Louis Marshall and the democratization of Jewish identity.

Author:Silver, Matthew

Louis Marshall is a luminous figure in American Jewish history. The list of Jewish leadership posts he held at various phases of his career, including positions as president of the American Jewish Committee, president of Temple Emanu-El, and chair of the board of directors of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is imposing. Along with his work as a Jewish organizational leader, Marshall labored in a long and successful career as a corporate and constitutional lawyer, and also served in a number of voluntary public service roles, especially for New York State.

The extraordinary range of his activities and interests, particularly in the decade of the 1920s, propelled him to the center stage of Jewish life. Following the death of banker and philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff in 1920 and the end of Louis Brandeis' presidency of the Zionist Organization of America the following year, Marshall filled the leadership void and, according to some accounts, imposed "Marshall law" on the country's Jewish community. (1) At the heart of Marshall's career is an apparent paradox: he became proactively engaged with issues connected to the democratization of Jewish life, but also retained a deeply conservative belief that solutions would develop naturally, without undue human interference. In other words, Marshall's legacy combines and anticipates liberal-activist and conservative poles of American Jewish politics that consolidated in the decades after his death.

Changing circumstances dictated whether Marshall's activist inclination to shape new democratic patterns in global Jewish experience or his conservative distrust of popular "downtown" politics gained the upper hand. Indeed, owing to the sheer diversity of his activities and the complexity of Jewish affairs in the United States and overseas, it is difficult to discern in Marshall's career a consistent approach to the question of how Jewish life was to be democratized in the twentieth century. Rather than identifying one single orientation, this article assesses Marshall's career as though it were an ongoing discussion about limits and opportunities in the democratization of Jewish experience. In some instances, Marshall's efforts catalyzed the formation of new democratic modes of Jewish expression, whereas in other cases he remained suspicious of moves toward Jewish democratization with an eye toward controlling or even co-opting them.

The debate over "democracy" in American Jewish life, notes sociologist Jonathan Woocher, has a "long and honorable history," and Marshall's career remains right at the center of this discussion.(2) Positions adopted in this debate are necessarily inconclusive because, as Woocher writes, it is far from certain that a uniform system of democratic procedures can ever be agreed upon in a community "that is both voluntary and pluralistic." (3) The compelling character of Marshall's career therefore stems not so much from whether he adopted fashionable positions "for" or "against" new notions of communal democratization, but rather from his continuing, energetic interest in the issue.

Democracy and the Globalization of Jewish Politics

Democratization became a global Jewish issue in the years 1904-1907 as a result of pressures raised by ideological debates within the Jewish nationalist movement, and also by the crisis of Russian Jewry in a period of intensified pogroms. Although the Zionist movement's rejection of Uganda as a possible region for Jewish settlement in 1904 was regarded by many Jewish activists as a semi-utopian, unrealistic gesture, it was a decision reached by a Zionist Congress in a more or less democratic fashion. In fact, debates about Jewish autonomy and colonization in this period were increasingly carried out by bodies that observed democratic procedure and forms and encouraged a pluralist approach to pursuing Jewish interests. The formation in 1905 of the "League for the Attainment of Equal Rights for the Jewish People in Russia" in St. Petersburg, for example, was a milestone in a process by which Jewish nationalists and liberals joined forces in the call for Jewish autonomy and national rights. Even integrationist liberals in the new league, like Maxim Vinaver, later dubbed the "Louis Marshall of Russia," were drawn to the aims of cultural autonomy incorporated in the "Vilna Platform," which "demand[ed] the rights of a conscious cultural nationality." (4)

From the crucial transition years of 1904-1907 through the end of World War I, organized Jewish demands for national rights and Jewish congress movements sprouted in innumerable locales. (5) The World War I-era initiative that created the American Jewish Congress to lobby for civil rights in the United States and represent Jewish interests overseas at the anticipated post-war peace conference triggered internal sensitivities among American Jews. Among other concerns, well-settled American Jews worried that by creating a highly visible national organization of their own, Jews would be perceived as fashioning a "state within a state" and would become vulnerable to accusations of dual loyalty. (6) But this effort raised issues of communal control that cannot solely be associated with American conditions; Jewish communities everywhere were trying to figure out how to govern their affairs and manage their interests.

Louis Marshall's leadership style and the elitist stewardship model that emerged with the founding of the American Jewish Committee in 1906 materialized within this global trend. Early twentieth century American Jewish politics was global in the specific sense that "foreign" Russian Jews in New York transplanted a populist style that clashed creatively with the elitist orientation of settled central European Jews. (7) More broadly, the fact that an insightful and articulate figure like Marshall began to ask critical questions about control and popular participation in his own community precisely at the moment when he was drawn to the notion of exporting American-style democracy to overseas groups, particularly Russian Jewry, suggests links between the ethos of Jewish solidarity and the issue of Jewish democratization that warrant reflection.

In the context of global Jewish democratization, the turning point of Marshall's career came in 1905 when he pledged $500 to his future brother-in-law Judah L. Magnes for self-defense initiatives among Russian Jews. (8) Explaining his pledge to the pacifist-inclined Magnes (whose involvement in the Jewish Self Defense Association is itself a reflection of the militant mood of the moment), Marshall noted that the donation's purpose was not just to help Russian Jews fight for their lives at a time of horrific persecution; it was also to set the stage for a new model of democratic Jewish citizenship. Marshall stated: "The possession of arms will, of itself, develop the spirit which is essential to the ultimate working out of his [the Russian Jew's] destiny." (9) Marshall authorized Magnes to make public use of this letter. (10) This was the beginning of a long, complicated relationship between the two future brothers-in-law. (11) At this time, Marshall also invited Magnes to deliver audition lectures at Temple Emanu-El. Their relationship pivoted around a number of political, social, and personal issues, but the common thread of their interactions over the next quarter century was the ongoing debate centered on questions of Jewish communal authority, popular participation, and empowerment.

In this same late-1905 period, Marshall wrote a letter to Rabbi Max Heller of New Orleans, in which he took exception to the rabbi's belief that Zionism provided a realistic remedy to the sufferings experienced by eastern European Jewry. "However much suffering and bloodshed" traumatized Russian Jewry in the present, Marshall noted, Jews there would soon enough become citizen stakeholders in their own democratized land. "Eventually Russia will have a free government, and ... the Jews will receive the same rights and privileges that they posses in other free countries," Marshall predicted. (12)

Very quickly, the dream of democratic Jewish emancipation in eastern Europe brought up the messy reality of community control issues in American Jewry. Thus, Marshall's interaction in 1905-1906 with Magnes and other notable American Jewish figures, including scholar Cyrus Adler, can be viewed as a dress rehearsal for the American Jewish Congress debate a decade later. Indeed, this appears to be the first moment in Marshall's expansive personal archive when a researcher can identify this premier American Jewish leader asking clearly defined questions about the meaning of popular participation and democracy in Jewish communal affairs.

A number of subsidiary factors prompted Marshall to pose these questions. For instance, Marshall's religious sensibility led him to devote a large share of his Jewish leadership efforts to spiritual concerns such as Temple Emanu-El and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and he was naturally drawn to deal with control issues in religious settings. In this respect, Marshall was embroiled in this late-1905 period in a thorny and much publicized dispute with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, which was prompted by Wise's stylized refusal as a candidate for the prestigious pulpit at Emanu-El to submit to its trustees' oversight of his preaching. (13) Wise's flamboyant behavior in this episode led to the consolidation of his innovative brand of Judaism and the establishment of the Free Synagogue in New York City. Meanwhile, in contrast to Wise's rebellion against elite control of the pulpit, Marshall adopted a pro-stewardship stance in this phase of a longstanding debate over the issue of communal authority in American Judaism. (14) This dispute in the religious arena had analogues in social and political discussions about stewardship control as opposed to individual freedom or mass democracy. However, because the Russian Jewish crisis...

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