Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes, a founder of the American Jewish Committee, a pacifist leader during World War I, and the first chancellor of the Hebrew University, was born in San Francisco on this date in 1877. Magnes was a major voice of Reform Judaism in the 20th century and the main organizer of the New York Kehillah, which brought together 220 Jewish organizations under a single umbrella in 1908, with the aim of “wip[ing] out invidious distinctions between East European and West European, foreigner and native, Uptown and Downtown Jew, rich and poor; and make us realize that the Jews are one people with a common history and with common hopes.” Magnes also coordinated the creation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in 1915, which became a key relief agency for imperiled and impoverished Jews around the world. He was one of the most prominent members of the pacifist movement during World War I that included Eugene V. Debs, Roger Baldwin, Emma Goldman, Norman Thomas, and Morris Hilquit, among others. In May, 1917 Magnes gave the keynote address to a Madison Square Garden meeting of fifteen thousand people opposing U.S. involvement in the war. Regarding Palestine, Magnes was a non-Zionist, like many Reform Jewish leaders, yet he emigrated there in 1922 and worked closely with Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann to found the Hebrew University. Following the 1929 Arab attacks on Jews, Magnes advocated a binational Jewish and Arab state in Palestine. He was dedicated for the rest of his life (Magnes died in 1948) to reconciliation and national unification with the Arabs, and he and Henrietta Szold founded a binational political party, Ihud (Unity).
“With the permission of the Arabs we will be able to receive hundreds of thousands of persecuted Jews in Arab lands . . . Without the permission of the Arabs even the four hundred thousand that now are in Palestine will remain in danger, in spite of the temporary protection of British bayonets. With partition, a new Balkan is made . . .” —Rabbi Judah Magnes