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Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America, A Biography, by M. M. Silver

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 25, Numbers 1–2

Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America, A Biography, by M. M. Silver, Syracuse University Press, 2013, 534 pp.

Reviewed by Sarah Schmidt

M. M. Silver, an American-Israeli historian who teaches at the Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel in Israel, has produced an extensively researched and heavily documented study of Louis Marshall, the early twentieth-century American-Jewish leader. Silver’s major thesis is that Marshall changed the way American Jews perceived themselves and were perceived by others. With its seventy-two pages of footnotes and its thirteen pages of works cited, Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America will appeal primarily to academics familiar with American and/or American-Jewish history, as well as to lawyers interested in the interaction between legal rulings and New York State and national policies and their effect on the American Jewish community.

Silver maintains that Marshall’s impact on the American Jewish scene was so great that no other Jewish leader of his time came close to matching his influence on both “Uptown” Jews—the established, wealthy Jews who had arrived in the United States in mid-nineteenth century—and “Downtown” Jews—the Jews who were arriving from Eastern Europe at the time Marshall was most active. Silver cites numerous primary and secondary sources and takes the view that earlier authors have slighted Marshall’s role or misinterpreted factual evidence so that Marshall has gone unrecognized and unappreciated. However, Marshall’s breadth of accomplishment makes it difficult to fault previous works that take a more limited scope. He participated in numerous Jewish communal affairs, practiced law in both national and state political arenas, participated in the world of international diplomacy, advocated for African Americans and Native Americans, and had a pioneering interest in environmental conservation. Only a book as wide-ranging as Silver’s could have treated so many subjects. Occasionally, Marshall, the man, is hard to detect buried within the vast historical context Silver provides.


Marshall was a conservative man who demonstrated a remarkable degree of flexibility with regard to the needs of others. Though a life-long supporter of the Republican Party and a staunch defender of property rights, he valued cultural openness. As a member of the uptown Jewish elite, he remained throughout his life a dedicated Reform Jew. But when the masses of mainly Orthodox Eastern European Jews began to arrive in the United States, he recognized the need to create a moderately conservative variant of Judaism that could help to bring the downtown Jewish immigrants into the American mainstream. He also came to understand that a more “conservative” Judaism promised continuity and a form of refuge from an Americanization process fraught with the threat of limitless, and sometimes frightening, change. Thus, he supported recruiting Solomon Schechter to lead the modern Conservative Movement of American Jewry. And for three decades, until his death in 1929, it was Marshall who handled the legal and administrative needs, including extensive fundraising, of the Jewish Theological Seminary.


Louis Marshall is most identified, however, with the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Its founding in 1906 marked a turning point in Marshall’s career and also created a new, non-religious, ethnically based option for the organized life and identity of American Jewry. From the beginning, Marshall took charge of all the Committee’s administrative affairs and became its spokesman. As early as 1907, Marshall began to lobby for open immigration in Washington, a fight he lost in 1924. Only in retrospect can we appreciate his contribution to the emigration of thousands of Jews to the United States before then.

Assuming the presidency of the AJC in 1912, Marshall spent the next seventeen years organizing and supervising AJC meetings, formulating its ever-changing agenda, and mediating between those who would make the organization more democratic and those who wished to keep control in Uptown hands. In his role as AJC president, Marshall also attended the post-World War I Versailles Conference where, after much debate between opposing Jewish factions, he helped formulate clauses guaranteeing equal civil, religious, political, and national rights for Jews in the newly created states of Eastern Europe. Though Silver claims that these provisions represented “one of the stellar moments” of Marshall’s career, in fact Eastern European governments chose to ignore Marshall’s carefully drafted clauses, perhaps because the latter were more attuned to conditions of the democratic United States than of post-War Europe.


Marshall’s leadership roles in the Jewish community during the 1920’s led one observer to call this a period of “Marshall law.” During this era, Marshall’s fame among both the Jewish and non-Jewish American public grew, not only because of his work in obtaining an apology from Henry Ford for the Dearborn Independent’s virulent anti-Semitic campaign, but also because of his efforts on behalf of Jewish settlement projects, both in the Crimea and in the Jewish yishuv in Palestine.

In 1920 Ford began circulating the anti-Semitic forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent. Previously, Marshall had shown caution with regard to addressing problems that would call attention to American Jews as a group. Marshall believed that this case, however, warranted an aggressive stance, as Ford was publishing the Protocols and fomenting anti-Semitism at a time when Americans were concerned about the “Red Scare.” Rejecting public debate as cheap and vulgar, Marshall’s legal training brought him to the conclusion that only a detailed factual rebuttal of the Protocol’s allegations would suffice. He initially sponsored a journalistic exposé of the Protocol’s lies but ultimately Marshall himself wrote and disseminated the self-defense statement, “The Protocols, Bolshevism, and the Jews: An Address to Their Fellow Citizens by American Jewish Organizations.” Marshall’s position within the American Jewish community allowed him to mobilize a broad coalition of religious, ethnic, and Zionist Jewish organizations for this endeavor.

 “The Protocols, Bolshevism, and the Jews” depicted the Jews as conservative upholders of democratic stability, patriotic American citizens much like Marshall himself. Surprisingly, in light of Ford’s position as an American cultural hero, the media and many distinguished Americans received Marshall’s account with great sympathy, though it took until 1927 before Ford, in a personal statement to Marshall, renounced his anti-Semitic stance.

Marshall, a proud American Jew, was concerned with problems of Jews the world over. As a member of the Executive Committee of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), another ethnically-based organization he helped found, Marshall was aware of the difficulties inherent to the re-settlement of European Jews who were displaced from their homes in the aftermath of World War I. By committing significant resources to Jewish colonies in the Soviet Union, the JDC acted against American foreign policy, which at that time did not recognize the Soviet regime.

Though Marshall was not a Zionist, he developed sympathy for the concept of a British mandate in Palestine and, as an alternative to Crimea, he turned his attention to the Jewish Agency which, in 1923, had decided to include non-Zionist members “who are in sympathy with the Palestine Mandate.” Though his understanding of Zionism was not an ideological one, he realized that “in Palestine the doors have been opened wide,” and saw Palestinian colonization as a practical solution to the European refugee problem. Ironically, Marshall now found himself in conflict with the “Downtown” masses, who had chosen to come to America and who believed in the possibilities offered by the “Goldene Medina.” At the same time, Marshall felt “out of sync” with those who had gone to Palestine and with Zionist leaders and their conflicting ideologies. This was not the American milieu in which he was used to dealing. Silver brings this section of his work to a close by noting that “out of all the items on Marshall’s…list of Jewish labors, his work for the Jewish Agency proved to be the most exhausting…”


Louis Marshall founded many of American Jewry’s organizations and institutions. He successfully dictated the terms of Henry Ford’s apology for his anti-Semitic campaign, drafted the clauses for Jewish minority rights in Eastern Europe after World War I, argued before the Supreme Court more often than any other attorney of his era, and in the last years of his life turned his attention toward the American-Jewish relationship with Palestine. Why, then, has he been

The answer, in Silver’s view, is related to Marshall’s preference for working behind the scenes, often in the capacity of lawyer or lobbyist for projects initiated by others. Professor Mark Raider, in his introduction to a special volume of American Jewish History marking the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Marshall’s birth, suggests that Marshall’s conservative outlook no longer seemed compatible with the American-Jewish liberal consensus which after Roosevelt’s election became current. Further, once the State of Israel became a reality, Marshall’s non-Zionist approach lost its appeal. Perhaps Marshall’s rehabilitation awaited the years of dedicated research and writing Silver invested to produce this comprehensive and fascinating biography.