Judah Magne: Zionist, Reform rabbi, academic pioneer - book review

This is a fascinating book about a rare Reform Jewish Zionist rabbi of the 20th century who came to Israel and struggled for peace between Jews and Arabs in this land all of his life.

Martin Buber (left) and Judah Magnes (center) testifying before the Anglo- American Committee of Inquiry in Jerusalem in 1946. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Martin Buber (left) and Judah Magnes (center) testifying before the Anglo- American Committee of Inquiry in Jerusalem in 1946.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I have always had an interest in Judah Magnes, the iconoclastic Zionist Reform rabbi who became the first president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but I had never read much about him. And then a brilliant new biography of him by David Barak-Gorodetsky, a young Israeli scholar at the University of Haifa, as well as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and an Israeli Reform rabbi, came to my attention. In the course of reading it, I learned a great deal about this unique Jewish leader, who played important roles in both American Zionism and in pre-state Israel, whom I believe is underappreciated in Israeli society and in Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Trained as a Reform rabbi, Magnes was an American Zionist leader for a while. After moving to Israel, he became a university founder and leader – the first chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when it opened in 1925 – following his aliyah in 1922.  According to the author of this book,

Magnes’s involvement in founding and overseeing the Hebrew University was the crowning glory of his activity in Palestine during the 1920s, as well as the basis for his authority among the public. Magnes saw the Hebrew University as the cultural center for the Jewish people with a unique and vital role to play: to build a moral society in the spirit of the prophets of Israel.

During his tenure at the Hebrew University, Magnes refrained from overtly engaging in political activity. However, later on, he became an important political thinker/activist in Israel. As we learn comprehensively from this book, most of his political activity in Israel was related to the concept of bi-nationalism—two national groups, the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs, who would live together peacefully somehow in the same state—an idea which has come back into contemporary discussion in recent years due to the almost total collapse of the two-state solution as the panacea to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Magnes was active in Brit Shalom, founded in 1926, even though he was not officially a member, and later in Ichud, which he helped to establish in the summer of 1946. Both of these movements intensively pursued the idea of bi-nationalism during the decades preceding the establishment of the State of Israel.

 David Barak-Gorodetsky (credit: DEBBI COOPER PHOTOGRAPHY) David Barak-Gorodetsky (credit: DEBBI COOPER PHOTOGRAPHY)

What is the connection between Judah Magnes's political activity and religious outlook?

This book, which is based on the author’s dissertation at the University of Haifa, seeks to uncover the connection between Magnes’s political activity and his religious outlook. It explains how Magnes’s outlook was different than that of his partners in the struggle for bi-nationalism, including famous philosophers such as Martin Buber, Hugo Bergman, and Ernst Simon. This was clearly due to his American upbringing, which included his experiences as a Reform rabbi in New York, as well as his involvement in American politics as a young man. Indeed, Barak-Gorodetsky defines his book as a religious-political biography of Magnes: first establishing the centrality of the religious dimension in his thinking and then examining his political work from this perspective.

Judah Leon Magnes was born in Oakland, California, in 1878. He attended Jewish schools in the San Francisco area and studied to be a Reform rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in the late 1890s, where he was special among the students because of his Zionist ideology. After ordination, he served as a rabbi for three Reform congregations in New York City but didn’t last at any of them due to his controversial ideas.  He was not an ideologically Reform rabbi, and it was clear that his personality was not well suited to serving a congregation. Actually, he broke with the Reform movement and never remained active in the movement in which he was trained. This is because his Jewish theology was a mixture of the thinking of many diverse intellectual streams, which made him too eclectic for the Reform movement of his times. 

While in the United States, he was active as a young man during WW I in socialist and pacifist movements, especially via a movement known as the Social Gospel. This put him outside the mainstream of the Reform movement, as well as beyond the Jewish establishment in America, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons he decided to emigrate to the Land of Israel. As we learn in depth from this book, his involvement in American religious, social and political thinking was an abiding influence in his theology and political activity in pre-state Israel for the rest of his life. Magnes lived to see the State of Israel established in 1948 but died during the same year.

What did I learn from this fascinating intellectual biography?

Firstly, I learned that Magnes was a very complex figure. He was a deeply spiritual man, who tried to integrate his spiritual life with his political life, as did Marin Buber, with whom he worked on the bi-nationalist idea. In so doing, he developed what the author of this book calls a “political theology.” According to Barak-Gorodetsky, he sought to promote a politics based directly on his religious worldview, regardless of the fact that the political environment – the Yishuv (Hebrew for the Jewish community in pre-state Israel) – was not particularly receptive to religious arguments regarding political matters.

Secondly, I learned that Magnes was a great intellectual, much more so than he was a rabbi. This is probably why he found himself at home at the Hebrew University for so long. He had too many questions about God to be a practicing rabbi; in fact, he struggled spiritually all his life. Instead, he preferred to associate with some of the great German Jewish intellectuals who taught at the Hebrew University –  where he was chancellor and then president for two decades – such as Martin Buber, Hugo Bergman, and Gershon Scholem. It is interesting to note that these philosophers were also activists with him in his pro-peace activities over the years. Apparently, the model of intellectual-activist was a model that he liked and adopted for himself.

Thirdly, I learned that the idea of bi-nationalism, which Magnes promoted along with these above-mentioned intellectuals, was not well accepted within the Jewish community of pre-state Israel. It was too “American,” meaning too naïve and too pacificist for pre-state Israel (and for contemporary Israel), which saw itself – and continues to see itself – in existential danger (from Germany in the past and from Iran in the present) and therefore could not allow itself to simply lay down its arms and trust its neighbors. 

Nevertheless, Magnes promoted the idea of bi-nationalism for a long time, even when it became very unpopular with Zionist leaders. As late as 1946, he testified before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, at which time he rejected the idea of separatist nationalism. It was fascinating for me to learn, as an interreligious scholar and activist, that he used an interreligious argument in his testimony at that time. In his testimony, he stated:

This is a land sui generis, a Holy Land for three monotheistic religions. It is, therefore, not just a Jewish land or just an Arab land… We regard the Arab natural rights and the Jewish historical rights as, under the circumstances, of equal validity. We look upon Palestine as a bi-national Jewish-Arab land, a common motherland for these two Semitic peoples who have the privilege of acting as trustees for millions of their co-religionists all over the world. In such a land, it is not fitting that one people should dominate the other.

While much has changed since 1946, I can say that in recent decades I have heard this argument made in many international and local interreligious conferences for peace. Yet, Barak-Gorodetksy argues near the end of the book that championing Magnes as a harbinger of current binational trends in Israel/Palestine is to some extent misleading. According to him, for Magnes, bi-nationalism was not a call to create a “state for all of its citizens” as this phase is used today in Israel. Rather, it was an attempt to establish a model Jewish society in Palestine based on the principles of prophetic justice, which were central to the political theology of Magnes the rabbi.

This is a fascinating book about a rare Reform Jewish Zionist rabbi of the 20th century who came to Israel long before the establishment of the state and struggled for peace between Jews and Arabs in this land  all of his life.  It is also a comprehensive and conscientious intellectual study of a theologian/activist who integrated his American background with many of the central strands of Zionist thinking in the 20th century, as well as with the philosophies of key European Jewish intellectuals who emigrated to Israel and worked with him at the Hebrew University for many years. 

For people seriously interested in a creative and courageous approach of a rabbi who lived in Israel for most of his adult life, with all of the challenges and obstacles in his way, the journey of Judah Magnes from America to Israel – and within Israel – will be of great interest and enlightenment as it was for me. ■

Judah Magnes: The prophetic politics of a religious binationalistDavid Barak-GorodetskyPhiladelphia: The Jewish Publication Society and Lincoln, Nebraska: The University of Nebraska Press, 2021$20.28, 364 pages