Jonathan Sarna marks elevation to University Professor with lecture on Jewish Politics

Sarna was recognized with Brandeis' highest academic honor

brandeis president ron liebowitz and sarna familyPhoto/Mike Lovett

Left to right: Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz, Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna, his wife, Ruth Langer, and his son, Aaron

Eminent historian and scholar Jonathan Sarna ’75 MA’75 was formally recognized as a University Professor, Brandeis’ highest academic honor, with a lecture and dinner on Nov. 28.

Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, marked the occasion by delivering a lecture titled “Jews and American Politics: Historical Ideals and Contemporary Realities,” to a large gathering at the Spingold Theater that included members of the Brandeis administration, faculty, current and former students and many of the professor’s longtime mentors, friends and colleagues.

The lecture chronicled the changes in Jewish political identity from the mid-19th century to the present day.

“Jews have moved, in recent decades, from fearful outsiders to confident insiders, in American life generally and certainly in politics,” Sarna said. “The subject of Jewish politics, a secret or even a scandal in Abraham Lincoln’s day, can in our day become a subject for scholarly investigation.”

The talk was also a striking and comprehensive display of Sarna’s breadth of knowledge; he included years of research, even some from his undergraduate days at Brandeis, plus information he gathered while co-writing his 2015 book “Lincoln and the Jews: A History” with Benjamin Shapell.

As it turns out, President Abraham Lincoln played a profound part in shaping the early political identity of Jews, who, according to Sarna, were against the notion of “Jewish politics” in the mid-19th century.

Sarna revealed that the first Jewish political broadside, the Jewish Union Republican Association, surfaced in 1864. Lincoln, hoping to seek re-election that year, enlisted the help of prominent Jewish figures, including his podiatrist and close friend Issachar Zacharie, to secure the so-called Jewish vote.

Jewish political identity gained more prominence through the end of the 1800s and at the start of the 20th century with Presidents William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson, Sarna noted, nominated Louis Brandeis, the university's namesake, to the Supreme Court in 1916; Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, serving on the court from 1916 to 1939.

“As one learns when one is a professor at Brandeis for many decades, you must always find a way to plug Louis Brandeis in a lecture,” Sarna quipped to laughter and applause.

Sarna also noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency played a major role in shaping today’s Jewish politics.

“Roosevelt won an astonishing 90 percent of the Jewish vote,” said Sarna. “Since FDR, every single Democrat who has run for President with but one significant exception – Jimmy Carter – has received 60 percent or more of the Jewish vote.”

In a question and answer forum with audience members after his lecture, Sarna commented on Jewish political demographics; the apparent rise in anti-Semitic acts since the 2016 election; political attitudes of Israelis who have immigrated to the United States; and why Jews, despite being only two percent of the American population, are a key voting bloc.

The lecture and subsequent reception at the Shapiro Campus Center also celebrated Sarna’s decades-long membership in the Brandeis University family. Sarna first set foot on the Brandeis campus at the age of 10, when his father, Nahum, a biblical scholar, joined the university’s faculty.

The younger Sarna graduated from Brandeis in 1975 summa cum laude and went on to earn a doctorate from Yale University. Sarna has written or coauthored more than 30 books on Jewish history, and chaired the department of Near Eastern and Judaic studies three times.

“Professor Sarna’s scholarship has influenced our understanding of the Jewish experience in America,” said Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz. “Jonathan is not just a historian of American Judaism — he is the historian of American Judaism.”

“Professor Sarna is a rock-star historian of the American Jewish experience; a passionate teacher; a patient mentor; and a dedicated University citizen,” Liebowitz added. “There’s one more accolade I’d like to add: Jonathan Sarna is a mensch — a man of integrity and honor.” 

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