How Louis Brandeis’s Uncle May Have Saved Zionism

October 19, 2017 | Meir Soloveichik
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel and the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. His website, containing all of his media appearances, podcasts, and writing, can be found at

When the British cabinet was debating the adoption of the Balfour Declaration, Edwin Monatagu—secretary of state for India, a sympathizer with Indian nationalism, and a member of one of England’s most distinguished Jewish families—emerged as Zionism’s fiercest opponent, arguing that acknowledging Jews as a nation would expose them to charges of disloyalty “in their native lands.” This position was not very different from that originally held by Louis Brandeis, but by 1916 he had changed his mind and become one of Zionism’s most passionate advocates in America. The shift in his opinion, writes Meir Soloveichik, was due to the Zionism of his uncle, Lewis Dembitz, a successful lawyer and pious Jew admired by Jews and Christians alike:

The irony—or perhaps the providential nature—of this moment is difficult to miss. One of the most important Jews in England had done all he could to deny Jewish peoplehood, only to be foiled by one of the most important Jews in America, who had only just ceased to think about his own Jewishness in the exact same way.

Montagu died in 1924, at the age of forty-five, never achieving the apex of political power, and with his assault on Zionism a failure. Yet Montagu’s legacy lives on in many Jews today who seem concerned for the nationalist aspirations of all other peoples except their own, and who similarly raise the specter of dual loyalty. In this, Montagu brings to mind the criticism of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who once wrote that the “emancipated modern Jew has been trying, for a long time, to do away with this twofold responsibility, . . . the universal and the covenantal, which, in his opinion, are mutually exclusive.” This was true in the age of Edwin Montagu, and, alas, it remains true today.

Meanwhile, Dembitz may be as unknown as Montagu, if not more so. But one can rightly say that millions of Jews enjoy the fruits of his labor and his life, every day, in a vibrant and miraculous Jewish state. It is important that his legacy inspire Jewish Americans, that we be known for our dedication to this country and simultaneously for exercising our freedoms in defense of Jews, and in dedicated observance of the faith of our fathers.

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