The Personal and the Historical: Jews, Law, and Identity Politics in the Progressive Era
He concludes, in part:
What is it to be an American? What is it to be a Jew? What commitments and loyalties and what traits define each, and do they clash? What commitments and traits do we inherit and what do we choose? How does one embrace being an American while keeping one’s separate identity as a Jew?
These questions fueling the politics of Jewish-American identity in the Progressive Era, and these four sketches have illustrated my notion that law and lawyers and the contending ideas and ideals of the era’s legal culture – about individuals and groups and the boundaries of public and private action - played important, protean parts in the ways Jews answered them. Of course, the paths along which late 19th and early 20th century American Jews wedded Jewishness and Americanness were complex and various. These sketches have left many paths unexplored. Most Jews were not lawyers, and most Jewish lawyers were not as powerful as these four. Because they were powerful, however – as litigators, advocates and publicists (in the nineteenth-century sense of producing public discourse about international law), policy makers and high state officials, founders and leaders of some of the most important national Jewish organizations – they helped fashion important and durable terms of Jewish and immigrant entry and belonging to America.
Why should law and lawyers have been especially important? Part of the answer is that lawyers wielded the language of state power; and the state was in the business of labeling and identifying newcomers and determining who was welcome. But law was important for deeper reasons. Nation states were under construction in Western Europe as well as in the U.S. in the 19th century. Only here, however, were the felt attachments of identity and ideology that were coming to be called nationalism so deeply bound up with the very legal texts on which the state rested. Only in the U.S. was the nation - “We, the People” - so deeply constituted and defined by law. Over the course of the 19th century, the U.S. Constitution became the text of a “civil religion.” To make one’s way into the legal elite was to gain not only a prestigious career but also access to the very language of national belonging and, perchance, opportunities to interpret, elaborate, and even shape its meaning....
Defending the rights of Jews and other racial others, Wolf, Straus and Kohler associated American Jewishness with the liberal Constitution, affirming Jews’ place at the heart of American civil religion and national identity by taking a leading part in defining and defending the liberal nation and the rights of “others” to equal standing in it. That Constitution, in its individualism, its promise of religious liberty, equal rights and careers open to talent, its condemnation of “class legislation” in general and racial classifications in particular, harmonized with their Reform Jewish outlook and their social aspirations. These lawyers melded the Reform Jewish and classical liberal constitutional creeds into an American Jewish identity.
What I’ve called Wolf, Straus and Kohler’s classical liberal grammar of Jewish American identity might have sounded like this, if one of them were to have brought its basic structure of ideas and feelings to the surface: We, Reform Jews, have stripped away the old, anachronistic features of Judaism as a communal form of self-government (and what some of us even call a “ghetto religion”). “Enlightened” and “modern,” we no longer conceive our faith in the old “legalistic” and “ritualistic,” “Oriental” ways; we hew to its “universal” and “Western” “core.” Our faith, then, has a structure akin to our Protestant neighbors’. Religion occupies the private sphere of our lives, as it does theirs. It is not (any longer) government; and government has no business with it. By the same token, we no longer see ourselves as a separate people, race or nation. Our “Zion” is “America.” Our “law and Covenant” are the Constitution....
Read the rest of Part III here.
Many thanks to Willy!