On Monday, Professor Jonathan Sarna ’75 (NEJS) spoke about the history of Jewish political identity in America at a lecture celebrating his appointment to University Professor, the highest designation awarded to Brandeis professors.
Sarna first came to Brandeis University at the age of 10 when his father Professor Nachum Sarna became a part of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) staff. Sarna went on to become a member of the class of 1975, and returned a number of years later to teach at Brandeis. This is his 27th year as a faculty member, and between him and his father, the Sarna family has contributed to Brandeis for about half a century.
President Ron Liebowitz introduced Sarna, explaining that Sarna was awarded the honor because he is a “star in the world of American Jewish scholarship.” He praised Sarna as a “quintessential Brandeisian” and “not just a historian of American Judaism, but the historian of American Judaism.” The University Professional distinction is given to faculty who have achieved “exceptional scholarly or professional distinction” and “whose appointment will enhance the reputation and prestige of the university.”
Professor Sarna’s lecture, titled “Jews and American Politics: Historical Ideals and Contemporary Realities,” addressed the question of “Jewish politics,” meaning whether or not Jews have historically had a political identity as a people. Sarna opened his lecture by saying that this topic would have “shocked and horrified an earlier generation of Jews, in this country as well as in much of Western Europe” because Jewish figures had always asserted that the Jewish people as a whole do not have a political identity.
Sarna quoted a letter from 1864 written to Abraham Lincoln by the editor of the New York Jewish Messenger, which said “the Jews as a body have no politics.” At the time, Jews were scared that political power could endanger newly found rights acquired from the Jewish Emancipation, Sarna explained. As a result, Jews in Europe tried to shed their traditional communalism in favor of individualism, and that individualistic attitude followed them to the United States.
A newly discovered letter from 1864, however, showed that some Jewish political groups did exist, despite the traditional “no Jewish politics” stance. The letter was addressed “to our Jewish brethren” by the Jewish Union Republican Association and urged Jewish voters to cast their ballots in favor of Abraham Lincoln. The document was evidence of an organized Jewish political group, even though previously found papers show Jews denying political affiliations as a people, said Sarna.
Following the 1864 election, there were many occurrences of Jewish thinkers persuading Jews to vote one way or another. One example Sarna shared occurred in 1868, the next election following the letter to Lincoln. In the election—between Ulysses S. Grant and Horatio Seymour—a Jewish newspaper published a debate between two Reform rabbis about who the Jewish vote should go to. The election was contentious for Jews, because during the Civil War, Grant had expelled Jews as a class from his war zone in General Order No. 11. As a result, many Jews were considered voting against Grant, but were also nervous they would be accused of dual loyalty if they cast their vote based on that reasoning.
One of the rabbis, Rabbi Adler, made the case that Jews should not vote based on their own ethnic interests, and even went as far to say that if he thought it would be better for the welfare of the country, he would “vote for the party of Haman” (the evil character in the Purim festival story). Rabbi Wise opposed Adler’s view and expressed that identity could not be compartmentalized, and that Jewish concerns must be taken into account when voting. Sarna characterized that election as a turning point for American Jews, who finally felt they had a voice in the electoral arena.
Sarna went on to give more examples of how the “Jewish vote” has manifested itself through American history. He also spoke about the Jewish trend to vote Democrat, which is still true today, but is less unanimous than it once was in Jewish American history.
The “Jewish vote” is sought after for multiple reasons, according to Sarna: Jews vote in higher percentages than other populations, campaigns are often heavily funded by Jewish donors and large populations of Jews happen to live in swing states. Lastly, Sarna addressed this past election, and noted that 75 percent of the Jewish vote went to Hillary Clinton. Sarna ended his lecture by saying that even addressing the topic publicly of Jewish politics nowadays shows that “Jews have moved, in recent decades, from fearful outsiders to confident insiders.”
After the talk, there was a reception in honor of Professor Sarna in the Shapiro Campus Center. The last professor to be awarded the University Professor title was Prof. Anita Hill (Heller).