Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Judah Magnes: Seeking to Keep Judaism’s Highest Ideals Alive in an Age of Nationalism

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2011

By Daniel P. Kotzkin,  
Syracuse University Press, 448 Pages, $49.95.  
Judah Leib Magnes (1877-1948) is largely ignored in contemporary American Jewish history. This is unfortunate for he was both an advocate of a humane cultural Zionism and one of the harshest critics of the political Zionism which slowly emerged in the first half of the 20th century, making him a truly unique and prophetic figure.  
Born in Northern California in 1877, he was a prominent Reform rabbi, an active pacifist during World War I who, later, moved to British Mandatory Palestine where he helped found and served as first chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, he emerged as the leading advocate for the binational plan for Palestine.  
In this new biography, Daniel P. Kotzkin, professor in the Social Science Department at Medaille College, in Buffalo, New York, tells the story of how Magnes, immersed in American Jewish life, Zionism and Jewish life in Mandatory Palestine, rebelled against the dominant strains of all three. His tireless efforts insured that Jewish public life was vibrant and diverse, and not controlled by any one faction. Uniquely, Magnes brought American ideals to Palestine and his own conception of Zionism shaped Jewish public life there. Late in his life, he had a sympathetic relationship with the American Council for Judaism.  
Head of Hebrew University  
Serving as head of the Hebrew University for its first 23 years, Magnes, who died a few months after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, is largely forgotten today because, as a passionate advocate of a binational state in Palestine in which Jews and Arabs had equal rights, he ended up on what many have considered the wrong side of history. Now, his warnings about the dangers of narrow nationalism and his predictions of continued chaos and turmoil if it was pursued, seem to have been closer to the lessons history is teaching us.  
Professor Kotzkin, in the Introduction, writes: “A pacifist and idealist. An agitator and dissenter, Magnes’s ideas and activities were not characteristic of American Jews during the era of his public life, or any era for that matter. Rather, Magnes occupies a singular place in American Jewish history. An ardent Zionist, he left America with his family and moved to Palestine in 1922 at a time when very few American Zionists were willing to take such a bold and uncertain step. Throughout his life, in both America and Palestine, he dared to publicly take extremely unpopular and contentious positions. He courageously refused to compromise his stances and retreat into silence. Consequently, he continuously moved between the center and periphery of Jewish life in the U.S. and Mandatory Palestine.”  
The events surrounding World War I and Magnes’s experiences during that time period, Kotzkin notes, “served as a transformative moment in his ideological development. He emerged into the postwar era deeply concerned about the dangers of nationalism and its affects on minority rights. At issue for him were the limits of liberalism regarding tolerance and what this meant for the Zionist movement. Magnes responded to these concerns and experiences by forging an ethical-liberal Zionist ideal. He based this on his cultural Zionism, Reform Judaism, and American progressive ideals that combined ethical universalism with Jewish particularism within a pluralistic framework.”  
Ethical Principles  
Magnes’s belief in Judaism’s ethical principles permeated his words and deeds in Palestine. Zionist policy toward Arabs, he maintained, should be a policy that went beyond tolerance and encouraged Arab national autonomy in equilibrium with Jewish national autonomy. Magnes intended the Hebrew University to act as a crucible to forge a Jewish culture based on his Zionist ideal and proposed a binational state to be its political realization. Magnes’s binational plan and mediating efforts with Arabs were extensions of his Zionist ideal. He wanted to change the objectives of the Zionist movement and challenged Zionist leaders to confront the moral problems inherent in their nationalist objectives.  
“Magnes’s life in Mandatory Palestine,” writes the author, “and his perspective on the Arab-Jewish conflict provide an understanding of the uniqueness of the American Jewish experience. On the one hand, raised on the belief in the primacy of the individual and civil rights, Magnes saw the Zionist leadership’s policy toward Arabs in Palestine as unjust … Magnes sought cooperative solutions. He had not experienced powerlessness or anti-Semitism in America, nor did he fear it. Instead, as he himself wrote in the early 1940s, he experienced an America that offered ‘the possibility of men of all races and origins and creeds living together cooperatively’ as well as ‘the opportunity for criticism.’ Thus, Magnes defined himself in 1941 by stating that ‘I am politically an American.’ Moreover, his experience in America during the First World War, when American nationalism seemed to destroy those very values, was the lens through which he later saw Zionist leaders. Consequently, he responded to the crisis in Palestine in a unique way.”  
Restraint on Nationalism  
In 1937, Magnes explained himself to the Palestinian Arab educator and writer Wadi Terazi: “When I saw what the free exercise of nationality did these days to the great peoples such as the Germans, what it did to the Arabs, what it did to the Jews, I felt Palestine could again become a holy land by exercising restraint upon the nationalism of both Jews and Arabs here. It would be good for both of us that we should have to think of each other and not ourselves alone.”  
Judah Magnes grew up in Northern California in the latter part of the 19th century, in a home imbued with the ethic of Reform Judaism. In those years Reform Judaism credited the Enlightenment as the source for both the Reform movement and American democracy. The movement’s Pittsburgh Platform presented Judaism as beneficial to American society, offering the Jewish sense of justice and righteousness to an imperfect modern world.  
Not all Reform Jews were true to their own principles. In those years, California Jews were no exception in expressing animosity toward Chinese immigrants. Magnes’s own rabbi, Jacob Voorsan-der, was one of those most vocally opposed to them. “The Chinese,” he wrote, “belongs to the nonassimilative race. He cannot mix with Caucasians. Like ambassadors of foreign powers, wherever he goes, he brings China with him.”  
Affected by Prejudice  
“Deeply affected by the prejudice he witnessed against Chinese immigrants in California, in college he wrote about the economic and political discrimination against the Chinese,” writes Kotzkin. “Later, as he developed his ideas of cultural pluralism while working as a rabbi, he explicitly stated that non-white ethnic groups such as the Chinese and Japanese should have equal rights with whites. Even while living in Jerusalem, towards the end of his life, Magnes painfully recalled the ‘anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco during my youth.’”  
Magnes’s scholastic achievements in the Classical Studies program at Oakland High School won him the honor of graduating as valedictorian in June 1894. He then entered Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He slowly came to view Reform Judaism in a critical way, believing that Reform Jews “have far less religion than our Christian neighbors.” Although he recognized that Judaism required changes, at the same time he feared the “amalgamation” with Christianity would eventually cause Judaism to disappear. He urged Reform Jews to become more religious and slowly moved away from the anti-Zionist philosophy which dominated the Hebrew Union College at this time.  
Even as he became sympathetic with the emerging Zionist movement, Magnes did not suggest that Jews should begin a mass migration to Palestine. Proclaiming himself a loyal American citizen, he wrote that “if it came to a choice between Palestine and America, I believe I would stay here.” Yet, in order to avoid “absorption by others,” Magnes insisted that the “establishment in Palestine of a Jewish Church and State” is “the only salvation of our present-day Judaism.” A Jewish Palestine, he believed, would revive Jewish religion throughout the world.  
Views at Variance  
As a student at Hebrew Union College, Magnes’s views were sharply at variance with the prevailing Reform philosophy. Kotzkin explains that, “Many Reform Jewish leaders during the 1890s, rabbis in particular, feared the small but growing Zionist movement … Jews, anti-Zionist Reform rabbis emphasized at the time, defined themselves only by their beliefs. Explicitly rejecting a return of Jews to Palestine, the l885 Pittsburgh Platform, moreover, stressed Judaism’s universal mission to create a world based on justice and righteousness. Leading Reform rabbis believed that by focusing on the return to Palestine instead of the ‘universal message’ of Judaism, Zionism would counteract what they saw as the very foundation of Reform Judaism: the ethical values developed by the biblical prophets. Reform rabbis further rejected Zionism by insisting that Jews must live in the Diaspora to spread their message. Isaac Wise wanted Hebrew Union College to be completely free of Zionism and proclaimed that with Zionism ‘Judaism loses its universal and sanctified ground.’”  
While Magnes questioned what he saw as assimlationist trends in Reform Judaism, the social justice element provided him with a sense of meaning. Since his youth, Magnes demonstrated a high regard for Jewish ethics. At Hebrew Union College (HUC) he took a course on Ezekiel, a major Jewish prophet who stood for individual moral responsibility, and complemented it with an ethical philosophy course at the University of Cincinnati. He helped found a literary society that focused on moral issues and he was impressed with Emil Hirsch, the Chicago Reform rabbi who spoke several times at HUC and further augmented Magnes’s interest in Jewish ethics.  
Magnes traced the roots of Reform Judaism not to 19th century German Reformers but rather all the way back to Saadia, the first Jewish philosopher who attempted to reconcile philosophy and reason with the Bible. Saadia also attracted him because of his integration of Jewish and non-Jewish thinking. Living most of his life in Babylonia, Saadia was influenced by Greek and Islamic philosophy to synthesize various non-Jewish trends into his thought. Saadia emphasized ethics, Magnes argued, “1. Because the Greek and Arab systems devoted sections to ethics, 2. Being a Jew he will saturate everything with ethics.”  
Praising Jeremiah  
Praising the prophet Jeremiah for standing against his own people, Magnes proclaimed that “indi-viduality is a finer thing than the soul that dances to the music of the mob.” As Magnes developed his preaching style, the great prophets, like Jeremiah, provided inspiration for him.  
Magnes’s conversion to Zionism culminated with his exposure to Ahad Ha-Am and cultural — rather than political — Zionism. During the l880s, Ahad Ha-Am, a Russian Jewish intellectual, was a leading member of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) but subsequently became its ardent critic. He believed that the Zionist movement should focus more on the cultural regeneration of the Jewish people rather than settlement in Palestine. He envisioned Palestine as a place where the spiritual elite would settle to create a modern Jewish morality. In his view, Palestine should function as a spiritual center for Jews across the world.  
After a visit to Palestine in 1891, Ahad Ha-Am expressed his concerns about Jewish settlement in light of the Arab population in Palestine. Criticizing Jewish settlers for their treatment of the Arab population, he was one of the first Zionists to understand the potential for continued conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Ahad Ha-Am’s Hebrew journal Ha’shiloah, which began circulation in 1896 sought to invigorate Hebrew scholarship and literature as part of his larger objective to under-stand the characteristics of Jewish nationalism. “His conception of Zionism,” notes Kotzkin, “with its focus on Jewish culture rather than settlement in Palestine thus differed immensely from that of Theodor Herzl. When Herzl emerged as the leader of the Zionist movement, Ahad Ha-Am offered a counterattack against Herzl for disregarding the cultural aspect of national Judaism.”  
Temple Emanu-El  
Judah Magnes went to Germany where he earned a Ph.D. and then to New York where he served as rabbi at Temple Eman-El, even though the majority of its members opposed his Zionist views. In 1907, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations formally expressed its opposition to Zionism when it declared that Zionists “cannot be patriotic Americans.” In Kotzkin’s view, “Magnes’s conception of Reform Judaism and its relationship with Zionism was quite radical for the time. The Reform Jewish establishment rejected Zionism. Through his articles and sermons, however, Magnes helped place Zionism in the public discourse. Few American Reform Jews shared his views. But he had the pulpit at one of the most prestigious Reform synagogues in the country.”  
During this time, Magnes often surrounded his home life with Quakers. After their marriage, Judah and Beatrice moved into an apartment near Stuyvesant Park. Across the park stood a Quaker meeting house. Attached was a Quaker school, which the Magnes sons attended. Later, the family moved to Chappaqua, New York and lived in a Quaker area, where they made close friends.  
Magnes’s belief in democracy caused him to view Zionism in terms far different from those of the organized Zionist movement. Kotzkin notes that, “Magnes believed that democracy required equal opportunity for all and that once special privileges are granted, democracy ceases to exist …. Magnes wanted Jews to have the opportunity to migrate to Palestine and develop their culture there. As proclaimed democrats, he argued that Zionists can ask for ‘equal rights’ in Palestine just as Jews have the right to ask for equal rights ‘in all lands’ where they live. To ask for more than this … ‘is to make an exception for Palestine in the formulation of a political program for the Jewish people.’ According to democratic principles, Magnes maintained, Zionists can only request from the Ottoman Empire that Jews in Palestine be given the same rights as other groups living there. He believed that Zionists needed to accept the existence of a large Arab population living in Palestine.”  
Unique View  
Magnes’s view, declares Kotzkin, “was unique. Most Zionists at the time believed Jews had a privileged right to Palestine. Often Zionists were simply unaware of the existence of a significant Arab population in Palestine, or they assumed that by improving economic and social conditions in Palestine, Jewish colonists would encourage Arabs to cooperate with them. Ahad Ha-Am was one important exception. After a visit to Palestine in the 1890s, he expressed concern about the Arab population … The complete disregard Jews had for Arabs worried him immensely. Ahad Ha-Am and Magnes alike placed priority on revitalizing Jewish culture and infused Zionism with a moral dimension. Free from Zionism’s narrow political aims, they saw the effects of various Zionist enterprises on the Arabs.”  
The way the U.S. entered World War I and promoted support for it produced a domestic atmosphere that forced professions of loyalty. “This war hysteria,” writes Kotzkin, “had a tremendous effect on Magnes. He was radicalized by the war, redefining Jewish nationalism in a way that included notions of pacifism, equality and pluralism as central tenets. The war hysteria also warned him of the dangers nationalist intolerance posed for democracy, dangers he would later warn others about when he moved to British Mandatory Palestine.”  
It was through the Emergency Peace Federation that Magnes emerged as a leading figure in the American peace movement. On April 7, 1917, following Congress’s official declaration of war, American socialists met at a national conference in St. Louis to state their position on the war. In a report written by Morris Hillquit, a Jewish socialist leader, the Socialist Party expressed its opposition to war, conscription and censorship.  
Pacifism and the Peace Movement  
Magnes and Hillquit joined forces and gathered together all radical pacifists into one organization. Magnes chaired the First Amendment Conference for Democracy and Terms of Peace at Madison Square Garden, which created the People’s Council of America for Democracy and Peace. Magnes emerged as the featured speaker for the American peace movement. Max Eastman, a fellow member of the People’s Council, later recalled the effect Magnes’s speech had on him: “I can hear his voice wailing sublimely among the rafters of that gigantic building as I imagine Jeremiah’s and remember thinking what a letdown mine would be.”  
Magnes became a strong advocate of the Civil Liberties Bureau and later served as an officer of what became the National Civil Liberties Union and remained a member when it renamed itself the American Civil Liberties Union. Concerned about efforts to suppress dissent, Magnes declared that without “free speech, free discussion, freedom of assemblage, a free press and free souls, our democracy is but a sham and hypocrisy.”  
Magnes’s experience during the period between 1917 and 1922, writes Kotzkin, “caused a crisis of identity that spurred him to begin a process of reinventing Jewish nationalism. American patriotic fervor, with its intolerance of oppositional views and ethnic diversity, undermined his ideals of individualism and the pluralistic image of America and warned him of the dangers of nationalism. But at this very moment, the Balfour Declaration sanctioned Zionist aspirations in the international arena. Thus, Magnes felt the need to reconcile Zionism with the general problems of nationalism.”  
Dignity of Jewish People  
After the Balfour Declaration, Magnes concerned himself with the national dignity of the Jewish people. As he spoke out against the war and intolerance as violations of American ideals, he redefined Jewish nationalism so that the Jewish national home would be something he believed Jews could take pride in. During and immediately after World War I, he developed his ideas, reinterpreting Jewish ethics as radical pacifism: “Magnes shared the religious humanism of Christian Social Gospel ministers of the People’s Council like Norman Thomas and John Haynes Holmes. However, he most admired the Quakers for placing pacifism at the core of their belief system … Magnes based his pacifism on his belief in the value of human life and the spiritual meaning of sanctifying human life; ‘This means opposition to the spilling of blood,’ he states, ‘and it means the glorification of human kindness.’”  
Magnes’s speeches and letters about Zionism from 1917 to 1921 reveal a man profoundly concerned about the future of the Zionist movement and the ethical ramifications of its actions. For Zionism to be successful, in his view, the movement must act in accordance with Jewish values. He asked Poale Zion to demonstrate to the Arabs that “we Jews want nothing for ourselves that we are not willing to give to everyone.” To make physical claims to the land denied Arabs equal access.  
In a letter to London’s Jewish Chronicle in 1921, Magnes emphasized that Jews would be redeemed only if they built up Palestine independent of any imperialist agents and in cooperation with Arabs. Only if Jews came to Palestine on their own without infringing on Arab national aspirations, he wrote, would Jews truly be redeemed.  
Magnes Not Alone  
Magnes was not alone in his view. A.D. Gordon and Martin Buber applied the notion of Jewish spiritual regeneration to Arab-Jewish relations. Gordon believed that labor had spiritual meaning for the individual. Jews, he stressed, had a right to the land only through their labor. But Gordon believed that Arabs had just as much right to work the land. Martin Buber, a cultural Zionist inspired by Ahad Ha-Am, emphasized involving oneself in the process of Jewish national rebirth. At a conference in Prague in 1920 that united Gordon’s Hapoel Hatzair and Buber’s Zionist Youth of Central and Eastern Europe, they declared Jews to be unique and opposed demarcating Jewish rights against others.  
In 1921, Buber presented a resolution at the Twelfth Zionist Congress that specifically addressed relations with Arabs. Only “cooperation,” he maintained, “can lead to the salvation of Palestine and of its two peoples.” Although Buber’s resolution passed, the Editorial Committee altered it to such an extent that the original statement was unrecognizable. In addition, little effort was made to carry out the resolution. The “experience” of seeing his resolution become meaningless, “was like a Nightmare” for Buber.  
Wanting only that Jews have the right to build up the land on equal terms with other people living in Palestine, Magnes opposed the British government simply handing Palestine to the Zionists: “I am afraid the exile of a people does not end by political fiat and that redemption does not begin with political favoritism. It is only the exiled people itself that can put an end to its exile through its inner freedom and inexorable will, and it is only through its own hard day by day labor and unchanging faith that a people can be redeemed. Certainly, the Jewish people cannot be redeemed by a vague political decree.”  
Jewish and American Ideals  
In Palestine, writes Kotzkin, Magnes “tried to import a synthesis of his own Jewish and American ideals to invent a new Jewish culture in Palestine, a culture … that incorporated all aspects of Jewish life but avoided being chauvinistic and encouraged cooperation with the Arabs living in Palestine.”  
Magnes viewed Hebrew University not only as a nationalist academic institution, but, Kotzkin points out, “a unique national university that emphasized humanistic values, reflecting the exceptionalism of Judaism and the Jewish people, as he conceived them. He wanted to construct the Hebrew University so that … it would play a central role in encouraging Jews to be Zionists and at the same time to transcend nationalism. This, as it turned out, may have been an impossible and utopian dream.”  
In a speech in Jerusalem in 1923, Magnes presented his vision of the mission of Israel, one that illustrates the impact of the pacifism he developed during World War I. Zionism, he declared, must not become subsumed by “chauvinism” and the type of “vanity of vanities:” that has “driven nations into slaughtering one another and … prevents understanding and reconciliation among nations.” Rather, inspired by the Quakers he befriended during World War I, he wanted Jews to “determine consciously and deliberately that it would oppose every species of organized warfare.” He believed that the sanctification of life, rooted in the soul of every Jew, must make them oppose warfare.  
Teaching of the Prophets  
Merging 19th century American Judaism with cultural Zionism, Magnes asked if “the Jews of Eretz Israel will be true to the teachings of the prophets of Israel and attempt to work out their ideal society so that Jerusalem may be restored and Zion redeemed through righteousness and peace.” In an address to the graduating class at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America during a visit to New York in 1925, Magnes developed this idea of Zionism, as he defined it for the graduates, as “a nationalism that transcends nationalism — a nationalism that avoids the bestial patriotism bred by war.” As such, by incorporating elements from the Jewish religion that abhor war, Zionism has the “power” to promote “universal brotherhood.” When writing about the “distinctiveness of Hebrew University” in the early 1920s, Magnes claimed that it would study the “sources of Judaism” and lead the way “to a synthesis of man’s reason with man’s morality.” Looking back, it seems that Magnes’s idea of Zionism was very much at variance with the established Jewish leadership in Palestine.  
Still, Magnes was hardly alone in his views. Arthur Ruppin, a member of the World Zionist Execu-tive, presented a program for a binational Palestine at the 1925 Zionist Congress. He argued that Jews should work with Arabs to obtain their consent to the Zionist movement rather than engaging in an endless conflict. A similar idea had been generated several years earlier by two German Jewish intellectuals, Hans Kohn and Robert Weltsch. Both believed that a cooperative relationship with Arabs could only be achieved by renouncing the Jewish exclusive claim to Palestine. Weltsch, Kohn and their friend Hugo Bergman had been members of the Bar-Kochba Student Circle in Prague.  
With their mentor Martin Buber, they shared a belief in Zionism as a national movement based on ethics and justice that transcended mere political aims. Like Magnes, these Central European Zionists had been radicalized by World War I. As the historian Hagit Lavsky argues, during the early postwar years they fashioned their Zionism with universal values. When the 1925 Zionist Congress failed to address the Arab problem, Kohn and Bergman (both of whom had immigrated to Palestine) joined Ruppin in creating Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) “to bring about improved relations” between Arabs and Jews.  
Brit Shalom  
Magnes established close relations with the German Jewish members of Brit Shalom. Kotzkin writes: “Bergman and Scholem worked at the Hebrew University Library and became good friends with Magnes … They saw him as an idealist … who had ‘an uncritical faith in the possibility of human salvation through cultural enlightenment and progress.’ His commitment to ethical values … inspired them immensely … As Scholem explained, Magnes ‘asked for a liberated Zionism, liberated for its real designation of renewal of the nation and free from contacts with dark forces.’ By validating his worldview, the German intellectuals who surrounded Magnes in Palestine … nourished his desire to shape Zionism according to Jewish ethical values of the ancient prophets. Henrietta Szold, the other prominent American Zionist living in Jerusalem at the time, was also interested in Arab-Jewish rapprochement and endorsed Magnes’s views … Magnes wanted Jews to pursue peaceful relations with Arabs based on immutable Jewish values rather than political objectives subject to change.”  
In response to the August 1929 Arab riots, Magnes reevaluated his mission in Palestine. Just as America’s entrance into World War I had sparked his pacifist activism, the Arab riots motivated him to publicly advocate for cooperative relations between Jews and Arabs. He prized his romantic image of the Jewish people, where its prestige and reputation rested on its ability to act as a moral and liberal beacon for the world. As an American, he valued his own country’s ideals of equality and democracy. As a staunch pacifist, he believed it essential to find avenues that would avoid future conflicts between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.  
Immigrants in America and Palestine  
In his work comparing European Jewish immigrants in America and Palestine. Daniel Elazar argues that whereas American Jews valued social justice for all minority groups, Palestinian Jewry focused on “solidarity and parochialism.” Boas Evron, in discussing the difference between America and Israel, similarly argues that while Americans understand the state as protecting “individual liberty and equality,” the majority of Israel’s founders understood the state as an “expression of the nation.” In Kotzkin’s view, “The ideological differences between Magnes and Zionist political leaders highlights the distinction presented by Elazar and Evron. Magnes’s American values and American experience made him view the Arab-Jewish conflict differently from most of the Eastern European-born Jews living in Palestine: while Magnes argued that in their efforts to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine, Jews must simultaneously seek equality and social justice for Arabs, the Zionist leadership’s primary aim was to sustain the Zionist political cause.”  
Labor Zionists compared the riots in Palestine to the anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia. “To have recognized the Arab national claim would have undermined the righteousness of Zionist ideals that they proclaimed,” Kotzkin points out. “Anti-Arab sentiment, in addition, consumed the Yishuv … Jews who called for peace and understanding, like the members of Brit Shalom, were condemned on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the belief that they demonstrated Jewish weakness, not Jewish strength.”  
Magnes began to see that Zionism was becoming like the American ultra-nationalism of World War I. He believed that right-wing Revisionists, in particular, by preaching extreme militarism, were “corrupting” the Jewish youth of Palestine. “It is they,” he claimed, “who preach hatred.” But even mainstream and Labor Zionists, by their refusal to take any responsibility for the riots yet all the while “making chauvinistic demands” were “no better than the warmongers of 1914 and 1917.” To ease tensions between Arabs and Jews, Magnes believed that Zionists must limit their objectives. He wanted Jews to focus their energies on redefining Zionism to be pacifist and ethical. He maintained that Zionists should refrain from demanding Jewish political control of Palestine but at the same time stipulated three conditions: the right for Jews to buy and sell land in Palestine and the right for Jews to build their own cultural and religious institutions.  
Arab National Aspirations  
Unlike many Zionists, Magnes saw the Arab riots as an expression of Arab national aspirations rather than one of anti-Semitism. Once Zionists recognized the existence of Arab nationalism, Magnes wrote Chaim Weizmann, they could only follow one of two routes: either Zionists must support Jabotinsky’s militaristic nationalism, which wanted to establish a Jewish majority in Palestine “no matter how much this oppresses the Arabs”; or, as Magnes would argue, they could follow spiritual Zionism based on pacifism and cooperation with Arabs.  
Kotzkin writes that, “For Magnes, if Jews failed to stand by both their ethical tradition and the Zionist claim to the right of national self-determination for all nations, they compromised the reputation of the Jewish nation as ethical. It did not matter that Arab ‘leaders are almost all small men’ because nothing should deter Jews from attempting to build up Palestine ‘peacefully’ with Arabs. ‘If we cannot even attempt this,’ Magnes wrote to Chaim Weizmann, ‘I should much rather see the eternal people without a ‘National Home’ because ‘a Jewish Home in Palestine built up on bayonets and oppression is not worth having.’ The very prestige of the Jewish people depended upon them building up Palestine based on their own ethical values. ‘And if the Arabs are not capable of this (pursuing peace),’ Magnes maintained in a letter to Felix Warburg, ‘we Jews must be, else we are false to our spiritual heritage and give the lie to our much-vaunted higher civilization.’”  
In his pamphlet Like All The Nations?, Magnes drew attention, with its very title, to conflict between the Zionist effort to normalize the Jewish people and his belief that the Jewish people are unique. The title referred to a biblical passage (2 Samuel 7:23) that declares that Israel is a unique nation in the eyes of God. But Magnes’s title also made reference to Theodor Herzl’s attempt to normalize the Jewish people, to make it like all other nations, by giving it territory and a state.  
“Normal” or “Unique” Nation  
Jews, it seemed to Magnes, had a choice between establishing their life in Palestine as a “normal” nation on the basis of “force and power” or as a unique nation based on their ethical tradition of “human solidarity and understanding.” Although the Quakers were not a nation, as a religious society they provided a model to follow. Ideally, Jews should “make every possible effort politically as well as in other ways to work hand in hand … with the awakening Arab world.” In applying his American democratic ideals to Palestine, Magnes sought to “Americanize” the conversation about the future. As he outlined it, an egalitarian pluralistic democracy could exist using American governmental structures as a model. At a Hebrew University reception in New York, Magnes complained that Zionists focused on the “primacy of the nation” and completely disregarded the “higher values” of Judaism.  
When Magnes presented his plans for constitutional arrangements at a Brit Shalom meeting in February 1932, Arthur Ruppin felt such plans were useless because neither Arabs nor Jews outside their circle could accept them. “By 1933,” writes Kotzkin, “Brit Shalom dissolved. Magnes chose to remain independent. By doing so, he enabled himself to act as a critical Jewish intellect. He offered a critique of Zionism’s direction and suggested an alternative discourse based on Jewish ethics and democracy rather than based on Jewish claims to power … Magnes compared himself to the prophet Jeremiah, a lone prophet preaching for peace …’I feel myself to be one of Jeremiah’s heirs,’ Magnes wrote in his diary, ‘the heir of that tradition which tried during political subjection to spiritualize life, and to teach a loathing of force.’ He wanted to ‘take the burden of Jeremiah’ and ‘awaken’ Jews to perform ‘ethical deeds.’”  
Feared Partition  
Magnes feared the partition of Palestine and worried that it would “plant the seeds of war” and become “the new Balkans.” What most caused him alarm was the influence of right-wing Revisionists: “A Jewish army in the hands of our militarists, heaven knows what that may lead to.” He spoke against partition at the August 1937 meeting of the Council of the Jewish Agency in Zurich. Kotzkin reports that, “While he spoke, shouts from the audience could be heard calling him a ‘Traitor.’ When Magnes prophesied that a Jewish state would lead to war, laughter was heard from the audience.” Magnes lamented that, “Jews want the state, not so much peace with the Arabs … I think it is not at all exaggerated to say that our leadership … has never sincerely systematically and as a basic point of its policy, endeavored to win the assent of the Arabs to what we were doing and what we were planning.”  
Martin Buber’s arrival in Palestine in the spring of 1938 when he joined the faculty of Hebrew University fueled Magnes’s inclination to work completely independent of the Jewish Agency for a negotiated settlement with Arabs. Buber, Magnes and former Hebrew University faculty members such as Hugo Bergman, Gershom Scholem and Ernest Simon met regularly. In January 1939 they formed a group called Ha-’Ol (The Yoke) that focused on religion and politics, particularly the “Arab problem.” Although Ha-‘Ol was short-lived, for the next decade, Magnes and Buber joined together as the leading proponents of the binational plan.  
In August 11, 1942, more than l00 Jewish intellectuals, all of whom supported a binational plan, formed the organization Ihud (Union). Kotzkin writes that, “The name Ihud may have developed out of Magnes’s admiration for Abraham Lincoln … Just as Lincoln sought to keep the American union together, Magnes hoped Ihud would do its part to keep Palestine united … American Zionists labeled Magnes the ‘troubler in Palestine’ who was ‘dangerous and destructive to morale’ … He was not just an American Jew who espoused the values of democracy. He was an American Jew living in Palestine, and therefore could speak first-hand about the situation there … Marking Magnes as a traitor, as an outsider, enabled Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders to continue to present Zionists as unified …”  
World War I Hysteria  
Seeing American Jews fall in line behind Ben-Gurion reminded Magnes of the World War I war hysteria in the U.S. “Must there be submission,” he asked, “to a totalitarian unity of mind on what constitutes Zionism today?” He felt it was important to offer opposing views to the “present policies and methods of the Zionist organization” because of what he saw as a “spirit of intolerance (which) threatens to overwhelm us. Referring to the recent threats on his life in Palestine, he stated that those “expressing views not in complete accord with prevailing ideas are exposed to bodily harm.” In Magnes’s opinion, to affirm his American identity and the democratic values that formed the core of that identity, he had to offer an alternative position on the future of Palestine to American Jews.  
In September 1942, Rabbi Morris Lazaron, an early leader in the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), wrote to Magnes expressing support for his peace efforts. Lazaron, a respected Reform rabbi from Baltimore, had earlier found cultural Zionism appealing. Later, observing the rise of Nazism in Germany, he came to the conclusion that the Zionist movement was exploiting the situation for its own political advantage. A visit to Nazi Germany convinced him that nationalism follows a path toward destruction, one he did not want Jews to follow.  
In a letter to Lazaron, Magnes endorsed the ACJ. Professor Kotzkin, clearly unsympathetic to the Council’s views, argues, without any evidence, that Magnes was not fully aware of the Council’s overall perspective. The facts seem to be otherwise. In April 1948, the ACJ President, Lessing J. Rosenwald, in cooperation with the State Department and a number of Jewish opponents of partition, played a major role in convincing Magnes to join efforts to prevent partition.  
Magnes and Rosenwald  
In his book Jews Against Zionism, The ACJ, 1942-1948 (Temple University Press), Professor Thomas A. Kolsky writes: “When he helped bring Magnes to the U.S. and finance his living expenses in New York, Rosenwald acted on his own. He was careful not to compromise the prospective mission … Magnes came to the U.S. merely as a spokesman for the Ihud Association, which was a Palestine-based Jewish group committed to Arab-Jewish binationalism. In that capacity he openly endorsed the American trusteeship plan. Magnes arrived in New York on April 22, 1948. Although he met with his supporters on April 26 and with Secretary of State George Marshall on May 4, Magnes failed to accomplish more than to demonstrate that some Jews disagreed with Zionist aims.”  
Both Magnes and Buber responded to Nazi Germany similarly, insofar as they became increasingly fearful that Zionism could become a militant form of nationalism. In his personal notes, Magnes criticized the Zionists who supported transfer schemes to send Palestinians to Arab countries. He stated that, “They admire the Hitler efficiency. They admire his transfer of people and they wish they could do the same thing with the Arabs.” According to his biographer Maurice Friedman, “Buber’s greatest fear was that the Jewish people in Palestine might learn the wrong lesson and imitate in the name of the Jewish cause the Nazi ‘cruelty.’”  
Magnes and Buber argue that the Jewish and Arab claims to Palestine had “equal validity.” Jews had a “historical” right and Arabs, because they lived there for centuries and made up a majority of the population, had a “natural” right. As equals, the Ihud statement reads, because “neither people can get … all it wants,” they would be encouraged to seek an “honorable and reasonable compromise.”  
Anti-Partition Campaign  
Early in 1948, Magnes began an anti-partition campaign that supported the State Department initiative. Ihud expressed outrage at the violence, printed trilingual posters urging Jews and Arabs to stop the violence and to work together for peace. In August, Magnes focused his attention on the Arab refugee problem — an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Arabs fled their homes in Israel. In a letter to Commentary, he expressed his outrage at the Israeli government for creating the Arab refugee crisis: “It is unfortunate that the very men who could point to the tragedy of Jewish DPs as the chief argument for mass immigration into Palestine should now be ready … to help create an additional category of DPs in the Holy Land.  
Magnes died in New York on October 27, 1948, never having set foot in the newly created State of Israel. A telegram from President Harry S. Truman was read at his memorial service: “He was a man of vision and understanding. His humanitarian interests spanned oceans and continents and would not be bounded by any diversity of creed or nation … all mankind shares to some degree his loss.”  
Magnes Worth a Second Look  
Professor Kotzkin has performed a notable service in writing this biography. Reviewing it in The Forward, Laurence Zuckerman notes that, “At a time when rising numbers of Jews no longer identify with Israel and are questioning the morality of Zionism, Magnes’s ideas are worth a second look.” In the end, Judah Magnes may have been more like the Prophet Jeremiah after whom he patterned much of his life than even he imagined. •

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.