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  • Judah L. Magnes: An American Jewish Nonconformist
  • David Tal
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 [End Page 165] 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...


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