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‘Frenemies’ in American Jewish History

History Professor Mark Raider discusses long-time foes and ‘American Jewry’s undisputed spokesmen,’ Louis Marshall and Stephen S. Wise.

Date: 8/9/2010
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Mark Raider, a professor in the Department of History at the University of Cincinnati’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, is an expert on modern Jewish history. His recent article, “The Aristocrat and the Democrat: Louis Marshall, Stephen S. Wise and the Challenge of American Jewish Leadership,” won this year's Leo Wasserman Prize, an honor given annually to the best written article in American Jewish History. The journal is the official publication of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Mark Raider, UC professor of history.
UC History Professor Mark Raider recently published an article about American Jewish leaders Marshall and Wise.

Your article in American Jewish History tells the history of Louis Marshall and Stephen S. Wise—“American Jewry’s undisputed spokesmen.” Who were these men and why are they historically significant?

Marshall and Wise were arguably the most important American Jewish leaders of the 20th century. Marshall was an eminent lawyer, associated with the Republican Party, and was actually considered by President Taft for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Wise was a maverick, left-leaning rabbi who bucked the German Jewish establishment, including its Cincinnati leadership, and aligned himself with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. Whereas Marshall was skeptical of Jewish nationalism, Wise committed himself wholeheartedly to the Zionist enterprise. The story of these men illustrates the possibilities and limitations of ethnic leadership in the 20th century.

You mention in the article that their story “unfolds like a Shakespearean drama—a battle royale between two giants who exit the world stage having achieved less than their times required but pointing the way to a better future.” What makes their story so theatrical?

Marshall and Wise lived at a time when ethnic political power was raw and unformed. They witnessed the end of Europe’s "ancien regime" and the rise of the modern nation state. As Jewish leaders, they faced unprecedented challenges of existential proportions. Consider the widespread anti-Jewish hostility and pogroms of eastern Europe and the mass waves of European immigration to the United States at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Add to this the collapse of the tsarist empire, the implosion of central Europe, the rise of Zionism and Jewish socialism, and the catastrophic impact of Nazism. Marshall and Wise confronted this rapidly shifting, highly dangerous and incredibly demanding landscape squarely, unapologetically and forcefully. They created and spearheaded an array of Jewish communal institutions, countrywide campaigns and political partnerships that enabled American Jews to face these challenges and participate in the public arena as equals.

How does their story relate to today’s times?

I think we have a lot to learn from Marshall and Wise. First of all, they paved much of the way for how American Jewry functions to this very day. As communal leaders, each was blessed with seemingly boundless talent, energy and charisma, and their imprint on American Jewish life endures. But there was also something else that marked their particular style of leadership, something intangible and bigger than themselves; despite communal politics and personal intrigue, in the end, they put their interests as Americans and Jews ahead of private gain. It seems to me this is a commodity in strikingly short supply nowadays, not only in the Jewish community but among ethnic leaders from all walks of life. Where are the Marshalls, Wises and Martin Luther Kings of our own age?

Louis Marshall and Stephen S. Wise.
Both Louis Marshall and Stephen S. Wise committed themselves to the betterment of American Jewish communities in the 20th century. Their disagreements about how to do so fueled a lifelong battle between the two leaders.

While you were researching Marshall and Wise, what findings surprised you most?

I was surprised to discover how similar and how pragmatic both men were. For example, Marshall, who might be described as a true believer in liberalism and the West, originally opposed Zionism as counterproductive to the Jewish community’s self-interest. But the education he received at the hands of the eastern European Yiddish-speaking immigrants and the tragedy of World War I prompted in him a deep and thoughtful reconsideration of Jewish nationalism. In fact, he later worked closely with the Zionist movement to build bridges between American Jews and pre-state Israeli society. Wise, on the other hand, started out as a very idealistic follower of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. And yet he came to appreciate the minimalist program of ensuring the security of the Jewish community in pre-state Israeli society, while backing the long-term strategy of partitioning Palestine into distinct Jewish and Arab states—each with its own integrity and capacity to determine its own fate.

Much of your research focuses on Jewish history. What do you find the most interesting about the field?

To study Jewish history is, in many ways, to contemplate the way humanity understands itself. When societies and communities are secure and at peace, the situation of the Jews generally rises. In such times, Jews reach new heights as important thinkers, artists, scientists and leaders. But in times of social, economic or political uncertainty and stress, the Jews’ situation plummets. Now the Jews become outsiders, scapegoats and targets of discrimination and anti-Semitism. I’m particularly intrigued by the way American society—with its insistence on individual rights and its system of checks and balances—preserves opportunities and mitigates against the kind of repression Jews have faced for much of their history.
What will you work on next?

Just now, I am putting the final touches on an edited and annotated edition of essays by the Labor Zionist thinker Hayim Greenberg, who lived in the United States for much of his adult life and was active in Jewish intellectual circles in the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time, I am working on writing a full-scale biography of Stephen S. Wise.

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