Commentary Magazine


Dissenter in Zion: From the Writings of Judah L. Magnes, edited by Arthur A. Goren

A Free Man?

Dissenter in Zion: From the Writings of Judah L. Magnes.
by Arthur A. Goren.
Harvard University Press. 554 pp. $30.00.

The publication of this selection from the writings and addresses of Judah L. Magnes, a prominent American rabbi and Zionist leader who served for almost a quarter of a century as head of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and as a consistent opponent of Jewish statehood, comes at an opportune moment. Dissenter in Zion, edited by Arthur A. Goren of the Hebrew University, provides a full introduction to one of modern Jewry’s most interesting and controversial figures, whose life and career have a particular relevance to our own time.

Magnes was born in Oakland, California, in 1877, to a somewhat bookish East European father and an upwardly striving Central European mother. In what was, perhaps, an effort to satisfy both parents, Magnes enrolled in 1895 at the Hebrew Union College, the rabbinical seminary of the Reform movement, and graduated, with a distinguished academic record, five years later. Following his ordination, he spent two years in Germany where he acquired a Ph.D. in Semitics and philosophy, and one year as a member of the Hebrew Union College faculty. In 1904, Magnes entered Jewish life in New York where he embarked on a career as a rabbi (briefly), as a Zionist and communal leader, and as a spokesman for the numerous melioristic causes he felt to be important to the survival of American and world Jewry.

As Goren’s volume makes amply clear, Magnes possessed qualifications that should have made for success in whatever career he chose to pursue. Attractive, articulate, and persuasive, he moved easily and gracefully in circles of power and affluence. His marriage to Beatrice Lowenstein, a sister to the wife of Louis Marshall, a lawyer and (as president of the American Jewish Committee) spokesman for the German-Jewish patricians in the United States, gave Magnes access to the coterie of philanthropists—the Schiffs, the Warburgs, the Lehmans—who wielded considerable influence on Jewish affairs at home and abroad. But he also established a close rapport with the new Jewish immigrant leadership from Russo-Poland, whose socialist and Zionist beliefs he shared and toward whose attachment to traditional Judaism he was sympathetic.

This catholicity of belief and practice was typical of Magnes. From the moment he entered Jewish life to the very end, he sought to forge a way of life—through rituals, deeds, and institutions—that would enable Jews to identify with and support one another: a Jewish cosmopolitanism, as it were, that would both unify and exalt the Jewish people in the modern world. In his role as a rabbi, this impulse led to frustration and disenchantment; in other roles, both in New York and later in Palestine, it brought Magnes a measure of fulfillment.

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The three rabbinic posts held. by Magnes between 1904 and 1912—Temple Israel in downtown Brooklyn, and Temple Emanu-E1 and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan—were all prestigious and financially rewarding. Unfortunately, Magnes found himself unhappy and frustrated in all three. His growing outspokenness as a Zionist tended to make him ideologically unpalatable to the German-Jewish clientele he served. These differences were compounded by the fervor (or, depending on one’s point of view, the naiveté) of his growing traditionalism and by his simultaneous commitment to social and economic reform. Magnes summed up much of this in a letter to his family when he made his decision to resign as rabbi of Temple Israel. “Yesterday,” he wrote, “I was invited to a meeting of the board. . . . Without much notice Mr. Abraham [of the Abraham & Straus department store] delivered a tirade against me, the upshot of which was that I was too active in Zionism, that I was too conservative in my Judaism, and that I associated too much with revolutionists.”

What his congregants found unpalatable in Magnes were the very elements that enabled him to provide effective leadership of the New York Kehillah in the second decade of the century. The Kehillah, founded in 1909 as an anti-defamation organization, served for a time as an all-embracing community council for New York’s Jews. With Magnes as the broker between the uptown philanthropists and the downtown immigrants, the Kehillah made several contributions to the quality of Jewish life in New York City, particularly in the field of Jewish education. Within half a decade, however, despite Magnes’s valiant efforts, the Kehillah was moribund—the victim of inadequate funding, ideological and subethnic division, religious intolerance, and personality clashes among the figures dominating Jewish communal life.

The Kehillah was an idea whose time had not yet come. Magnes had had a vision of the “corporate community”—humane, efficient, and sensitive to ongoing Jewish needs—which American Jewry came to create only after World War II. In the first decades of the century, Jewish life in New York was too vibrant, varied, and quarrelsome to be contained by the bureaucratic structure, however well-meaning, that Magnes helped to establish and lead.

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With the Kehillah in decline, Magnes turned increasingly to international issues, applying to this larger arena the same principles of universalism and egalitarianism he had espoused for the Jewish community of New York. At the root of Magnes’s thought was the need to carry out what he saw as “the prophetic tradition” in Judaism. This concept, a driving force in early 19th-century Reform, imposed upon Jews, “the international people,” the responsibility “to aid the world in achieving justice and peace.” For Magnes this translated into advocacy of the socialist critique of Western capitalism; pacifism and opposition to American entry into World War I; and support for the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Although he continued in these years to take an interest in Jewish affairs, Magnes’s hostility to “the bourgeois group in Jewish affairs,” and his belief that “Bolshevism holds out the ideal . . . of a social commonwealth based upon justice,” isolated him to a degree from the centers of power and influence, and finally put an end to his career on the American Jewish scene. In 1922, with the rabbinate and other suitable posts either unavailable or unattractive to him, Magnes left the United States for Palestine, where, for the next quarter of a century, he would apply the principles of “prophetic Judaism” to the growing tensions among the Jews, the Arabs, and the British.

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In palestine, where he served first as chancellor and then as president of the newly founded Hebrew University, Magnes did battle both with Chaim Weizmann, who (according to Magnes) wanted the university to serve the Zionist cause, and with Albert Einstein, who felt that under Magnes’s leadership the university was failing to realize the goals of scholarship and research required of a first-rate institution of higher learning. Whatever his shortcomings as a scholar and administrator, however, the accomplishments of Magnes in these decades before Israel and its institutions became the ruling passion of American Jewry were many. His goal was the creation of a great center of learning—and this the Hebrew University undeniably became.

It was during these same years that Magnes became known, above all, for his opposition to the political fulfillment of the Zionist dream. He was a founder and leader of B’rit Shalom, a minuscule but ideologically significant group that also included Martin Buber, Henrietta Szold, and other Westernized Zionists who preached Arab-Jewish reconciliation and who favored the establishment in Palestine of a binational state offering equal political status to both Jews and Arabs. Magnes’s enthusiasm for this idea led him to disparage the Balfour Declaration with its promise of a Jewish homeland, to rationalize Arab violence against Jews in the 1920’s and 30’s, to favor limitations on Jewish immigration into Palestine, and to condemn actions taken by Jews against the British in Palestine after World War II.

By 1947-48, after the B’rit Shalom position had been abandoned by all but the most obdurate, Magnes continued—in both Palestine and in New York—to lobby at an obsessive pitch against the establishment or recognition of a Jewish state. His activities brought him into alliance with the leaders of the rabidly anti-Zionist Council for American Judaism; with anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist figures in American public life; and with such church-related, pro-Arab groups as the Committee for Peace and Justice in the Holy Land. They also led to a final parting of ways with cherished friends who had for some time been persuaded by Arab intransigence that their old dreams of a binational state had been utterly illusory, and who recognized that only a Jewish state could provide the means for rescuing the survivors of the Holocaust.

Death came to Magnes in October 1948, shortly after the state of Israel was established. In his last journal entry, on October 22, Magnes spoke of the need for a Marshall Plan for the entire Middle East, expressing the characteristically visionary hope that “through economic aid [there will be] some chance of peace, otherwise war and hatred for decades.”

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Whatever assessment is made of Magnes’s role in recent Jewish history, it is fortunate that his literary legacy has been left to a scholar of Arthur Goren’s stature, who brings to his task both objectivity and compassion. Apart from the impeccable rendering of the documents in this handsome volume, Goren has contributed a number of immensely useful biographical and historical introductions; his glossaries and indices similarly help to provide encyclopedic information concerning the men and women who took part in the affairs of world Jewry in the first half of the 20th century. Most importantly, Goren has not intruded on the integrity of his subject, and allows the reader to take a full measure of the man in all his complexity.

Among the luminaries of 20th-century Jewish life, Magnes will be remembered on many counts, and not least as the embodiment of a host of personal and ideological contradictions. The late Gershom Scholem called Magnes an “ ‘adam hofshi—a free man’ . . . that rare person, free of dogmas and slogans, who steadfastly pursues a politics of high principles as he understands it. . . .” But there is another view that emerges from this volume, and that is of Magnes as a quintessential Diaspora Jew, one who incorporated in his life, in a particularly salient manner, several of the self-contradictory commitments fashioned by Jews in their struggle with modernity. Gifted, sensitive, humane, enigmatic, Magnes can be seen, above all, as a marginal man, as the embodiment of the very condition which the Zionism he believed in—albeit not fully—was intended to cure. His type is with us still.

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