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Judah Magnes: A Disappointed American Zionist

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Spring 2005

Judah Magnes was a devoted American Zionist who rejected the classical Reform Judaism position that pointed to America as the new Palestine and Washington as the new Jerusalem. He believed that a Jewish community in Palestine could help guide the Diaspora, and the native of California moved to Palestine in 1922, where he became a leading figure, and was the principal architect of the Hebrew University.  

However, Magnes was to be disappointed with the state that he helped create. Always cautious about what political role Jews would play in Palestine, he was wary of those who were willing to subjugate the Arab population. Not only did he believe that such an action would poison the water for a future state, but from a humanist perspective, he also believed it was unethical. To the great consternation of his fellow Zionists, Magnes fought for decades in Palestine to create a system that would be fair to both Jews and Arabs. He accurately predicted that a state that did not take into account the political strivings of both peoples would be doomed to perpetual strife. Magnes never surrendered, and until his death in 1948, he fought to establish a binational state in which Jews and Arabs could live as equals. Ultimately, he found too few allies to establish his vision, and while some of his notions have proven to be too idealistic, and perhaps nave, history has shown that the key to peace and stability lies in the search for consensus to which Magnes dedicated his life.  

Early Years: Vigorous and Vocal Zionism  

Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Magnes had a very typical American youth. According to biographer Norman Bentwich, the son of Polish and German immigrants was possessed by “an audacious freedom from the fabulous West.”  

In his chapter about Magnes’s youth in the volume Like All the Nations? The Life and Legacy of Judah L Magnes, Fred Rosenbaum writes, “Here, unlike in the older regions of the United States, much less Europe, Jews could not be viewed as intruders for they had arrived at the same time as other gold-seekers, as early as 1849. ... Magnes’s youth in Oakland was unmistakably American. Endowed with good looks, a naturally curious mind, and self-confidence, he enjoyed everything that his society could offer an adolescent. In addition to concentrating on the classics curriculum at Oakland High School, he was active in the Debating Club, an editor of the well-written student magazine, The Aegis, and even a creditable athlete. One summer afternoon he pitched his school’s baseball team to victory over St. Mary’s College, besting Joe Corbett, who later gained fame in the National League.”  

Rosenbaum attributes Magnes’ lifelong struggle for equality for those of different backgrounds to his California youth where he saw diverse groups of people build a new democratic society. He writes, “As a youth he was very much aware of the fact that the Bay Area had been transformed in one generation from a wilderness into a network of cities, and that a medley of people from all over the world somehow coexisted. How could the Zionist dream, even in the nineteenth century, seem quixotic, when so much of the California dream had already been realized?”  

“Permanency of Judaism”  

Magnes attended the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College. In his sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati, the first evidence of Magnes’s Zionism emerged, when he argued in an article that the “permanency of ... Judaism” depended upon a “return of a Jewish Church and State.” During his graduate studies in Germany, Magnes’s Zionism became more deeply rooted, and he personally regarded it as his “Lebensprogramm.”  

When he returned to the United States, he taught briefly at Hebrew Union College before leaving for New York where he would become one of America’s most prominent Jewish leaders. He became the rabbi at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El and founded the Kehillah, a New York Jewish community organization. In a letter to his parents, Magnes wrote, “My Zionism makes me more than a preacher or community leader. It makes me a worker for the preservation of the Jewish people as a whole and for their greater glory and better life in their own land. It makes me a politician.” Magnes was one of the few Zionist leaders of national standing.  

Declaring his support for Zionism in an April 12, 1910 address titled “Zionism and Jewish Religion,” Magnes said, “Nor can there be any question that Zionism is doing more than anything else to strengthen the Jewish national consciousness or feeling of peoplehood wherever Jews live throughout the world. Whatever be our interpretation of Jewish history, the basic element of every theory of Jewish life is the continued existence of the Jews, and it is Zionism alone of all Jewish movements which can give a guarantee of the uninterrupted continuance of the Eternal People.”  

A Different Type of Zionism  

Although Magnes was vocal about his Zionist beliefs, his Zionism differed from that of many of his contemporaries. Magnes said that Palestine was a land neither Arab nor Jewish, but the “Holy Land of two peoples ... and of three religions.” He displayed a great concern for the Arabs living in Palestine, not only because of his egalitarianism, but also because he believed that Arabs and Jews had to find an accord for there to be peace in Palestine.  

Magnes disagreed with the Zionist diplomatic policy of pursuing a special political status in Palestine. “I want equal rights for the Jews, no more and no less, in all parts of the world, including Palestine,” he wrote to Louis Brandeis in September 1915. All the Jews had a right to ask for was the opportunity “to migrate to and settle in and develop their Jewish economic and cultural life in Palestine freely, just as other members of the [Ottoman] Empire have the same right.”  

Magnes opposed a preferred political status for Jews. After the San Remo conference in 1920 in which the allies assigned the mandate for Palestine to Britain, Magnes wrote to a friend, “We want free access to the land, free opportunity to develop it and freedom to live the Jewish life in the broadest sense of the term. Nor do we want political privileges to be conferred on anyone else.”  

Personal Mission  

When Magnes moved to Palestine, his was a personal mission of boosting understanding between the two peoples. In his chapter in Like All the Nations?, S. D. Goitein writes, “In the early and middle 1920s, Jerusalem was a small and peaceful place. The intellectuals of all races and religions met with one another frequently and amiably. The country was secure; one could go to the most remote places without fearing anything. Magnes himself took domicile in an Arab neighborhood, the most prestigious one in the town. I believe that his outlook on Arab-Jewish symbiosis was formed by the experience he had in the years immediately following his settlement in Palestine. It became apparent that one could live side by side, even closely. This was not self-deception, but a task, a mission.”  

Acceptance of the Diaspora  

Unlike many Zionist leaders, Magnes never derided the Diaspora, and over time moderated his position that the future of the Jewish people lay only in Palestine. In a letter to Chaim Weizmann in June 1914, he explained his viewpoint: “The Despair theory of Zionism does not appeal to me. I have not despaired of the Jewish people, and I believe in its eternity even without Palestine. To me Palestine seems to be the cornerstone of this people, or the crown, the heart, the center, or whatever we may want to call it. The people will continue to live without Palestine, and continue to develop its total culture. With Palestine the people will live better and develop its total culture more hopefully and with more achievement. The entire people must be organized, in different forms, in different countries. Palestine should be the connecting link, the summit of organized [Jewish] life. The Jews of the world influence Palestine; Palestine influences the Jews of the world.”  

Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem, in May 1923, he delivered a public lecture defending the integrity of Diaspora Judaism. “Everyone who lives here in Eretz Israel and works,” he concluded in his talk, “is helping the Jewish people create spiritual values and is thus aiding the Jewish people to carry out its work in the world. The same is true of those who live and work in the Galut. Where a man can do best for his people is an individual and private matter.”  

Magnes said that while it is to Palestine’s benefit that many Jews were moving there, he believed that if all the Jews of the Diaspora were to go to Palestine, “the world would be a poorer place and the Jewish people would deprive itself of a large part of its opportunity to be of service to mankind.”  

The Hebrew University  

Magnes’s stewardship of the Hebrew University is one of his most enduring achievements. It is another arena where he clashed with much of the Zionist leadership, which had a different vision for the university. While Weizmann wanted to stress the natural sciences, Magnes wanted the focus to be on humanistic studies. Albert Einstein, who was also involved in the establishment of the Hebrew University, saw things the same way as Weizmann. Despite their disagreements, Einstein held Magnes in high regard. On Magnes’s sixtieth birthday in 1937, Einstein wrote to him, “Although we have had our quarrels, today I assure you of my sympathy and esteem, for in your life you heeded not the call of convenience but the call of conscience. You especially merit praise because you have attempted, with every means at your disposal, to have our fellow Jews pursue a sagacious and conciliatory policy with the Arabs. Now, the vindictive will understand how right you have been.”  

In addition to disputes over the academic direction of the university, Magnes’ post as its leader afforded him an excellent position from which to comment on and influence the direction in which Palestine headed. The egalitarian positions he espoused for the direction of Palestine were also evident in the way he dealt with student affairs.  

Gabriel Stern, a former student at Hebrew University, recalls that when he met with Magnes to seek his support in combating the emergency regulations imposed on Jewish students suspected of participating in blockade-running or terrorist activities, “Magnes listened very quietly and then said: ‘Why didn’t you say these things a year ago when those emergency regulations were issued and used against the Arabs?’ It is difficult to reconstruct his tone, for he addressed the matter solely in human terms, if you understand what I mean.”  


Magnes believed that the only path to peace in Israel was by treating Arabs and Jews as equals. By creating a binational state that would take into account the rights and interests of both groups, there might be harmony. To this end, Magnes favored establishing a legislative assembly at a time when Jews composed just one-fifth of the population. This was a key Arab demand, but was opposed by the Zionists. Magnes sought an interim agreement with the Arabs that would not prejudice either group’s ultimate national aspirations. To avoid inspiring fear among the Arabs, Magnes proposed limiting Jewish immigration so that Arabs would remain the majority. If there was a period of peace in Palestine, Magnes thought that the two groups would work together in business and government, thus diminishing the mutual distrust. After such a period, the path would be ready for a permanent solution.  

In his book Dissenter in Zion, a compilation of Magnes’s writings that includes editorial comments, Arthur Goren summarizes Magnes’s wide vision for what this permanent solution might look like: “That next step consisted of a binational state in Palestine joined to a federation of Arab states that would include Trans-Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, one of the goals of the Arab nationalist movement. Doubly secure from the fear of Jewish expansionism by the binational arrangement in Palestine — which assured neither people domination over the other — and Palestine’s membership in the federation, the Arabs might well agree to unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine. Moreover, the member states of the federation, underpopulated and requiring capital and Western skills, could be expected to welcome a sizable Jewish immigration.”  

Arabs and Jews  

Magnes wanted the increasing participation of Arabs and Jews in Palestine’s government. He envisioned the two groups participating in local councils together and then jointly running government departments, leading ultimately to the declaration of an independent Arab-Jewish state. This radical proposal met with opposition from Zionists like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett and Weizmann, who believed that such a plan would endanger the Zionist mission.  

Whether Palestine developed into a “Jewish State” or merely a place where Jews could feel at home was not of paramount importance to Magnes. Explaining his position in a 1929 booklet, Magnes wrote, guarantee the Jews immigration, settlement on the land, Hebrew life and culture, “and I should be willing to yield the Jewish ‘State’ and the Jewish ‘majority;’ and on the other hand I would agree to a legislative assembly together with a democratic regime so carefully planned and worked out that the above three fundamentals could not be infringed.” He would be willing “to pay almost any price for these three, since this price would secure tranquility and mutual understanding.”  

Rejection of Violence  

Following the 1929 riots when Arab bands attacked Jewish communities in Hebron and Safed, Magnes said that violence was not the method through which their aims should be pursued. “If we cannot find ways of peace and understanding, if the only way of establishing the Jewish National Home is upon the bayonets of some Empire, our whole enterprise is not worthwhile, and it is better that the Eternal People that has outlived many a mighty empire should possess its soul in patience and plan and wait. It is one of the great civilizing tasks before the Jewish people to try to enter the promised land, not in the Joshua way, but bringing peace and culture, hard work and sacrifice and love, and a determination to do nothing that cannot be justified before the conscience of the world.”  

Yet Magnes feared that Israel would be born through warfare. In an August 18, 1937, address to the Council of the Jewish Agency, Magnes warned that a Jewish state would lead to war with the Arabs. He said, “I have no hesitation in telling you that I am afraid of the consequences of this state in relations between the Jews and the Arabs. I happen to have been born in a country where people are raised without fear, and, if I may utter another personal remark, I think that I, personally, have not very much fear. Yet I am afraid for my people, afraid for those tender plants in my country, in that Eretz Israel. I do not want to see the Jewish state conceived and born in warfare.” Most Zionists accepted war as the price that had to be paid for the establishment of the Jewish State. Magnes did not, choosing peace over the establishment of Israel.  

Consent of Arabs  

In 1937, Magnes stressed the importance of gaining the consent of the Arabs. When Ben-Gurion asked whether Magnes had immigrated to Palestine with Arab consent, he responded, “No, I did not, but I did not have a Jewish State there in the first instance, and I was not trying to get a Jewish State in the second place, and everything I have said and done in my life, as far as Palestine is concerned, from the beginning up to this day, has been based upon the fundamental thought that in what we do and what we plan, we should endeavor to get Arab consent. And that is the purport of this resolution that we are presenting. This resolution provides for a binational state, if it can be secured with the consent of the Arabs and the Jews and of the British government.”  

Once the refugee problem became critical during World War II, Magnes amended his stance on limiting immigration to reflect the interests of the Arabs. Although he still pushed for political parity, he believed that it was necessary to admit the refugees to save their lives. Although Magnes never attracted much support from the Zionists in Palestine, his calls to slow down the creation of a Jewish State in the middle of the holocaust fell on deaf ears and caused many to deride him as hopelessly nave.  

B’rit Shalom  

Magnes never attracted significant numbers of followers, but he did find likeminded intellectuals in the B’rit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) Society. The group, formed in 1925, was composed of a small number of prominent intellectuals and veteran settlers who advocated political equality between the Arabs and Jews. Among the most prominent were Shmuel Hugo Berman, Hans Kohn, Gershom Scholem, and Ernst Simon. They viewed the Arab question as the touchstone of the moral integrity of Zionism. “They were all men for whom Zionism was a moral crusade or it was nothing,” writes David J. Goldberg in To the Promised Land: A History of Zionist Thought.  

B’rit Shalom’s founders wrote in 1927 that the organization wanted to create in Palestine “a binational state, in which the two peoples will enjoy totally equal rights as befits the two elements shaping the country’s destiny, irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any given time.” They wanted to establish for the Jews in Palestine, “a firm and healthy community, which will consist of Jews in as large a number as possible, regardless of whether thereby the Jews will become the majority as compared to the other inhabitants of the country, since the question of the majority in the country should in no way be connected to any advantage in rights.”  

Relations with Zionist Leaders  

Magnes clashed frequently with the Zionist leadership, persistently criticizing the direction in which they were steering Palestine. His independent views and failure to give paramount importance to the establishment of a Jewish State at first irritated and ultimately angered the Zionist leadership.  

In a letter to Chaim Weizmann, Magnes wrote, “A Jewish Home in Palestine built up on bayonets and oppression [is] not worth having, even though it succeed, whereas the very attempt to build it up peacefully, cooperatively, with understanding, education, and good will, [is] worth a great deal, even though the attempt should fail.”  

Magnes believed that Weizmann and his colleagues were failing to address the issues that would prevent Palestine from erupting into violence, and he was not hesitant about voicing this opinion. In a September 13, 1929, letter to the American Jewish leader Felix Warburg, Magnes wrote, “I have, I regret to say, no confidence whatever that Dr. Weizmann and his associates understand the situation today any better than they have before. They may pass resolutions and agree to White Papers and lots of other things out of political necessity, but not out of inner conviction. Unless the whole aim of Zionism is changed, there will never be peace.”  

Few Friends  

Not surprisingly, Magnes’s outspokenness won him few friends among the Zionist leadership. Goren writes, ”His candor and political independence were a bane to the established leadership, which assailed his views — shaped by a radical humanism — as politically nave. Yet few would deny Magnes’s boldness in confronting the core issues that troubled world Jewry during his lifetime and ours: Jewish group survival in democratic America; the character and meaning of the return to Zion; and the reconciliation of universal ideals of Judaism with particularistic Jewish aspirations and needs.”  

Magnes blamed the failure of his ideas on the Zionists. His Arab counterparts received him well, but recognized that he represented only a sliver of the Zionist community. Magnes believed the Zionists put too much effort into pursuing a Jewish majority while believing the Arabs would never accept a Jewish national identity in Palestine. Goren writes, “Thus in Magnes’s view chauvinism and pessimism prevented the flexibility needed for compromise.”  

Connection with the Council  

In addition to his struggles in Palestine, Magnes tried to rally American support for his proposals. He corresponded with Rabbi Morris Lazaron, a leading figure in the American Council for Judaism. In an October 6, 1942 letter Magnes enclosed material about his thoughts about the future of Palestine, and commented, “the question of Palestine affects American Jewry and, I believe, America at large just as much as it affects Palestine itself.”  

Responding to an earlier letter from Lazaron, Magnes wrote, “You are unable to ‘support the political emphasis now paramount in the Zionist program.’ What does the word emphasis signify here? I am opposed to the political content of the program, not because it is political but because I think the content under present conditions likely to provoke civil war in Palestine and confusion abroad. Politics is one of the great spiritual concerns of mankind, as the Prophets of Israel showed. They were not cut off from life and they therefore did not oppose politics as such. But they were concerned with the kind of political principles the State was based upon, and upon the quality of the political action of statesmen and peoples.”  

Final Struggle  

Although Magnes became disillusioned with developments in Israel, particularly as his prophecies for strife proved accurate, he never gave up his efforts for peace. In April 1948, six months before his death, Magnes received a message through the U.S. consul in Jerusalem from the State Department and a group of prominent American Jews. They urged him to come to America, believing he could play a useful role in the last- ditch effort to stave off an Arab attack. Goren writes, “The plan to bring Magnes back crystallized among those State Department officials opposed to the UN resolution of 1947 partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Their campaign met with initial success in March 1948, when Warren Austin, the chief American delegate to the UN, announced American support for a UN trusteeship over Palestine, a retreat from the position supporting partition. If adopted by the General Assembly the proposal would mean the indefinite postponement of the establishment of a Jewish state. At this point the State Department encouraged the committee of Magnes’s supporters to extend a formal invitation to him.” Among its initial members were Lessing J. Rosenwald, president of the American Council for Judaism.  

Magnes was in poor health, but he viewed the trip as a necessity. He wrote in his diary, “How can I not go and stand before the world and say: Friends, stop the bloodshed. Understanding is possible. This is the moment I have been preparing for all these years.” Although the armies of five Arab nations attacked Israel in May 1948, Magnes still used the last months before his death in October 1948, to develop the idea of a confederation of Arab and Jewish states with Jerusalem as its capital.  

Wary About the Future  

To many Zionists, Israel’s 1948 victory was a cause for rejoicing, but Magnes was much warier about what the future held. Goren writes, “While others celebrated the beginning of a new epoch in Jewish history, Magnes entered it no less cognizant of its possibilities but filled with trepidation. Thus his continued preoccupation with the Arab-Jewish question was not merely the behavior of an obstinate and contentious opponent of Zionist policy. For Magnes the establishment of the Jewish state made a political accommodation with the Arabs even more imperative. At stake was the security and moral well-being of the State of Israel, which, now that it existed, had to be guarded and nurtured. A sovereign Israel, Magnes believed, must become not only the instrument for the ingathering of the exiles but the vessel for the flowering of Hebrew culture and values, Zion redeemed in justice. The moment of victory was the occasion for largesse, extending the hand of conciliation, discouraging the spirit of revanche, which would bring only more bloodshed and turn the Jewish state into a besieged fortress. This was as much Realpolitik as moral politics. And as in the past Magnes placed the moral burden most heavily on the shoulders of his own people, demanding perhaps more than the unfolding events of the years allowed.”  

Speaking in 1982, Abba Eban commented on Magnes: his was “an intuitive understanding, perhaps above and beyond that which endowed anybody else in the establishment of those days, that the fundamental predicament of our people would lie in its relationship with the neighboring world and that without it the concept of harmony and reconciliation was not built into the very texture of our national life. ... We would go on our way unthinking, perhaps oblivious to the dangers before us ... [yet] sooner or later the problem of Arab-Jewish harmony would present itself as the second theme of our national adventure. He certainly pursued this task with obstinacy and tenacity, not caring very much about the obstacles which he had to overcome, arousing just as many antagonisms as he did feelings of admiration, but leaving behind a legacy of rectitude and, above all, the possibility that those who would look back would understand him perhaps better than his contemporaries ever did.”  

Example for Today  

Bernard Wasserstein ably shows how Magnes’s life and ideas can be used as an example for today. In his chapter in Like All the Nations?, he writes, “It has also been of supreme importance for American Jewry, and perhaps never more so than now, to have established a firmly rooted tradition of vigilance and criticism of Israel among her supporters in the Diaspora, a vigilance which can draw on the principles of liberal-minded Zionism enunciated by Magnes, a criticism which, as in the case of Magnes himself, can be justified on the ground that the most sincere friend is not the one who agrees automatically but, rather, the one who asks the most awkward, disturbing, or disquieting questions.”  

Even as Jews passed from a position of weakness in Israel to one of strength, Magnes’s analysis remained consistent: morality should guide the decisions of the Zionist movement. To many, Magnes’s binationalism appeared nave, however as decades of strife have passed, it is clear that unless the national identities and aspirations of both groups are accepted, peace will never come to Palestine.  

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