'The Fabulous Irishman': Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe's 'Unusual Religious and National Combination' in Cold War America.

Author:Gordan, Rachel

Little remembered today, but much discussed at the time was the visit of the Jewish Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe of Dublin to the United States in the spring of 1957. Stranger-than-fiction, but also typifying what Cold War Americans wanted to believe was possible among their own Jewish citizens, Mayor Briscoe embodied an unexpected combination of religious and national loyalties. "The Lord Mayor," explained typical American newspaper coverage of Briscoe's visit, "embodies the unusual combination of a devout orthodox Jew and a zealous Irish patriot." (1) The irony was that Briscoe was not American, proving that the freedom of opportunity and religion that Cold War Americans viewed as fundamental to their own purported exceptionalism, actually occurred to varying degrees in other countries--although often without the fanfare typical in the US context. Still, Briscoe's six-week American visit, the media's attention to it, and the television drama that Briscoe inspired, provide a view into Cold War American fears and desires around Jews, religious fealty, citizenship, and the particular way in which midcentury American discourses around religious freedom found a primary example in Jews, such as Briscoe, and their religion.

At a time when a tri-faith image of postwar America as a country of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews was widely accepted, Briscoe's presence and popularity in the U.S. helped to affirm America's embrace of religious freedom--albeit a freedom constrained to just three religions, and even more crucially, although rarely made explicit, to those individuals understood as racially white. As Kevin Schultz's study of "tri-faith America" explains of the era's credo: "The ethnic, religious, and racial divisions that had been predominant in pre-World War II America no longer had a place in the defining traits of good Americanism. With enemies such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, the ideal of tolerance was sacrosanct, and during the war years the kind of tolerance that was lionized most was that between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews." (2) This tri-faith ideal had practical results, Schultz points out, challenging the nation to rethink the distribution of power and who was deserving of social, political, and cultural recognition. In line with this rethinking of American society, Robert Briscoe prodded American observers to reconsider their stereotypes of clannish Jews, and he affirmed postwar Jewish allegiance to religion as an ideological core of their identity. Although Briscoe was an "Irish import," America's reception of him during his spring 1957 tour symbolized the unusual role that Jews played in serving as evidentiary proof of midcentury America's ideal of religious freedom. (3)

Briscoe would spend six weeks in North America. In that time, he became a celebrity, as newspapers around the country followed his tour and as a result of his television and radio appearances. In its coverage of Mayor Briscoe, the media all over the country broadcast an image of the Jewish mayor as embodying religious freedom--an American value freighted with political saliency during the Cold War, which according to President Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was a battle between those who believed in the moral laws of the Judeo-Christian tradition and those who found value in materialist secularism. When quoted in the press, Briscoe's messages were about Ireland's religious freedom, but American embrace of Briscoe nonetheless symbolized America's attachment to these values. "Briscoe Says He's Live Evidence There 'Absolutely Is No Bigotry in Ireland'" ran one typical headline in the Los Angeles Times that connected Briscoe's celebrity with his embodiment of religious freedom. (4) As Leo Braudy, a scholar of American culture notes, fame in Western society has long been associated with the ideal of freedom, because fame can be understood as the "social version of a love that absolves the loved one of fault, restoring integrity and wholeness." With fame, the celebrity is granted recognition and permission to be himself. "To be famous for yourself, for what you are without talent or premeditation, means you have come into your rightful inheritance," Braudy theorizes. (5) In the case of Robert Briscoe, his "rightful inheritance" included the ability to openly embody the "unusual combination"--as the American media labeled it--of being a Jewish Irishman whose very existence became a symbol of religious freedom.

Briscoe was a Zionist--an identity on full display during his American tour--proving that the power of tri-faith religious pluralism in midcentury America was such as to make other identities permissible, if one was a member of one of the three major religions. Briscoe's embodiment of good citizenship that did not suffer because of his Zionism, offered Americans an example of Jewishness that was allowed to overflow the bounds of religion. As Tisa Wenger notes in her study of religious freedom in America, many American Jews "chafed at the model of religion that religious freedom seemed to impose." (6) The double-edged sword of religious freedom that Wenger explains as promising expanded rights for minorities also required that Jews reshape themselves and their traditions to fit mainstream--that is, Christian--conceptions of religion. Briscoe's celebrity as an Orthodox, Zionist, and Irish Jew, provided an alternative example of Jewishness.

Briscoe's mission in America was to promote good relations between Ireland and America, and to fundraise on behalf of Jewish refugees and the State of Israel. His was part of the postwar effort of American Jews on behalf of Holocaust survivors and the young State of Israel. (7) Following Israel's statehood, American Jewry turned its pageantry "to celebrating Israel as the survivors' haven," a message frequently deployed during appeals such as those in which Briscoe participated. (8) Through appearances on television game and news shows such as What's My Line? and Meet the Press, Briscoe reported, he had raised thirty million dollars over the course of his time in North America. (9) Before leaving the United States, the Chicago Tribune reported that Briscoe told crowds in Chicago, "'I came here to spread good will between Ireland and America, and to do what I could to help further assistance to Jewish refugees and Israel,' explained Briscoe, a Jew." (10) In Briscoe's presentation, there was no conflict between these disparate allegiances.

But in a way that he likely did not entirely grasp, Briscoe was also helping American Jews. Through his example, Briscoe provided a counterweight to Cold War suspicions about disloyal Jews. In temperament, Briscoe resembled the sociable, "other-directed" Americans thought to be central to the 1950s American middle class. (11) And through Briscoe's acceptance in a Catholic country, as well as his evident interfaith camaraderie during his US visit, he inspired hope in the ability of Jews to be part of a united front against atheistic communism. (12) The height of the Cold War was receding by the late 1950s (Senator Joseph McCarthy died in May of 1957), but "anti-Communism put Jews in an uncomfortable and compromised position." (13) Americans still held memories of the time when the word Jew was thought to be synonymous with "Communist." (14) These were years when it was not always clear whether Jewishness would be interpreted as a cause for respect (the Judeo-Christian tradition encouraged this view), or a cause for suspicion (a long history of Jewish association with left-wing causes made some McCarthyites suspicious of Jews, a priori). Jews' liberal views--"support of the United Nations, federal aid to education, and efforts to take religion out of the public schools--a key issue for American Jews--set them apart from many, possibly most, Americans." (15) Historian Hasia Diner points to a 1952 Gallup poll that asked Americans about their views of Senator McCarthy's anti-Communist tactics. Fifty-six percent of Catholics and 45 percent of Protestants found McCarthy's tactics acceptable, while 98 percent of Jews disapproved. (16) This poll offered a view into how differently Jews perceived the culture, and it revealed that a value as central to American ideals as "freedom" carried different associations for Jews. Shortly, Jewish views like these would be closer to American, mainstream liberal views, but in the 1950s the difference was sometimes seen as troubling.

Enter Briscoe. Far from the negative stereotypes of Jews as unpatriotic, unsociable, lacking in character, and cowardly--all of which, decades earlier, had fed nativist sentiment, and had been rerouted by some toward anti-Semitic McCarthyite purposes--Briscoe's affable temperament and background demonstrated the opposite. The effect was reassuring. There had been dozens of Jews (Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, and Leonard Bernstein, to name a few), even in the first half of the twentieth century, who had earned Americans' esteem because of their talents, intellect, and contributions to society. As a result of his devotion to his religion and his country, Briscoe, too, enjoyed this kind of respect. But he also had something much more rare, for a Jew: likeability. During his brief visits in American cities, crowds fell for Briscoe. One Boston rabbi, in 1957, reflected on the good impression being made by Briscoe: "All the world knows the qualities of the fighting and witty Irish and the world is gradually also learning of the fighting spirit and the witty Jews ... What an amazing combination we have in Robert Briscoe! Here is an Irishman and a Jew with the best qualities of heart and mind, guts and spirit of both people." (17) Briscoe's 1957 visit with Americans--and the national coverage that it received--offered a rare and dynamic display of the Jew as likeable, religious, patriotic citizen.

Briscoe and the American Media

The Dublin lord mayor's name and his...

To continue reading