Brandeis -  A Call to the Educated Jew

January, 1915

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Louis Brandeis - A Call to the Educated Jew


Louis Dembitz Brandeis was a prominent American lawyer and later associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The outbreak of World War I made it impossible for the Zionist movement to continue its activities from Europe, that were centered in the German capital of Berlin, and cut off British Zionists from their associates in Berlin and Palestine.

Brandeis's speeches and articles on Zionism were edited and published by the Zionist Organization of America in 1942, following his death, in a volume entitled "Brandeis on Zionism," by Solomon Goldman. These are not pristine primary sources and may not include materials that were considered "inconvenient." His early speeches tended to emphasize over and over the basic characteristics of his Zionist credo:

American minorities show true patriotism by enriching America with their own heritage and remaining loyal to that heritage.

Every Jew should be a Zionist.

American Zionism was a largely apolitical creed and did not require Jews to be part of a larger international Zionist political organization or to learn Hebrew or anything else about Judaism.

The Jewish national home in Palestine would be a shelter to Eastern European Jews and an example and moral inspiration to their more fortunate brothers in the United States.

Zionist work in the United States was to consist of  joining organizations,, organization, recruiting and charitable fundraising for immigrants to Palestine.

This least common denominator Zionism was designed to overcome specific controversies within the American Jewish community and to ensure that the audience did not feel threatened or challenged by Zionism to give up their American way of life. Brandeis saw himself as a unifier, and avoided divisive subjects and discussions of tactics and ideological polemics, unlike Eastern European and Russian Zionists. Very often they were "fitting words for the occasion," almost like the fictional speeches of ancient history, save for the fact that the addresses were actually delivered. Whatever one may think of some this high flown rhetoric and patriotic platitudes, it did the job of bringing Zionism into the mainstream of American Jewish respectability.

A Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs was formed in the United States, and Louis Dembitz Brandeis was elected as chairman of the committee in August 30, 1914. As chairman, Brandeis was able to bridge the chasm between the impoverished Eastern European Jewish constituency of Manhattan's Lower East Side and the affluent college educated Jews of the older generations of immigrants, who included many of Brandeis's friends and associates. In this way, Brandeis helped make Zionism fashionable and respectable among leaders of Jewish society. What he said or wrote in a speech or article was less important than the fact that he said it, which was sensational enough, and which ensured support for Zionism by "the right" people. 

This address to educated Jews was delivered at a conference of the Intercollegiate Menorah Association and was published in the first issue of the Menorah Journal (January, 1915).  Brandeis included references to sordid affairs of the day involving Jews, such as the murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal and revelations of Jewish prostitution. The message to his upper middle class respectable audiences of German Jewish origin was clear - we must be responsible for the moral uplift of the Eastern European Jews, since their actions will necessarily reflect on all Jews including us.  Brandeis was a consulting editor of the new journal.

Ami Isseroff

June 13, 2009   


The introduction above is copyright 2009 by Ami Isseroff. The document below is in the public domain.


A Call to the Educated Jew

While I was in Cleveland a few weeks ago, a young man who has won distinction on the bench told me this incident from his early life. He was born in a little village of Western Russia where the opportunities for schooling were meager. When he was thirteen his parents sent him to the nearest city in search of an education. There, in Bialystok, were good secondary schools and good high schools; but the Russian law,1 which limits the percentage of Jewish pupils in any school, barred his admission.2 The boy's parents lacked the means to pay for private tuition. He had neither relative nor friend in the city. But soon three men were found who volunteered to give him instruction. None of them was a teacher by profession. One was a newspaper man; another was a chemist; the third, as I recall, was a tradesman; all were educated men. And throughout five long years these men took from their leisure the time necessary to give a stranger an education. The three men of Bialystok realized that education was not a thing of one's own to do with what one pleases, that it was not a personal privilege to be merely enjoyed by the possessor, but a precious treasure transmitted; a sacred trust to be held, used and enjoyed, and if possible strengthened, then passed on to others upon the same trust. Yet the treasure which these three men held and which the boy received in trust was much more than an education. It included that combination of qualities which enabled and impelled these three men to give, and the boy to seek and to acquire, an education. These qualities embrace: first, intellectual capacity; second, an appreciation of the value of education; third, indomitable will; fourth, capacity for hard work. It was these qualities which enabled the lad, not only to acquire but to so utilize an education that, corning to America, ignorant of our language and of our institutions he attained in comparatively few years the important office he has so honorably filled.

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 others 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 were 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.

Our intellectual capacity was developed by the almost continuous training of the mind throughout twenty-five centuries. The Torah led the "People of the Book" to intellectual pursuits at times when most of the Aryan peoples were illiterate. Religion imposed the use of the mind upon the Jews, indirectly as well as directly. It demanded of the Jew not merely the love, but also the understanding of God. This necessarily involved a study of the Law. The conditions under which the Jews were compelled to live during the last two thousand years promoted study in a people among whom there was already considerable intellectual attainment. Throughout the centuries of persecution practically the only life open to the Jew which could give satisfaction was the intellectual and spiritual life. Other fields of activity and of distinction which divert men from intellectual pursuits were closed to Jews. Thus they were protected by their privations from the temptations of material things and worldly ambitions. Driven by circumstances to intellectual pursuits their mental capacity gradually developed. And as men delight in that which they do well, there was an ever-widening appreciation of things intellectual.

Is not the Jews' indomitable will-the power which enables them to resist temptation and, fully utilizing their mental capacity, to overcome obstacles-is not that quality also the result of the conditions under which they lived so long? To live as a Jew during the centuries of persecution was to lead a constant struggle for existence. That struggle was so severe that only the fittest could survive. Survival was not possible except where there was strong will, a will both to live and to live as a Jew. The weaker ones passed either out of Judaism or out of existence.

And finally, the Jewish capacity for hard work is also the product of Jewish life, a life characterized by temperate, moral living continued throughout the ages, and protected by those marvelous sanitary regulations which were enforced through the religious sanctions. Remember, too, that amidst the hardship to which our ancestors were exposed it was only those with endurance who survived.

So let us not imagine that what we call our achievements are wholly or even largely our own. The phrase "self-made man" is mast misleading. We have power to mar but we alone cannot make. The relatively large success achieved by Jews wherever the door of opportunity was opened to them is due, in the main, to this product of Jewish life, to this treasure which we have acquired by inheritance, and which we are in duty bound to transmit unimpaired, if not augmented, to coming generations.

But our inheritance comprises far mare than this combination of qualities making for effectiveness. These are but means by which man may earn a living or achieve other success. Our Jewish trust comprises also that which makes the living worthy and success of value. It brings us that body of moral and intellectual perceptions, the point of view and the ideals, which are expressed in the term Jewish spirit; and therein lies our richest inheritance.

Is it not a striking fact that a people coming from Russia, the most autocratic of countries, to America, the most democratic of countries, comes here, not as to a strange land, but as to a home? The ability of the Russian Jew to adjust himself to America's essentially democratic conditions is not to be explained by Jewish adaptability. The explanation lies mainly in the fact that .the twentieth century ideals of America have been the ideals of the Jew for more than twenty centuries. We have inherited these ideals of democracy and of social justice as we have the qualities of mind, body and character to which I referred. We have inherited also that fundamental longing for truth on which all science, and so largely the civilization of the twentieth century, rests; although the servility incident to persistent oppression has in some countries obscured its manifestation.

Among the Jews democracy was not an ideal merely. It was a practice, a practice made possible by the existence among them of certain conditions essential to successful democracy, namely:

First: An all-pervading sense of duty in the citizen. Democratic ideals cannot be attained through emphasis merely upon the rights of man. Even a recognition that every right has a correlative duty will not meet the needs of democracy. Duty must be accepted as the dominant conception in life. Such were the conditions in the early days of the colonies and states of New England, when American democracy reached there its fullest expression; for the Puritans were trained in implicit obedience to stern duty by constant study of the Prophets.

Second: Relatively high intellectual attainments. Democratic ideals cannot be attained by the mentally undeveloped. In a government where everyone is part sovereign, everyone should be competent, if not to govern, at least to understand the problems of government; and to this end education is an essential. The early New Englanders appreciated fully that education is an essential of potential equality. The founding of their common school system was coincident with founding of the colonies; and even the establishment of institutions for higher education did not lag far behind. Harvard College was founded but six years after the first settlement of Boston.

Third: Submission to leadership as distinguished from authority. Democratic ideals can be attained only where those who govern exercise their power not by alleged divine right or inheritance, but by force of character and intelligence. Such a condition implies the attainment by citizens generally of relatively high moral and intellectual standards; and such a condition actually existed among the Jews. These men who were habitually denied rights, and whose province it has been for centuries "to suffer and to think," learned not only to sympathize with their fellows (which is the essence of a democracy and social justice), but also to accept voluntarily the leadership of those highly endowed, morally and intellectually.

Fourth: A developed community sense. The sense of duty to which I have referred was particularly effective in promoting democratic ideals among the Jews, because of their deep-seated community feeling. To describe the Jew as an individualist is to state a most misleading half truth. He has to a rare degree merged his individuality and his interests in the community of which he forms a part. This is evidenced among other things by his attitude toward immortality. Nearly every other people has reconciled this world of suffering with the idea of a beneficent Providence by conceiving of immortality for the individual. The individual sufferer bore present ills by regarding this world as merely the preparation for another, in which those living righteously here would find individual reward hereafter. Of all nations, Israel "takes precedence in suffering"; but, despite our national tragedy, the doctrine of individual immortality found relatively slight lodgment among us. As Ahad Ha'am so beautifully said: Judaism did not turn heavenward and create in Heaven m eternal habitation of souls. It found 'eternal life' on earth, by strengthening the social- feeling in the individual; by making him regard himself not as an isolated being with an existence bounded by birth and death, but as part of a larger whole, as a limb of the social body. This conception shifts the center of gravity of the ego not from the flesh to the spirit, but from the individual to the community; and concurrently with this shifting, the problem of life becomes a problem not of individual, but of social life. I live for the sake of the perpetuation and happiness of the community of which I am a member; I die to make room for new individuals, who will mould the community afresh and not allow it to stagnate and remain forever in one position. When the individual thus values the community as his own life, and strives after its happiness as though it were his individual wellbeing, he finds satisfaction, and no longer feels so keenly the bitterness of his individual existence, because he sees the end for which he lives and suffers."3 Is not that the very essence of the truly triumphant twentieth-century democracy?

Such is our inheritance; such the estate which we hold in trust. And what are the terms of that trust; what the obligations imposed? The short answer is noblesse oblige; and its command is twofold. It imposes duties upon us in respect to our own conduct as individuals; it imposes no less important duties upon us as part of the Jewish community or people. Self-respect demands that each of us lead individually a life worthy of our great inheritance and of the glorious traditions of the people. But this is demanded also by respect for the rights of others. The Jews have not only been ever known as a "peculiar people"; they were and remain a distinctive and minority people. Now it is one of the necessary incidents of a distinctive and minority people that the act of anyone is in some degree attributed to the whole group. A single though inconspicuous instance of dishonorable conduct on the part of a Jew in any trade or profession has far reaching evil effects extending to the many innocent members of the race. Large as this country is, no Jew can behave badly without injuring each of us in the end. Thus the Rosenthal4 and the white-slave traffic cases, though local to New York, did incalculable harm to the standing of the Jews throughout the country. The prejudice created may be most unjust; but we may not disregard the fact that such is the result. Since the act of each becomes thus the concern of all, we are perforce our brothers' keepers, exacting even from the lowliest the avoidance of things dishonorable; and we may properly brand the guilty as disloyal to the people.

But from the educated Jew far more should be exacted. In view of our inheritance and our present opportunities, self-respect demands that we live not only honorably but worthily; and worthily implies nobly. The educated descendants of a people which in its infancy cast aside the Golden Calf and put its faith in the invisible God cannot worthily in its maturity worship worldly distinction and things material. "Two men he honors and no third," says Carlyle, "the toil-worn craftsman who conquers the earth and him who is seen toiling for the spiritually indispensable."

And yet, though the Jew make his individual life the loftiest, that alone will not fulfill the obligations of his trust. We are bound not only to use worthily our great inheritance, but to preserve, and if possible, augment it; and then transmit it to coming generations. The fruit of three thousand years of civilization and a hundred generations of suffering may not be sacrificed by us. It will be sacrificed if dissipated. Assimilation is national suicide. And assimilation can be prevented only by preserving national characteristics and life as other peoples, large and small, are preserving and developing their national life. Shall we with our inheritance do less than the Irish, the Serbians, or the Bulgars? And must we not, like them, have a land where the Jewish life may be naturally led, the Jewish language spoken, and the Jewish spirit prevail? Surely we must, and that land is our fathers' land; it is Palestine.

The undying longing for Zion is a fact of deepest significance, a manifestation in the struggle for existence.

The establishment of the legally secured Jewish home is no longer a dream. For more than a generation brave pioneers have been building the foundations of our new old home. It remains for us to build the super-structure. The Ghetto walls are now falling. Jewish life cannot be preserved and developed, assimilation cannot be averted, unless there be reestablished in the fatherland a center from which the Jewish spirit may radiate and give to the Jews scattered throughout the world that inspiration which springs from the memories of a great past and the hope of a great future.

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.


1. Laws - The infamous Numerus Clausus enacted by the Tsarist regime in 1887 and abolished by the provisional revolutionary government in 1917.

2. Student - This is thought to refer Judge Manuel Levine (1881-1939), a Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals of the Eighth Ohio District.

3. "Lives and Suffers" - Apparently a reference to the essay Flesh and Spirit by Achad Haam.

4. Herman Rosenthal was a petty gambler who complained that corrupt practices of police officer Charles Becker were ruining his casinos. Rosenthal was gunned down by Jewish gangsters while on his way to meet Manhattan District Attorney Charles Whitman and testify against Becker. Becker, a German American Roman Catholic, was convicted of first degree murder, though some later authors believe he had merely looked the other way and allowed gangsters to kill Rosenthal. 

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