Louis Brandeis and Jewish Political Identity

Louis Brandeis and Jewish Political Identity

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Louis Brandeis and Jewish Political Identity


“Whence comes this combination of qualities of mind, body and character? These are qualities with which every one of us is familiar, singly and in combination; which you find in friends and relatives; and which other doubtless discover in you. They are qualities possessed by most Jews who have attained distinction or other success. In combination, they may properly be called Jewish qualities. For they have not come to us by accident; they developed by three thousand years of civilization, and nearly two thousand years of persecution; developed through our religion and spiritual life; through our traditions; and through the social and political conditions under which our ancestors lived. They are, in short, the product of Jewish life.” – Louis D. Brandeis

Louis Brandeis makes an inspirational plea to the educated Jews in this passage, calling on them to push for the establishment of a Jewish home. Zionism, a movement which came about very recently in Jewish history, pushed on with power through the early twentieth century fueled by the past. As Jewish identity was stretched thin between geographical association and religious affiliation, Jews found themselves struggling for national recognition. Louis Brandeis, in A Call to the Educated Jew said “the glorious past can really live only if it becomes the mirror of a glorious future; and to this end the Jewish home in Palestine is essential. We Jews of prosperous America above all need its inspiration” (Glatzer 713).

Brandeis’s depiction of Jewish qualities is, more than anything, a call to understand Jewish identity. As a proponent of Zionism, Brandeis recognized the importance of unity, and tried to bring Jews together in identifying their characteristics: “…qualities with which every one of us is familiar…” (Glatzer 707). In the United States, a country whose Jewish population was composed of Jews from other nations around the globe, a sense of strong identity was of singular importance. These treasured qualities of mind, body and character “…may properly be called Jewish qualities.” (Glatzer 707). Brandeis redefines the meaning of “Jew” for those who had lost themselves in immigration and overwhelming anti-Semitism.

So what can we understand about Jewish identity from this piece? Brandeis does not shy away from the importance of Jewish history. In fact he lauds it as the impetus behind the outstanding qualities which the Jews of his day possessed. “…They have not come to us by accident; they developed by three thousand years of civilization…” (Glatzer 707).

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Brandeis’s calling on inspiration from the past in order to stir the hearts of his contemporaries demonstrates the strong connection of Jews to their history. Brandeis does not mean to modernize Judaism in his push for Zionism, rather, he yearns to gaze back at the roots of his people in order to solidify a connection to the past. And from the past, he sees a great deal of relevance to the present.

Brandeis’ mere mention of the political suffering in Jewish history is less a call for mourning than an inspiration for change. Brandeis has effectively turned the negativity in Jewish history, from two thousand years of persecution, to poor “social and political conditions under which our ancestors lived…” (Glatzer 707), into a positive construction of Jewish quality. The reminder of past events was a compelling reason for Jews around the world to unite in the Zionist movement. The strong connect to their own history which has always identified Jews is, in effect, providing the motivation behind a new movement toward the improvement of Jewish life.

Brandeis’s characterization of a Jew is not motivated by religion. He doesn’t discuss the proper interpretation of Talmud or reform Judaism. For Brandeis, the political effects on the Jews are more important than the religious ones. He sees in the Jews a strength which has come not as a result of their faith, but as a result of their ceaseless persecution. It is a bold step for Brandeis to call the Jews to identify themselves as much by their political persecution as by their beliefs. “The undying longing for Zion is a fact of deepest significance, a manifestation in the struggle for existence” (Glatzer 712). He is pressing the Jews forward, reminding them of political persecution so that they may find their character on the way to Zion.
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