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How Uncle Lewis changed American Zionism

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American, Israeli flags WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
American, Israeli flags WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

As many of us follow the election campaign south of the border with apprehension and amusement, it’s worth recalling that the voting process has undergone significant changes over time. Indeed, the concept of an anonymous voting system was introduced in the United States only toward the end of the 19th century. The secret ballot was drafted by a legal scholar named Lewis Naphtali Dembitz to meet the growing public demand for the protection of voters. The basic idea was a closed voting box, with the only hole being a small slit at the top.

Politically active – he was a delegate to the 1860 Republican national convention – Dembitz retained his connection to Judaism and was considered an Orthodox Jew, despite the fact that all his colleagues, neighbours and family members in Louisville, Ky., were secular and assimilated. His steadfastness and fidelity inspired others, especially his nephew, Louis, who many years later would reminisce vividly about spending Shabbat at his uncle’s house, recalling “the joy and awe with which my uncle welcomed the arrival of the day and the piety with which he observed it. I remember the extra delicacies, lighting of the candles, prayers over a cup of wine, quaint chants, and Uncle Lewis poring over books most of the day. I remember more particularly an elusive something about him which was spoken of as the ‘Sabbath peace’… Uncle Lewis used to say that he was enjoying a foretaste of heaven.”

Young Louis admired his uncle greatly. He even changed his middle name from David to Dembitz in his honour, and chose law as his profession because of him.

Many years later, in 1910, the successful and well-known Louis was being interviewed by Jacob de Haas, the editor of a Boston Jewish newspaper and an early leader of the Zionist movement, on the subject of legal matters and life insurance. During their conversation, de Haas asked Louis if he was related to Lewis Dembitz. After hearing of the connection, the editor said to the nephew that his uncle was “a noble Jew,” for he “had been one of the first Americans to support Theodor Herzl,” the father of modern Zionism.

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At that point in time, most major American Jewish leaders and organizations were either lukewarm or openly opposed to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine and considered it a conflict to their American identity. Many stated publicly that support for the Zionist idea would be viewed by the gentiles as disloyalty to the United States. It was a common belief that if Jews wanted to become accepted by the American public, their only loyalty had to be to the United States of America and not to any other country. But Jacob de Haas was searching for a person to ignite the spirit of Zionism in the United States.

For Louis, hearing from de Haas that his beloved uncle was a supporter of Zionism was a momentous revelation. Shortly after, he became heavily involved in the project and became an ardent, committed Zionist. Louis was able to show that Zionism and American patriotism did not conflict. This broad support led to president Woodrow Wilson’s endorsement of the Balfour Declaration.

Many historians note that it was due to his backing of the endeavour that a significant shift occurred, leading Zionism to become popular and acceptable to the majority of American Jews.

Thus the contribution of Lewis Naphtali Dembitz did not end with the secret ballot. His commitment to tradition inspired his nephew to support a homeland for the Jewish People and change the attitude of American Jewry and the stance of the White House.

In 1916, Louis became the first Jewish Justice of the United States Supreme Court, known to us all as Louis D. Brandeis. 


Rabbi Yirmiya Milevsky is spiritual director of Congregation B’nai Torah in Toronto.