Just over a century ago, Louis Brandeis transformed the landscape of American Jewish politics by embracing Zionism. This was a bold move in 1913. Hitherto only a miniscule number of American Jews had taken this step. To put it mildly, the aims and ideas of Zionism were out of sync with the outlook of most Jews, in America and elsewhere. Orthodox Jews denounced Zionism (and especially Mizrachi Zionism) as a threatening, subversive perversion of the Messianic idea. Reform Judaism regarded Zionism as contrary to the notion, defined by the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, that Judaism was a religion and not a nationality, and that Jews were Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Americans of the Jewish faith. For the American Jewish elite, and for those aspiring to join this social stratum, Zionism contradicted the deeply rooted sense of connection with American society and Americanness that defined these Jews.
For the much larger mass of recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, moreover, Zionism and especially the idea of leaving America for Eretz Yisrael raised the ominous prospect of being accused of dual loyalty or disloyalty at a time when xenophobia was beginning to transform the American psyche, eventually culminating in a conservative, isolationist Congress passing the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 that effectively banned Jewish immigration. More practically, the notion of leaving America for a new home simply did not resonate with the millions of Jews who had only recently uprooted themselves from their home and undertaken the profoundly difficult journey across Europe and the Atlantic — why leave America after all it took to get here?
In short, American Jews, presented with an either/or proposition of choosing between being Zionist or American, chose the latter. As a result, only a few thousand American Jews, from a population that numbered in the millions by 1913, paid the shekel to join the Zionist movement.
Brandeis' decision to embrace Zionism, and his subsequent justification of this decision, boldly stared this either/or proposition in the face and moved beyond it. Within a few months, 300,000 American Jews followed his lead and became Zionists. This happened not only because he was the most high-profile Jew in America, soon to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court; but also because his understanding of Zionism gave him and countless other Jews an alternative to choosing between Zionism and America, in two respects.
First, Brandeis' Zionism was "third-person Zionism." He supported whole-heartedly the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine but had no intention whatsoever of making Aliya. Rather he saw the future Jewish state as a place of refuge for less fortunate Jews facing adversity; initially this meant Jews in Russia and Romania, eventually it included Jews across Europe and the Middle East. For American Jews, third-person Zionism diffused the reluctance to leave the Goldene Medina by making it possible to be a proud, card-carrying Zionist and a citizen of the United States. Brandeis explained this inherent compatibility in a speech entitled “The Jewish Problem and How to Solve it”:
“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. A man is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; for being loyal to his family, and to his profession or trade; for being loyal to his college or his lodge. Every Irish-American who contributed towards advancing home rule was a better man and a better American for the sacrifice he made. Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so…”
More importantly perhaps, later in the same speech Brandeis articulated the synergy between Zionism and American ideals, and saw no contradiction between being a patriotic American and a devout Zionist:
“There is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry. The Jewish spirit, the product of our religion and experiences, is essentially modern and essentially American. Not since the destruction of the Temple have the Jews in spirit and in ideals been so fully in harmony with the noblest aspirations of the country in which they lived ... Indeed, loyalty to America demands rather 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. The Jewish spirit, so long preserved, the character developed by so many centuries of sacrifice, should be preserved and developed further, so that in America as elsewhere the sons of the race may in future live lives and do deeds worthy of their ancestors.”
In other words, Brandeis regarded the inherently progressive aims of Zionism as entirely in sync with the aims of progressive-minded Americans. He was well aware, too, that Herzl's formative vision of the Jewish state was a progressive vision: a democratic Jewish state where all citizens had equal rights regardless of religion, ethnicity, or nationality; where workers could unionize to protect themselves against the excesses of capitalism; where rich and poor alike had real opportunities for education, employment, and housing — all epitomized by the flag that Herzl envisioned for a future Jewish state: seven stars in a circle, representing the seven-hour work day. (The flag idea did not last, but the seven-hour work day did.)
Until 1967, or perhaps even until 1987, Brandeis' synergy provided a blueprint for liberal American Jews to embrace American and Zionist ideals seamlessly. As long as the State of Israel was regarded as a bastion of democratic values and civil rights, it was easy to be a Liberal American Jew and an ardent supporter of the State of Israel. (Republican Jews, like other Republicans, had other reasons to support the State of Israel, mainly the Cold War). This is the main pillar of present-day American Jewry's still overwhelming support for the State of Israel.
Since 1967 and even more so since the outbreak of the First Intifada twenty years later, however, this seamless juxtaposition of views and values has steadily become more challenging as the image of the State of Israel has been tarnished by an increasingly problematic relationship with and treatment of its Palestinian minority. This has culminated with American Jews now facing a new either/or proposition between Zionism and support for the State of Israel, on the one hand, and the embrace of Liberal American values on the other. In its most extreme form, this proposition asks American Jews to choose between wholesale uncritical support of the State of Israel, even when its policies cater to the racist aims of anti-liberal Kahanism; and wholesale rejection of the State of Israel because of the mistreatment of the Palestinians.
The new either/or choice has prompted a growing disillusionment with seeing beyond this seemingly insurmountable dilemma. Some voices have given up on the possibility of the State of Israel ever restoring its pre-1967 pristine progressive moral high ground. Others, hiding behind hiding simplistic, narrow-minded mantras like "the left has betrayed American Jews," have written off the Democratic Party, and especially its progressive wing, as nothing more a breeding ground of unwarranted anti-Israel rhetoric; and have called on American Jews to abandon their basic American values or be branded traitors to Zionism and haters of the State of Israel. Both points of view are examples of one-dimensional thinking and intellectual laziness for which a measure of nuance and complexity is somehow a deal breaker. (The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that the organization that Brandeis led and put on the map in 1914, ZOA, is now the loudest voice claiming that his approach to Zionism is bankrupt.)
In fact, Brandeis’ paradigm is not only more necessary than ever, but still attainable, albeit not as easily as a generation or two ago. Instead of shaking our heads with disapproval of one side or the other, it is time to fight for the right to embrace both — just as Brandeis did a century ago.
This means finding the same courage now that Brandeis displayed — courage that enabled him to find the compatibility between loving Israel and building a more just and egalitarian society in America — without using an uncritical support for Israel as an excuse to ignore the plight of others; and without knee-jerk rallying behind those beat the drums for Israel while betraying every other Jewish value.
We can still have both — if we remember that, just because others demand that we choose, this does not preclude the possibility of seeing beyond the either/or, just like Brandeis did. We are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. This means not only standing up for Israel, but standing up for the right to support Israel and other just causes. Brandeis faced criticism from all directions, but he weathered them and eventually won over most American Jews to his point of view.