Marty Peretz on Louis Brandeis and Walter Lippmann

I’ve been thinking about something Marty Peretz said at Yivo Institute last week.

Following Niall Ferguson’s talk about Jews & Money, a lady in the second row asked whether the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British government committed itself to a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, arose from a need by the Brits to gain the support of “influential Jews in the United States,” who might help determine the outcome of World War I. Ferguson didn’t know the answer, but that didn’t keep him from offering insights into Lord Rothschild (to whom Foreign Sec’y Balfour’s declaration was addressed) and the Germans and Muslims and other issues. (And I’m not going to try and answer the question here; I don’t know, though it’s intriguing…)

At one point, Ferguson noted that The New Republic was established by Walter Lippmann during that era, in 1914—if I heard him right, in part out of Zionist concerns—and from the audience Peretz, the grand vizier of the New Republic and chairman of Yivo’s overseers, piped up that Louis Brandeis had also helped start the magazine.

My sense is that Peretz misspoke. The usual nutshell on The New Republic is that Lippmann and Herbert Croly helped start it along with the young Felix Frankfurter. I wonder if Peretz meant that future Jewish Supreme Court Justice, not Brandeis?

I’m interested because I happened to have with me at the event a splendid book I just got, The Family Letters of Louis D. Brandeis, family letters, edited by David W. Levy of the University of Oklahoma. Brandeis was the father of American Zionism, and he’s fascinating. He was assimilating until he was close to 60, and then, apparently stunned by the Dreyfus case and influenced by an associate of Herzl’s with whom he became close, Brandeis grew fearful about the place of the American Jew, pushing the cause behind the scenes even when he got on to the Supreme Court in 1916 (following an antisemitic uprising against his appointment). He was never able to convert Lippmann completely, though the Levy book reveals that Brandeis lobbied for Zionism with the financier Eugene Meyer, Katharine Graham’s father, who bought the Washington Post in 1933; and that Meyer kicked in large sums for the cause, $25,000 on one occasion. And yes, Brandeis met with Croly and Lippmann around the time the New Republic began. Maybe what Peretz is referring to.

The letters also show that after the Balfour Declaration, Brandeis was among those who lobbied his friend the President, Woodrow Wilson, to echo the British commitment. As Wilson did in 1918, thereby defying his own State Department. Brandeis subsequently visited Palestine with Frankfurter and a man called Rudolph Sonneborn, the son-in-law of the great American banker Jacob Schiff of Kuhn, Loeb. And Sonneborn in 1947 supplied arms to the fledgling state of Israel thru a fictitious entity, the Sonneborn Institute.

All this is from David Levy’s fine book.

I go on this historic bender to make a point. Powerful American Jews have played a crucial role in the Zionist cause, often behind the scenes. Marty Peretz knows something about this history. The world of Louis Brandeis and Eugene Meyer and the White House—Peretz, who is a friend of Al Gore’s, knows its later incarnations in his fingertips. And how regrettable it is that from the moment that Walt and Mearsheimer addressed the idea of Jewish influence, Peretz’s response has been altogether defensive and vituperative, seeking to blacken these scholars as antisemites. There is a great Jewish scholarly tradition that seeks answers to important questions, not obfuscation. What an education it would be to hear Peretz’s thoughts on Washington and Israel. Though yes, we got a peep out of him the other night.