Purely Wrong: Judah Leib Magnes and the Jewish State

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.


6 thoughts on “Purely Wrong: Judah Leib Magnes and the Jewish State”

  1. We don’t know if Magnes’ bi-national state would have worked, but a national state for the benefit for all citizens may still. We do know though that Herzl’s “Jewish State” has given us a number of wars, been a thorn in the side of the Middle East, made the lives of Palestinians miserable, caused Jews to be fearful that every year is 1938, enabled an endless search for sources of what best can be described as a Jewish commodity to stock the land with, and, as Jewish scholar Ahad Ha’am warned in 1897 it would, “beget in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political dominion, thus breaking the thread that unites us with the past, and undermining our historical basis.”

  2. Magnes’ idea of creating a mutually agreed upon binational state may have come a generation too late. I understand until the late 19th century’s start of Zionism-driven mass immigration to Palestine the relations between indigenous Arabs and the equally indigenous Yishuv were amicable enough. Among the latter there was resistance against mass immigration precisely for the reason that relations would severely deteriorate, as sure enough did happen soon. I wonder if the fear and loathing the thought of a possible return of even a fraction of the Palestinian refugees (or their descendants) evokes in many Jewish Israelis is in part an echo of this early experience.

    When Heller (not the one of Catch-22 fame, I suppose?) spoke of the quarter million Jews “sitting in camps in Europe with nowhere to go”, who were in danger of being killed, what year was he referring to? In particular, pre- or post-May 1945?
    In the last years of the war the Nazis weren’t letting Jews emigrate anymore, as that would’ve made the “Endlösung” ineffective. Relief of the European Jews’ plight couldn’t come then from moving them to Palestine, but from defeat of the Nazis. After that happened, the genocidal threat was gone, and apart from the catastrophic health condition of the concentration camp survivors – Jews and non-Jews alike, of course – the Jews were no worse off than the other multi-millions displaced European victims of that war. If that sounds heartless, consider what many of those same survivors and those ostensibly acting on their behalf should soon prove to be willing to do to not one quarter but three quarters of a million Palestinians. In an ideal world the land would really have been “without people”, in our unideal world, as we all know, it wasn’t.
    Magnes tried not to fight one injustice with another, and for that I can’t banish him to the cave.

  3. To my recollection, Ben-Gurion advocated bi-nationalism, or hinted at some kind of de facto support for it, possibly because of his party links towards Labour. Nevertheless, I think Magnes is being too unfairly faulted here especially that Ben-Gurion himself openly stated that he was more than willing to sacrifice Jewish lives for the sole purpose of a Jewish state. Whereas Ben-Gurion felt that war was inevitable with the Arabs, Magnes for his optimism wanted to avoid it with the same conclusion that he is being excoriated for: resisting “further Jewish emigration” towards Palestine whereas the Zionists resisted emigration of the able-bodied towards Western Europe and the US.

  4. One day while staying with [Lewis Namier] I began to lament the lost glories of the Mount Scopus landscape, to which he remarked that he had never set foot on the former campus of the Hebrew University. I expressed astonishment that he had never found time in the course of his numerous visits to Jerusalem to visit Mount Scopus before the road to it had fallen into Arab hands. “I would not shake hands with traitors,” he said. “Traitors?” I murmured with raised eyebrows. “Well, Magnes,” came the reply.
    –J. L. Talmon

  5. Interesting article. I was just doing some research for my own article on Israel’s 60th anniversary and googled Ahad Ha’am’s “Truth from Eretz Yisrael” and found my way to Magnes’ letters to Chaim Weizmann. Also of interest along the way was Jabotinsky’s polemic “The Iron Wall (We and the Arabs)” from 1923. Looking at today’s situation and reading the writings of these 3 very different Zionists from 1891, 1923 and 1929 makes me dizzy. With a bit of language and grammer updates, all three could have been written today, 10 years ago, or 60 years ago. With all the things we can proud of and grateful for, there is something fundamentally wrong when we, in our relations with the Palestinians, have not progressed one iota in over 100 years of our national venture. Regardless of one’s viewpoint – Ahad Ha’am, Magnes or Jabotinsky – it is clear that we are no closer to finding an accommodation with the indigenous residents of Palestine then when these gentlemen wrote what they wrote. And like I said, that makes me dizzy, akin to the feeling of being caught in a time warp.

  6. I am reading a section about him in a very authoritative book.
    It seems like he was a Man for Peace, and he did warn many that if things went on like they did do, would doom it’s inhabitants to endless bloodshed and war. It seems he was on the mark on that one.
    I can understand the need to help one’s own people, but is it right to kill to you can live? The man and his history should not be so easily dismissed, and let’s not compare him to a man in a cave. It’s both insulting and ridiculous.

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