- Book Review Index
Judah L. Magnes: An American Jewish Nonconformist, by Daniel P. Kotzin. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010. 472 pp. $49.95.
Yehuda Leib Magnes deserves a biography due to his rich activity in the Jewish and Zionist public spheres. He was among the first to introduce Zionism to Jewish Americans, and especially to the Reform movement therein, and did not hesitate to fight with his benefactors when he thought the cause worth it; in fact, his stormy temperament seemed to lead him to fights even if a more moderate path would have gotten him more. Hence, it is almost strange to associate Magnes with pacifism. However, for the general public, his name is associated with two major projects, not unlinked: first, his service at the Hebrew University, of which he was the chancellor and later president, and second, his fight for a bi-national, Jewish-Arab state. Magnes warrants a biography since his public activities served well his community, but he even more deserves a closer look, considering the fact that the idea he was almost identified with—that of the bi-national state—while failing to gain significant support at the time, has seemed to resurface.
There are good reasons to return to the source and to see what it was all about. For years Magnes struggled to advance two major ideas: both bringing the reform movement closer to Orthodox Judaism, and advancing the cause of Zionism. Magnes despised the turn of the reformist movement away from Judaic life and values in favor of assimilation within the American society and its absorption of ideas that were alien to Judaism. Unlike the reformists, Magnes highly appreciated Judaism, and saw the Jewish people as nation. Through his work with his congregation Magnes was hoping to bring a change on a national scale. The tasks proved to be of Herculean magnitude, and his character did not help along his journey. He was “[a]n eccentric, self-righteous idealist with intense moral certainty” (p. 1). This is a very delicate way to describe a man who comes out of the book as charming and enchanting but at the same time arrogant and full of “self-importance” (p. 67). He had very ambitious ideas which aimed to place him in the first rank of the American Jewish community, but he managed to quarrel with those he wished to move ahead with. He was a desired leader, and congregations and institutions wanted him to lead them, but he kept struggling and quarreling with those who sought his leadership and appeared unable to stick to one place.
In a way, considering his tendency to take the minority, less popular stance, it might not be surprising that Magnes stood against an independent Jewish state, advocating instead the establishment of a bi-national state. However, his advocacy of the bi-national state was not the result of his intransigent character. To understand the sources of his bi-national state position, we need to go back to 1917, when Magnes became a proclaimed pacifist. “He was radicalized by the war, redefining Jewish nationalism in a way that included notions of pacifism, equality and pluralism as central tenets” (p. 144). At the time when the United States was moving from neutrality and even anti-war stance toward preparedness to enter the First World War, Magnes took the opposite direction, and expressed his complete objection not only to the United States’ joining the war, but to the very idea of war. “Both his American and Jewish identities shaped his zealous opposition to the war,” explains Kotzin, while “Jewish ethical teachings convinced him of the immorality of war” (p. 146).
Accordingly, and strongly influenced by the Quakers, his vision of Zionist nationalism was one based on what he perceived as Jewish ethics, which he equated with pacifism: “to make Jews and pacifist ‘identical’ like ‘Quakers and pacifist’ were ‘identical,” wrote Magnes in his diary (p. 157).
Of course, to crown pacifism as a major feature of Judaism is to go beyond what one can find in the Bible and the Jewish scriptures. As Mr. Kotzin rightly mentions, while “just war has been legitimate in the Jewish tradition,” pacifism “is not an inherent component of Judaism” (p. 158). But it was that “distortion” (Kotzin’s term) that was in the heart of Magnes’ political approach to Jewish nationalism, and it had a major impact on his approach to the Jewish-Arab conflict. It was from this perspective that Magnes refused to see Arab-Jewish rapprochement as a mere tactical move. For him, the idea of a bi-national state represented the real nature of Judaism. This was one reason why he wouldn’t join Brit Shalom, the group that had advocated the bi-national solution since the 1920s, even though he was sympathetic and supported its cause: “Magnes wanted Jews to pursue peaceful relations with Arabs based on immutable Jewish values rather than political objectives subject to change” (p. 199).
The major source of Magnes’ bi-nationalism was his American background. Valuing the “ideals of equality and democracy,” Magnes saw the idea of a Jewish state differently from the European Zionists. While the latter sought “to sustain the Zionist political cause,” which they translated into a Jewish state, Magnes aimed at establishing a “republic of nationalities” (pp. 220–221). And of course, Magnes’ almost endless idealism should not be discounted.
Either out of idealism or of realism, bi-nationalism reintroduces present-days calls by Israelis and non-Israelis. However, there is one significant difference between the current proponents of bi-nationalism and Magnes: he had a plan. At the time when he contemplated his ideas about bi-nationalism, Magnes was certainly more of a practitioner than an intellectual; he was the Hebrew University chancellor and later president: positions of mainly administrative nature. His idealism mixed with his understanding of the way systems work led him to translate his lofty ideas into a pragmatic plan. Magnes failed to advance his plan for a bi-national state, nor did he succeed in drawing support for his ideas; he acted independently, but of course, he was not alone in this endeavor, as at the time of the publication of this biography, the bi-national idea is alive as it lived during Magnes’ life, getting the much same reaction: supported by few, objected to by many.
The story that Mr. Kotzin tells is engaging. Relying on a vast array of primary sources, Mr. Kotzin manages to introduce Magnes’ life in its complexity, on a personal level as well as on national and institutional levels. While it is quite obvious that Mr. Kotzin has high regard for Magnes, he does not avoid criticizing Magnes where necessary, even if he does it in a gentle and subtle way. This is a well-written book and a significant contribution to the historiography of the Zionist movement, the Yishuv period, American Jewry and its relations with the Zionist movement, and the study of the Arab-Jewish bi-national idea.
University of Calgary