According to a legend, the sage Rabbi Shimon bar-Yohai and his son spent twelve years hiding in a cave and delving into the esoteric truths of the Torah. When they emerged, Rabbi Shimon was so immersed in divine truth that he raged when he saw Jews plowing their fields. His anger was so fierce that his mere glance burned up every working man he saw. God ordered him back to the cave.
The publication of the diary of Judah Leib Magnes, the leading Jewish pacifist and peace activist in Palestine in the years leading up to Israel’s War of Independence, offers an opportunity to consider another man whose attempt to adhere to absolute truth and purity led him to misunderstand entirely the world around him.
I first encountered Magnes’s name as a college student, when I was struggling with my discovery that the Jewish state was not the ideal country I had been taught about in Hebrew school. Instead, I was appalled to learn, it was a country of flesh and blood that committed injustices. Magnes seemed like a prophet to me then–a man of principle who had called for a binational Jewish-Arab state based on mutual respect, rather than the Jewish state that the Zionists were fighting for in those fateful years.
I had a chance to revisit Magnes and his thinking a few years ago when the Hebrew University historian Joseph Heller published (in Hebrew) a new study of Magnes and Ihud, the peace movement he founded. Magnes was president of the Hebrew University when Heller was a young student there. Heller told me that he and his fellow-students thought Magnes was a purveyor of injustice for advocating a Jewish-Arab state.
If you grew up, as I did, on the values of liberal democracy, calling a man who fought for equal rights and inter-ethnic understanding “unjust” seems oxymoronic.
But in his efforts to avoid war and be fair to the Arabs, Magnes was unjust to his own people, the Jews, Heller told me. A quarter of a million displaced Jews were sitting in camps in Europe with nowhere to go, yet Magnes, attempting to win Arab agreement for a Jewish presence in Palestine, announced his willingness to forego further Jewish immigration.
“Magnes and his associates were an intellectual elite of the first order who rebelled against the common wisdom,” Heller related. “They could not accept a situation that they believed ensured perpetual war with the Arabs.”
In other words, Magnes wasn’t wrong and was even admirable in absolute terms. In an ideal world, his ideals might have made good been policy. But in the unideal world in which he lived, his purity, if put into action, could kill his own people.
In any case, Magnes never found any Arabs who were willing to accept his terms, so his influence was nil. We can admire him today for his ideals so long as we don’t forget that what works in a cave doesn’t work in the world outside.