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Louis Brandeis: once influential part of American Zionism

By Aaron Hersh

Section: News

March 4, 2016

Jewish scholars participated in a panel on Tuesday evening called “Louis Brandeis and the Transformation of American Zionism: Vision, Identity and Legacy.” The panel was part of “Louis Brandeis 100: Then & Now,” the semester-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of Justice Brandeis’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The panel consisted of several academic theorists within the fields of Judaism and Israeli studies who have different points of view on the subject. Justice Brandeis was the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice and a prominent figure in the American Jewish community. Due to this role, he was influential in the Zionist movement, or the push to create a Jewish national state in Palestine.

“One of the things that is always so remarkable about Brandeis is his relationship between idealism and practicality,” said Yehuda Mirsky, associate Professor in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) department. According to Mirsky, this attribute was evident throughout Brandeis’ activism in American Zionism.

In his introductory remarks, Rabbi David Ellenson, acting director of the Schusterman Center, brought up the importance of Brandeis’ role “not only in the creation of a Jewish state, but also in the creation of an American version of Zionism.” Ellenson further said that Brandeis’ stance toward Zionism related strongly to his progressive views and politics.

Each of the panelists broke down these facts. Professor Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, remarked how Brandeis did not become involved with Zionism and Judaism until the second half of his life, when several events could have inspired this turnaround. One of these could have been his encounter with Eastern European Jews after a cloakmakers’ strike in 1910, as well as the rise of anti-Semitism. But Sarna believed that the most practical reason for Brandeis’ involvement in Jewish life and Zionist activism was the emergence of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from World War I. Brandeis felt the need to create a home for the Jews where they could live without fear, there could be education and where “all is possible, which we [Americans] had pictured to ourselves as desirable.” This became Brandeis’ vision of Zionism.

Mirsky continued, explaining how Brandeis suddenly became active in the Zionist movement. He said that Brandeis was part of the “paradigm of return” to Judaism. He was “deeply engaged in the life of his time and involved in society,” but something happened that led him to discover his connection to Judaism, and he chose to act on it. Once Brandeis had this realization, he also discovered, through talking with his student Horace Kallen, that American ideals lead to a “broader and richer harvest” of identity. Furthermore, he thought about how the American idea itself is about pluralism, while still keeping Zionism in mind.

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