Can Israel Help American Jews Recall Their Own Forgotten Heroes?

Now that my previous blog established to everyone’s complete satisfaction that Louis Marshall ought to be considered a paramount figure in the history of America’s Jewish community, and, in fact, that his personal archive contains papers of import comparable to Newton’s apple-stained original draft of the law of universal gravitation, it behooves me to wrestle with a question that arose a few times during the drafting of my biography of Marshall. Here it is: given that Louis Marshall was the man who successfully dictated the terms of Henry Ford‘s apology for the Dearborn Independent‘s scurrilous anti-Semitic campaign, who drafted the terms for Jewish minority rights in Eastern Europe after World War I, who argued before the Supreme Court more times than any attorney in his era, who was a founder of many of American Jewry’s premier organizations and institutions, and who became (in his final crusade) a progenitor of American Jewry’s special relationship with Israel, why did it take over eighty years for som eschlemozzle to publish a full-length biography of him?

Formulated in that way, this question is a bit misleading and self-serving. Two or three books about Marshall were published in years after his death. Morton Rosenstock’s 
Louis Marshall: Defender of Jewish Rights
 is the best known. Biographical in structure though not comprehensive in intent, they are very informative and useful volumes.

Also, Marshall’s preeminent position in early 20th century American Jewish organized affairs is at least implicitly recognized by the quality of scholars who wrote noticeably extensive articles about important facets of his life, such as his campaign with the American Jewish Committee to “abrogate” America’s commercial treaty with Russia, due to Tsarist discrimination, or his part in the dispute about the formation of the American Jewish Congress, or his relations with the 
 newspaper and its socialist editor,Abraham Cahan. All readers of seminal works in Modern Jewish History will recognize the names of these scholars (Naomi Cohen, Jonathan Frankel, Lucy Dawidowicz) whose intensive probing of key episodes in Marshall’s life is suggestive of its magnetic significance.

Just as surely, the lack of a systematic biography about Louis Marshall has long been regarded a curious anomaly; and from time to time, most recently in a special spring 2008 edition of the American Jewish History journal, scholars and students have publicly scratched their heads in puzzlement about this lacuna.

One possible explanation of this anomaly hinges on political correctness. No doubt, some historians chose not to grapple seriously with Marshall because of specific political and ideological choices he made. Scholars and students who confronted Marshall’s legacy tended to be influenced by Zionist perspectives whenever they thought about early 20th century Jewish issues, and by liberal Democratic party perspectives whenever they addressed American social and political issues in years leading up to the Great Depression, and thereafter. At points in the 1920s, Marshall quarreled bitterly with the Zionists, and he was a lifelong Republican whose papers are studded with archly conservative pronouncements on various socio-political issues.

However, this “political incorrectness” account of the neglect of Marshall’s legacy only goes so far. During Marshall’s lifetime, perspicacious observers understood that infused within the unseemly contentiousness of his own “non-Zionist” group’s disputes with the Zionists from the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine, there was a powerful cooperative spirit of Jewish solidarity; and Marshall’s major contribution to the formation of the Jewish Agency, the key political instrument of the Jewish state in the making, was deeply appreciated after his death, as illustrated by the telling remark in Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography attesting that Louis Marshall was “much nearer to Jews and Judaism…than Louis Brandeis, an ardent Zionist, ever was.”

Similarly, even a cursory examination of the record of Marshall’s activities during the last, crucial phase of his life establishes that while he remained nominally affiliated with Republican conservatism in the 1920s, his monumental labors for African Americans, open immigration, environmental protection, Haitian independence and many other causes left an undeniably liberal, sometimes even radical, stamp on his life record. Just as the Zionist champion Chaim Weizmann lavishly eulogized the non-Zionist Marshall, paragon figures of American liberalism (such as NAACP directors) paid tribute to his contributions. In short, Louis Marshall was not really neglected by scholars because he was politically incorrect.

For several decades, I believe, Louis Marshall was effectively written out of history not because of anything he ever said or did, but because a “consensus” methodology, important in many sub-disciplines of historical study though the 1950s, took an especially firm grip on Jewish History in the period after the Holocaust, and Israel’s formation. The abiding topic of concern in Marshall’s life was anathema to this consensus methodology.

Louis Marshall’s career can be thought of as a search for creative accommodation between the opposing status concerns and sociopolitical outlooks of his own “Uptown” group of affluent Jews of central European origin, and the “Downtown” masses of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

A generation after Marshall’s death, in the period when historians first had the retrospective margin of distance needed to assess his accomplishments, this topic of Uptown-Downtown creative tensions was taboo. In 1950s America, second and third generation Jews were happy to leave all that Russians versus Germans stuff behind them. And scholars after the Holocaust were understandably drawn to images of Jewish revival and unity – the boisterously contentious Uptown-Downtown vortex into which Marshall was drawn as a creative mediator was not, for them, a compelling choice of subjects.

Israel’s situation in its first years surely contributed to this methodological recoil from discussion of relations between “east” and “west” Jewish sub-groups. Through the 1950s, at least up to the Wadi Salib riots in a low income, immigrant Haifa neighborhood, discussion of the bewilderingly complex “east-west” ethnicities gathered in the new state of Israel’s ma’abarot tent towns was aggressively stigmatized. In Israel, “consensus” methodology promoting unity and downplaying sub-group ethnicity was considered a strategic necessity in an ongoing primordial conflict with Arab forces.

This consensus methodology was predicated on melting pot, homogenized visions of reality that will have increasingly little appeal as Jewish Studies proceed in a multi-cultural era. I wrote a big book about Louis Marshall under the influence and inspiration of a multi-cultural era that looks out to patterns of ever-renewing conflict and reconciliation between demographic sub-groups not as a topic to be dismissed or obscured, but rather as the essence of national experience.

The transition from homogeneous to heterogeneous modes of perceiving Jewish experience has been absolutely remarkable in Israel, during the three decades of my life in the country. When I arrived in Israel, as a wide-eyed American college graduate, Ashkenazi-Mizrahi relations were regarded as close to the worst thing that could be discussed in public (a “conspiracy of silence” stifled the topic, claims the Israeli scholar Yehuda Shenhav), whereas today a critical mass of people in the country relate to the issue candidly, in full recognition of its salience, and with a sense that this story of sub-groups relationship might not be unfolding toward a Hollywood-style happy ending, but is nonetheless mainly positive in character, or at least not a topic to be swept under the rug.

Compared to the Israeli situation, contemporary American Jews might have a much less tangibly immediate connection to east-west sub-group dynamics. That is to say, the love-hate creative tension in relations between yahudim and Yiddin, between the Uptown Germans and the Downtown Russians, was part of their grandparents’ reality, not theirs. Nonetheless, present and future generations of Jews in America are, and will be, conditioned by multi-cultural modes of perception. When they look back to their community’s past, they will not peer through the monochromatic prism of consensus methodology. Instead, they are, or will be, keenly interested in the diversity of past Jewish life. For them, as for their Israeli counterparts, the sort of east-west mediation to which Marshall’s life became dedicated will not appear as a problem to be ignored, but rather as the essence of ethnic or national experience.

In the months when I was preparing a biography Louis Marshall, my colleagues in friends in Israel sometimes asked me incredulously why someone who was trained to do Jewish History research in Israel, and who teaches in Israel, would devote so much time to an American Jewish figure. The problem with that question is not really that it draws upon stereotypical perceptions of American Jewish life (though it certainly does that): it is also based on a stereotypical and self-defeating premise that lessons about Jewish life in Israel are to be learned and shared exclusively among Israelis.

Writing this biography, I wondered sometimes how Louis Marshall, who was not a Zionist but who was deeply curious about what the culture of a Jewish state might be like, might have responded to the final, “Israeli,” conclusion I drew about the project. More than anywhere else in modern times, the imperative of mediating creatively between the competing, though not antithetical, outlooks of Jewish sub-groups – that is, the abiding mission of Marshall’s life – is elucidated by life in the Jewish state in the 21st century. So I’ll end this blog by wondering aloud whether the idea of a full length biography of Louis Marshall coming out of Israel ought to be seen as a contradiction to the logic of his life as a premier American Jew. However vainglorious it might sound, I took pride in thinking of this project as consummation of that logic.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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