You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Lost Legacy of Judah L. Magnes

Jack Stuart
July 3, 2015

A Key Advocate of Binationalism in Palestine/Israel

by Jack Stuart

Judah_Leon_Magnes,_1936THE NAME of Judah Magnes (July 5, 1877-October 27, 1948) is largely unknown today to most American Jews, let alone those outside of our community. Residents of the San Francisco Bay area may know Magnes in connection with the museum named in his honor in Berkeley, but even this association may fade with the recent opening of a new and larger Jewish museum in San Francisco. Yet Magnes remains an extremely important figure in the development of Zionism in this country and in the actual application of Zionism in Palestine.

Magnes’ ultimately fruitless struggle against the partition of Palestine explains not only his relative obscurity today but his continued relevance to the ongoing debate over two-state and one-state “solutions” and the much-debated issue of “Greater Israel.” Magnes’ overall approach can be seen in his testimony to a United Nations committee in 1947, in which he insisted that the “great sin of omission” during the previous twenty-five years was “that Arab-Jewish cooperation has never been made the chief objective of major policy, either by the Mandatory Government, by the Jewish Agency, or by those representing the Arabs.”

Magnes considered Palestine to be “a land sui generis,” “not just a Jewish land,” “not just an Arab land,” but also “a Holy Land of three great monotheistic religions.” This called for an “honorable compromise” that would accommodate both “the Arab natural rights” and “the Jewish historical rights” in a constitutional framework that would not allow a mere numerical majority to achieve decisive control. It would be reactionary to have “a dominant people and a dominated people.” The goal should be political parity.

But the devilry in the details is shown by Magnes’ asserting the need to limit immigration to bring the Jewish population to parity with the Arabs, and the need to work within the land’s existing economic absorptive capacity and its potential capacity based on a national development plan. Such a sensible approach was hardly compatible with any unlimited application of a “law of return.” Nor did it anticipate the grave difficulties that would be faced by such binational or multi-national states such as Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Belgium, or Canada — although these difficulties are implicit in Magnes’ own advocacy of the binational state-to-be needing to have both a Jew and an Arab represent it at the United Nations.

A REMINDER is needed, of course, that Magnes became a Zionist long before the triumph of the Nazis in Germany. In fact, two years before Herzl had called the first Zionist Congress in 1897, Magnes published an article in the Reform movement’s journal entitled, “Palestine—or Death,“ which elicited considerable controversy within the Reform movement. He had become concerned that assimilation would erode the American Jewish community. Although fully aware of the threat of anti-Semitism, especially in Eastern Europe, he regarded assimilation as a more pressing problem in this country. He was particularly influenced by Ahad Ha’am’s vision of Palestine as a spiritual center that could support the reinvigoration of the Jewish Diaspora, and was attracted by his cultural vision as compared to Herzl’ political one. As early as 1910, Magnes argued that “it is Zionism alone of all Jewish movements which can give a guarantee of the uninterrupted continuance of the Eternal People.” But in 1915 he argued that what he sought was merely “equal rights for the Jews, no more and no less, in all parts of the world, including Palestine,” just as other peoples of the Ottoman Empire had.

He imposed a crucial moral limitation on what he was willing to support:

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 pain 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.

Magnes’ tenure at Temple Emanu-El, and with the Reform movement itself, was limited by outpourings like this:

Insofar as it is Reformed, your Judaism and mine has something of a parasitic nature, and just as the parasite may at times have more outward beauty than the parent tree, so have the richer congregations an outward appeal in the beauty of their building, their glorious music and their perfect decorum. But these outward trappings have not been able to hide from me the emptiness and shallowness of your Jewish life.... Unless your desire is to become less Jewish rather than more Jewish, the one direction this Congregation can take is that towards the living Jewish people where living Judaism is to be found.

ZIONIST THOUGH HE WAS, Magnes rejected the “end justifies the means” approach of others in the movement. As early as 1918 his approach contrasted with that of a leading socialist Zionist living in Palestine who had stated, with only verbal restraint, that “If it would achieve the urgent goals of Zionism, I would commit an injustice against the Arabs.” This sense of urgency had become ever more compelling to the mainstream of the Zionist movement by 1942, when, at the historic meeting of over 500 delegates at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, David Ben-Gurion demanded “that the gates of Palestine be opened... and that Palestine be established as a Jewish commonwealth.” Leading the opposition in Palestine to the Biltmore Declaration, Magnes declared that “The slogan Jewish state or commonwealth is equivalent, in effect, to a declaration of war by the Jews on the Arabs.”

Magnes had worked with Martin Buber and others in a party called Ichud, which called for a binational state. Magnes had only marginal support for his position among Zionists in Palestine and support from some of the leaders of the American Jewish Committee. He continued to work with his colleagues in the Ichud, but by the end of World War II this group was increasingly regarded as disloyal to the national cause by most Jews in Palestine. Still Magnes continued to warn:

Would that [Palestine] were large and empty enough to absorb millions of persecuted, wandering Jews and to be constituted into a Jewish state! ... How men are to live together and be governed is a spiritual question with far-reaching implications. The fact remains that Palestine is small and it is not empty.

In 1943 Magnes published an article in Foreign Affairs that warned of the danger of war between Jews and Arabs, and offered an alternative based upon “a reasonable compromise,” for which he considered “America’s moral authority” the “indispensible prerequisite.” He argued that it might be “imposed upon the Jews and the Arabs” without giving reasonable cause for rebellion.” Rather than accepting war as inevitable, he urged the immediate preparation for a binational state.

Despite his enthusiasm for a binational state — and even a federation of Palestine, Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon — he necessarily kept coming up to the knotty problem of immigration. “No Jews can agree to a fiat which would arbitrarily stop immigration into Palestine, the Land of Israel,” he said. Since one person’s “reasonable compromise” might be another person’s “fiat,” it is by no means given that Magnes could have resolved this issue. But his hope was that a “federation would make it possible for many thousands of Jewish refugees to find room... and this with Arab agreement instead of Arab animosity.” Without a federation the immigration question would be “that much more baffling.”

Along with these hopes was the notion that “Jerusalem, Holy City of three religions” might become the federal capital. But if this too seems to have been wishful thinking on Magnes’ part, it is not as if this problem has been solved by the occupation of the entire city by Israel and the proclamation of it as the national capital.

In retrospect, the humanitarian version of Zionism advocated by Magnes (and as well as by Martin Buber) does not look as if it ever had much chance of success, but it surely throws light on what Zionism was actually to become in practice. Perhaps Magnes’ humanistic voice can help to broaden the discussion of Israel in the U.S. beyond the boundaries that rightwing Zionism often imposes.

AFTER THE END of World War II, Magnes attempted to influence American political leaders, but 1946 was an election year, and proposals for a binational solution in Palestine were not the obvious way to hold on to Jewish voters in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. He nevertheless continued to express his fears to them that partition would be in actuality “the beginning of more and bitter strife” and that “the war of the irredentists will have begun even before the independence of the two states has been proclaimed.”

Magnes became more isolated in early 1948 as the Jewish community in the U.S. increasingly supported statehood. Such prominent Jews as Arthur Hays Sulzberger (publisher of the New York Times), Herbert Lehman (former Governor of New York) and others declined to continue their previously substantial support for Magnes’ binational program. In Palestine, Ichud’s condemnation of mob action and pleas for peace were bitterly denounced by its opponents. Back in the U.S., the American Jewish Committee rejected a resolution supporting peace efforts. But in March, Warren Austin, the American delegate to the United Nations, called for the postponement of partition and the establishment of a temporary UN trusteeship. Magnes squarely chose peace over statehood. He was able to develop some political momentum through meetings with Secretary of State George Marshall and President Harry Truman, but the assassination of United Nations mediator Count Bernadotte, soon followed by Magnes’ own death, gravely weakened any chance of there being any major consideration of a confederation plan of the sort that Magnes had been debating with Abba Eban in the pages of Commentary.

Magnes had written to Governor Lehman in February 1948 that partition “was merely a facile solution on paper, and that it can only be carried out through warfare over a period of many years.” “It is... a great misfortune that since the adoption of the Biltmore Program in 1942 the minds and hearts of the Jewish people have been bedeviled by the mirage of a Jewish state.” “The trusteeship should last only until its main objective is achieved — the cooperation of the two equal peoples in self-government... and an agreement as to a substantial quota of Jewish immigration.” He argued that the “fundamental error” of the British was that they had failed to move the two groups toward self-government, one of the “chief purposes of the mandate.” But Magnes was here assuming a level of British benevolence about which he has previously expressed his doubts.

HE ALSO EXPRESSED dismay that the Jewish Agency “all through the years [had not] made one single sincere and systematic effort at understanding and conciliation and... rejected and frustrated the efforts made by others.” Magnes had been one of the founders of the Joint Distribution Committee, but he now resigned as chairman of its Middle East Advisory Committee because the JDC had failed to offer any assistance to the Arab refugees, only Jewish ones. “It was an opportunity of stretching out the helping hand of a Jewish brother to thousands in distress—in the same way the JDC has appealed to others to do for Jews in distress.” The underlying question for him was “can we establish our life here not on the basis of force and power, but upon that of human solidarity and understanding [not] through the suppression of the political aspirations of the Arabs and therefore a Home necessarily established on bayonets over a long period — a policy which I think is bound to fail.... I am not ready to achieve justice to the Jew through injustice to the Arabs.”

Nevertheless, Magnes’ response to the great wave of Jewish refugees seeking entry into Palestine began to undermine his own vision of an equitable settlement. “You may ask if I am against that immigration called illegal. No I am not. Now, more than at any other hour, we are bound to fulfill the ancient teaching ‘he who saves one life in Israel is as though he saved a whole world.’”

“If we had a free hand,” he said, “I would create a Jewish state.... But... We are here in this country with two peoples. The Jews are a peculiar people and Palestine is a peculiar land. So long as it is inhabited by two peoples, the Jews will have to do without the state....” In the spring of 1948, the massacre of a convoy of doctors and nurses travelling to the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus — where Magnes’ beloved university was also located — dispelled any hope that he still had that the British would act to contain violence. His hopes for a different outcome were put on hold for the remaining six months of his life.

David Biale has argued that Magnes’ “vision of a bi-national state in which neither Jew nor Arab would dominate the other was perhaps noble, but out of joint with the nationalism of the times.” Others would argue that the immediacy of the postwar refugee problem precluded any more far-seeing resolution of the Palestine problem. But at a time when the political bankruptcy of the past or present supporters of “greater Israel” is increasingly evident, perhaps a review of Magnes’ more humanistic vision of Zionism is worth comparing to the nightmare of the West Bank.

Jack Stuart is Professor of History, Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach, has long grappled with the history of the the American left and has published articles and reviews in a variety of journals. He lives in Minneapolis.