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  • Louis Marshall and the Democratization of Jewish Identity*
  • Matthew Silver (bio)

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 [End Page 41] 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 [End Page 42] 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...


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