Thursday, March 12, 2009

Felix Frankfurter

For some unknown reason, I have acquired a recent interest in Israel. While leafing through the pages of one of Felix Frankfurter's books of papers and addresses, I found an address given in tribute to Israel on the occasion of its tenth anniversary.

The address is curiously realist. Frankfurter noted that "paeans of praise are so spent upon [Israel] that I think there is hardly a realization, even on the part of those who see what has been done, of what had to be undone." He highlighted the achievement by quoting Mark Twain from 1869:
"Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies ... Nazareth is forlorn ... Bethlehem and Bethany, in their poverty and their humiliation, have nothing about them now to remind one that they once knew the high honor of the Saviour's presence; the hallowed spot where the shepherds watched their flocks by night, and where the angels sang Peace on earth, good will to men, is untenanted by any living creature, and unblessed by any feature that is pleasant to the eye ... Palestine is desolate and unlovely ... It is sacred to poetry and tradition - it is dream-land."
Frankfurter then notes, "now, 1869 is not so long ago". That comment is at once a celebration of the achievement of Israel (as Frankfurter puts it, "Miraculous? Yes; but yet not superhuman") and a reminder of the recency of its desolation. 

And why is this important for everyone?
"What we are celebrating is neither sectarian nor parochial. It is not restrictive in significance nor local in need. I do not think I use the language of hyperbole if I say that history, democracy, and civilization are vindicated by the beginning of the second decade of Israel."
The constant hope is that Israel, like the US, lives up to its potential, continues to replicate its previous triumphs and remains worthy of the extraordinary people who forged its existence.

Frankfurter was by all accounts an excellent judge, but his path to the bench was by no means certain. In a piece published in the Reader's Digest in 1956, Frankfurter mentioned that when he was fresh out of law school, he secured a position at a leading law firm. This was no mean feat given that the law firms of the day never took Jewish clerks. "[O]ut of a generous motive", a partner at the firm urged Frankfurter to change his name. The young clerk refused, replying that his name "is part of me". The similarity to Doctor Zhivago is striking: to grasp the meaning of the world's wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm hopefully we can get back to this democracy and civilization idea....