kallen were crucial to the development of his Zionist ideas.

Brandeis and Kallen attempted an answer to a peculiarly American question, namely how is it that I, an American Jew who believes and identifies deeply with America’s culture, heritage and public philosophy, similarly identify with the problem of the Jews and of Judaism, and of Zionism’s various solutions to these problems? And how do I go on so believing and identifying?  This American question of Kallen’s still resonates, today.

Their answer was Zionism as a form of cultural pluralism.  It was a political Zionism whose politics had a powerful Herzlian element of political rights for minorities, and a deep, Ahad Ha’am-like, element of cultural revival with ethics at the center. Kallen and later Brandeis were, in this mix of self-phenomenology and political philosophy, making two arguments: 

First, that American identity, when thought through to its deepest roots and intentions, yielded a much broader harvest of loyalties, aspirations, affiliations and values than the distinctively Anglo-Saxon heritage of its founders, not because a range of cultures and ethnicities dotted the American landscape but because, as Kallen wrote in a 1915 essay, entitled "Democracy vs. the Melting Pot", "Americanization has not repressed nationality. Americanization has liberated nationality…Because no individual is merely an individual, the political autonomy of the individual has meant and is beginning to realize the spiritual autonomy of the group." 

The second argument was that Zionism could and ought to be moving along the same basic continuum as Americanism, towards a liberal polity that would enable a range of people and minorities to flourish in light of their own historical experiences. For them Zionism was, in a deep and real sense, Americanism by another name and with a different, though not contradictory, historical inflection. Their commitments to Zionism and to Americanism did not, to their mind, conflict, because they sincerely saw each very much as a reflection of the other.  And they were helped along here by a peculiarly American mix of Protestant Biblicism and Enlightenment humanism, which was also at work in their Progressive political commitments as well.

By 1915, Brandeis’ Zionist vision had come to fully flower,  and he laid it out in a speech to the largest association of Reform Rabbis. His audience was only partially ready for what he had to say. Like classical Reform, Brandeis understood Judaism and Jewish values almost entirely in terms of universal ethics. But while Reform saw Zionism as running contrary to those values, Louis Brandeis saw it as the very best way to bring them to life.

It all begins with individual freedom – and for an individual to realize his freedom he must be free to live the life of his culture. Brandeis distinguished between nation and nationality – nations being the political institutions in which nationalities come to expression.

Democracy, he said, "insists that the full development of each individual is not only a right, but a duty to society; and that our best hope for civilization lies not in uniformity, but in wide differentiation." For its part, what Brandeis called "the Jewish spirit," was "essentially modern and essentially American." How could this be?

He continued:

America’s fundamental law seeks to make real the brotherhood of man. That brotherhood became the Jewish fundamental law more than twenty-five hundred years ago. America’s insistent demand in the twentieth century is for social justice. That has also been the Jews’ striving for ages. Their affliction as well as their religion has prepared the Jews for effective democracy. Persecution broadened their sympathies. It trained them in patient endurance, in self-control, and in self-sacrifice. It made them think as well as suffer. It deepened the passion for righteousness.

And Brandeis concluded "loyalty to America demands…that each American Jew become a Zionist. For only through the ennobling effect of its strivings can we develop the best that is in us and give to this country the full benefit of our great inheritance…"

In this vision Judaism is a particular people’s mission to teach universal ethical values, a mission that they can realize only by maintaining their own identity and keeping true to their historical experience. Only by winning independence, freeing themselves from persecution and maintaining their culture in their homeland can they be true to their ethical mission, which at bottom is the same ethical mission of America.

With the outbreak of World War I, American Zionists found themselves at the forefront of the world Zionist movement, and Brandeis was catapulted to international Jewish leadership. He approached this with the same pragmatic earnestness and technical skill that he had brought to other causes and his slogan was "Men! Money! Discipline!" He set to work organizing the movement and supervising massive relief projects in Europe.

Brandeis’ Zionist vision was stated succinctly in the so-called Pittsburgh Program, announced at a conference there in 1918, aiming to offer a distinctly American reaffirmation of the Basel Program put forward by Herzl in 1897. Its first principle was "political and civil equality irrespective of race, sex, or faith, for all the inhabitants of the land.” Its other provisions went on to list American Progressive ideas such as public land ownership and free public education, and the importance of Hebrew.

Of course, from today’s perspective, this platform seems to be a message from another planet. A Zionism whose very first principle – and the only political principle articulated in the document – is civic and political equality for all, Arabs and Jews?  Before we simply dismiss it out of hand, we need to recall that the meaning of nationalism was different before and after the Versailles conference that ended World War I. Before the first world war, nationalism was in many respects a liberal claim, a moral claim for liberty by ethnic groups pressed against oppressive empires, and thus a claim more easily reconcilable with universalist moralities. Early Zionists, like Brandeis, did not see relations with Palestinian Arabs as necessarily zero-sum, since both were engaged in a struggle for self-definition vis-à-vis the Ottomans.  After World War I with the attendant collapse of the Ottoman, Romanov and Austro-Hungarian empires and the weakening of the Western imperial system as a whole, nationalism increasingly became a claim pressed by ethnic groups against one another, to the bloody results we see today. 

The Pittsburgh Program’s terribly thin version of Jewish culture, as reflected in its simple invocation of Hebrew and no more, prefigured another and more immediate conflict within the Zionist movement itself.

After the war, Louis Brandeis found himself increasingly at odds with the World Zionist Organization and its leader, Chaim Weizmann. The two engaged in the kind of mind-numbing organizational battles which characterize Zionist history, and which today seem more distant than the Stone Age. The heart of it was that with the Balfour Declaration, Brandeis saw the role of the Zionist movement as technocratic, providing economic and professional help to the locals in Palestine, who would be free to develop themselves and their institutions, just like their American counterparts championed by Brandeis and the Progressives.

Though Weizmann well understood the imperatives driving Brandeis, he believed that Zionism had to continue being a mass movement of the Jewish people, above all the Jews of Eastern Europe. It was they who gave Zionism its demographic heft and moral power. It was they who the Zionist revolution sought to modernize and transform through nation-building. By 1921, the split between the two of them was complete. Weizmann retained the leadership of the WZO, while Brandeis and his followers found various avenues for their Zionist activity, such as Hadassah. Some became supporters of Brit Shalom, others eventually found their way back into the WZO.

The contact with Eastern European Jewry that brought Brandeis face-to-face with his own Jewishness and made him a Zionist also highlighted the limits of that engagement. In his later years, he forged deep personal connections with young circles of Hashomer Hatzair, whose Progressive ideals resonated with his own and who, like him, were already distanced from the traditions of Eastern Europe by several generations. Brandeis stayed on the Supreme Court until 1939, all the while maintaining his championing of civil rights and liberties. He passed away in 1941.

What relevance, if any, does Brandeis’ vision have for us today?

American Jews still follow his basic formula that American identity can go well with a certain kind of Jewish identity, largely non-essentialized and value-driven. Primordial identities of peoplehood and land are made to pass through a sieve of universal values, and only then can they be considered legitimate. The state must justify itself by reference to values, and so the land, which is entirely instrumental. Thus Zionism, or support for Israel, is a facet of the liberal Progressivism Jews champion in the United States. American Zionism and American Jewishness are thus perceived not as dual or contradictory, but complementary features of a broader loyalty to the liberal ideal as a whole.

Of course, the Holocaust deepened the American Jewish commitment to Israel, lending it power, and even terror. And the Cold War reinforced the view of Israel as an extension of American’ values, and with good reason. Since the 1960s, support for Israel has become one very powerful expression of Jewish identity politics. And for these very reasons, the continuing sorrow of Israel’s settlement policies in Judea and Samaria corrodes American Zionism and the Jewish identity connected with it.

American Jews still subscribe to the broadly Progressive views of Louis Brandeis. Yet as they have moved up the socio-economic ladder they, like the so-called “New Left,” and its counterparts in both Europe and Israel, have successively lost touch with the working classes whose interests they have claimed to represent.  Much of their Progressivism is very much a middle class phenomenon, for better or worse.

In Israel itself Brandeis’ influence was felt in Israel through organizations such as Hadassah, whose combination of technical efficiency, volunteerism and avoidance of party politics (and openness to Arabs) were in his spirit. On the legal front, Shimon Agranat, who saw himself as a follower of Brandeis, brought much of his concern for civil rights and liberties to his work on the Supreme Court. Brandeis continues to influence leading jurists such as Aharon Barak and Ruth Gavison.

Yes, from today’s perspective the Zionism of Brandeis and Horace Kallen seems hopelessly naïve, and out of touch with the rough-and-tumble of Israeli society. Their vision of Judaism shorn of metaphysics and of most of the mitzvot is a total non-starter for religious Jews, while at the same time their passionate belief that Judaism really does mandate democracy and freedom is well removed from the profound secularism of Israel’s left, which is nurtured more by European ideologies and traditions than by Americans. The seeming apostles of American ideas in Israeli public life have embraced precisely the sort of robber-baron capitalism that Brandeis so determinedly fought.

And yet, Brandeis offers a special synthesis of a number of elements: Passion for social justice (which deeply impressed Rav Kook when he met Brandeis’ on his trip to America in 1924); careful attention to the concrete details of social policy; a commitment to human flourishing expressed in deep commitment to both individual freedom and to the cultivation of group identities and cultures; a belief in pluralism which requires both that my own culture be respected and that I in turn respect that of others. Amid all the dreadful things in Israeli society today, why not try and take up this vision, modified by the hard-won experience of the decades since Brandeis’ fateful clash with Weizmann, as at least one ideological alternative within the house of Israel?

Israel has suffered from a range of total ideologies, from socialism to free market fundamentalism, to religious fundamentalism, and others. Brandeisian liberalism offers a non-totalizing ideology which is nonetheless rooted in deep ethical commitments.

A liberal political order takes as its starting point a universal assumption regarding the essential liberty and dignity of human beings. This universality at some point must take into account the texture of individual lives, including their particular commitments. This leaves liberalism forever almost by definition having to struggle with the tension between its universalizing assumptions and the limits generated by those assumptions themselves.  And thus it is saved from the dangers of totalizing ideology. And how is it saved from the opposite danger, of polite and bland weakness? By the pillar of political Zionism as Herzl and Brandeis and others understood it, i.e. as a concrete answer to the very real sufferings of very real Jews.

At the same time, the Zionist cultural pluralism of Brandeis and Kallen is precious, precisely because by its own logic it must recognize other cultures and peoples and their respective claims not to deny Jewish claims, but precisely to affirm them.

The Zionism of Kallen and Brandeis – and perhaps that of Herzl too – imagined one significant shared element of identity between the Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, namely, their hero Abraham Lincoln would have put it, a new birth of freedom, for Jews and Arabs alike.  As it turns out, the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine saw things differently and many still do.  But does this vitiate a vision of peoples turning to one another, if not in a shared political vision, at least in support of each other’s freedoms, however far-off that may seem today? Can we come to see freedom of the individual not as that which dissolves collective life, but as that which can give it shape and moral direction? Can we build the land and the state, not as idols with which to crush people but as vessels for a humane and human spirit?


Yehudah Mirsky, a former State Department official, now lives in Jerusalem, where he is a Fellow of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. This essay appeared originally in Hebrew in Eretz Acheret and is reprinted with permission.


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