With the passing of Max J. Kohler, American Jewry has lost a remarkable champion, an indefatigable advocate, a painstaking and conscientious jurist, and a wholehearted defender of the immigrant in America. Max Kohler distinguished himself as a profound student of the law, as the author of numerous works on American Jewish historical subjects, and particularly on the problems of immigration. Mr. Kohler served as honorary secretary of the National Committee on Celebration of the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in the United States, in 1905; as trustee and honorary secretary of the Baron de Hirsch Fund since 1906; as vice-president of the American Jewish Historical Society; as member of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Committee and as president of Judaeans. He wrote learned treatises on the Balkan States, on Judah P. Benjamin, on the Injustice of the Literacy Test for Immigrants and on the Registration of Aliens.
MAX J. KOHLER
During the past year Mr. Kohler has rendered invaluable services in connection with the tragedy of the Jews under the Hitler regime. He prepared a scholarly pamphlet on the precedents of American protests against religious prejudice and persecution in foreign lands. He exposed the folly of the “Aryan” claims to superiority.
There were instances when Max J. Kohler was wrong, particularly when he opposed the movement for the erection of a statue to the Polish Jewish American patriot, Haym Salomon. But even on that occasion his opposition was based on the ground that the life history of Haym Salomon had not yet been fully investigated, and he was eager that every detail of the patriot’s life be scrutinized before the monument is erected in his honor. Mr. Kohler was pedantic and thorough in all his work. He was uncompromising when questions of principles and ideals were involved. He was a fact-finder and he never spoke or wrote of things he knew but superficially. He was modest and unassuming. He never shirked difficult tasks. He was zealously devoted to the ideals of Judaism and to the fundamentals of Americanism. But above all, he fought energetically for the rights of the immigrant, Jew and Gentile alike, and for human rights wherever such rights were denied the Jewish people that national elections will be held in April, 1935, in order that this organization may be truly regarded as democratic and representative of the American Jewish masses, concludes with an appeal to all Jews, affiliated or unaffiliated, “to lend their support to this movement for the preservation of the collective and individual freedom and equality of all Jews.”
The appeal states also that the time has now come “when the Jews of America must acknowledge themselves and act as a people not only where European Jewry is concerned, but where they themselves are concerned.”
The proclamation adds that during historic moments, when grave crises demanded action from a united Jewish people, the impulse for such action came from the masses rather than from the official leadership of American Jewry.”
It is an undeniable fact that most of the American Jewish leaders have been followers rather than leaders. However sincere and well-meaning some of the recognized and so-called self-appointed American Jewish leaders have been, they often proved ineffectual for two reasons. They were not always sufficiently informed regarding the problems they undertook to solve, and they often imagined that only by “diplomatic” negotiations conducted secretly the best results could be attained.
I recall that when I returned from one of my journalistic visits to Russia and told one of the most influential American Jewish leaders about the Beilis ritual murder case that was being staged by the Tsarist government, he begged me not to write anything about the affair for the American newspapers on the ground that the American people knew nothing about the ritual murder accusations and that it would be unwise to discuss such matters in the general press. I explained to him that the Tsarist government was then preparing the case against all Jewry, not merely against the individual Mendel Beilis, and that the American Jews should be just as deeply concerned about that accusation as the Jews of Russia. I also pointed out that the Tsarist government was making preparations to tell its side of the Mendel Beilis affair to the world, and that it was most important for the Jews to present the facts without delay in order to arouse the world conscience against the hideous crime of the Tsarist government. I published the facts then in The New York Times. Afterward this American Jewish leader, together with Louis Marshall and Judge Meyer Sulzberger and others, worked wholeheartedly and energetically in arousing public opinion against the Tsarist conspiracy.
When the Russian American passport question came up, involving the rights of American citizens of Jewish faith, it was only when the problem was taken up openly, that results were attained. It was rightly taken up by the Jewish leaders as an American problem. The Jewish masses were with the leaders on that issue. And the American people, the American Congress, and the American government dealt with the problem in a thoroughly American manner. The Russo-American Treaty of Commerce was abrogated by a joint resolution of Congress when the Russian government was found guilty of hoodwinking the United States regarding the passport question and of continuing to discriminate against American citizens on religious grounds.
The strength of leadership lies in the justice of the cause they are championing and in the support they are receiving from the masses whom they are supposed to represent.
Now that American Jewry has leaders of various factions and groups, sincerely differing in their viewpoints, their ideologies and their methods, often working at cross purposes, with the best of intentions, but often to the detriment of the common cause, it is high time that a truly democratic and representative organization be created, which include all the ablest constructive leaders of American Jewry in order that the ever-growing problems affecting the Jewish people may be dealt with authoritatively, intelligently and successfully, in keeping with the mandate given to them by the Jewish masses.