Judah Magnus and the Israeli Question

Born in San Francisco in 1877, Judah Leon Magnus, the pacifist founder of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an advocate for a bi-national Jewish-Arab state in Palestine, witnessed the birth of a nation that he had done everything in his power to keep from being born.

A man who had worked to bring together the fractious New York Jews, he became one of the leading voices of reform Judaism, despite being thought incapable by Albert Einstein, one of the other founders of the University. Magnus sincerely believed that Arab and Jew should be able to live and work together, and he worked tirelessly to bring about a union of the two separate peoples as distinct states within a unified Palestine. Indefatigably arguing for this union, heckled in its cause, he was never able to secure the one thing he needed to bring it about: a willing Arab leader.

With the permission of the Arabs we will be able to receive hundreds of thousands of persecuted Jews in Arab lands. Without the permission of the Arabs even the four hundred thousand [Jews] that now are in Palestine will remain in danger, in spite of the temporary protection of British bayonets. With partition a new Balkan is made…

New York Times, July 18, 1937.

After the formation of the state and the beginnings of the 1948 conflict, in which he petitioned George Marshall for international sanctions on both sides, Magnus stayed his course, still searching for the correct way for his people. His hopes were dashed by the further revelations of WWII and the escalating violence of the contemporary war of independence. After the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1947, he gave up trying to find this other, better solution. Finding himself on the outs of Jewish opinion, he worked as much as his ill health allowed him, starting to agitate on behalf of the increasing numbers of Palestinian refugees.

On October 27th, 1948, Judah (born Julian) Leon Magnus died of a heart attack.

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With all the controversy over the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, I am reminded of something Magnus said following that declaration in 1947. To his son, he wrote, “Do you think that in my heart I am not glad too that there is a state? I just did not think it was to be.”

Most of this information is available from Wikipedia or The Forward. But it is also a part of my family history.  Magnus’ sister, Tess, was my great-grandmother.

 


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A fourth generation Californian, befuddled.

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19 thoughts on “Judah Magnus and the Israeli Question

  1. Never heard of this guy before but Tablet just posted a really fair article on 13 inconvenient truths about Gaza:

    http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/262329/gaza-media-explainer

    My issue with the quote you posted is that it always makes the Jews kind of subservient. We are always depending on the noblese oblige and good will of others instead of getting self-determination. The Israelis and Arabs will need to learn to live with each other but this shouldn’t happen by the Israelis always being lackeys and subservient.

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    • I obviously can’t attest to the truth of the claims made, but the overall point, that the conflict is messy and filled with conflicting details sounds about right.

      I think one of the weaknesses is that people generally love a simply dynamic, maybe of the People rising up spontaneously against Injustice, and inflicting punishment (with surgical precision) on precisely the deserving villains while healing the innocent wounded.

      I referenced other wars which ended, thinking of how one of the essential tools required to end them was that the people had to accept the notion that there really was not going to be a Perfect Justice, ever.

      To this day, across former conflict regions like Ireland, Russia, and Nicaragua there are people walking free, sometimes in power, who are arguably guilty of murder and torture. But they escaped because the story was too complex, too filled with conflicting facts to establish a consensus of guilt or sometimes they were too well shielded by the powers that be, and their freedom was the price that had to be paid for peace.

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    • “We are always depending on the noblesse oblige and good will of others instead of getting self-determination.”

      Who in this world gets self-determination and doesn’t depend on the good will of others? What group other than *perhaps* the global 1 percent?

      Alternatively, do you think he was saying what *should* happen or what he was wise enough to foresee happening?

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  2. The idea of turning Palestine into a Bi-National Jewish-Arab Republic was popular among a certain sort of Jewish intellectual during the pre-Israel area. I have no idea what this would have looked like. I’m guessing there would be a government that would handle the common state business like defense, transport, finance, and foreign affairs. Otherwise, the Jewish and Arab communities would run their own cultural and educational affairs by their own sub-governments.

    It was a nice romantic idea with one flaw. Nobody wanted a Bi-National Palestine. The Jews didn’t want. The Arabs didn’t want it. You can’t force a system on people that do not want it.

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    • I’m guessing there would be a government that would handle the common state business like defense, transport, finance, and foreign affairs. Otherwise, the Jewish and Arab communities would run their own cultural and educational affairs by their own sub-governments.

      Since this was the -pre Young Turks- Ottoman model of governance (*), it is not unreasonable to think that is what it was in his mind.

      (*) And sort of the then contemporary Habsburg model too. We sometimes don’t realize what a revolutionary change in governance Wilson’s Fourteen Points were.

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        • That’s partially but not totally true. It’s true that you had to be Austrian, or, after 1848, Hungarian, to reach the top levels of the Imperial Government. And that restriction chaffed the Slav cultured classes.

          But, once you were in the actual provinces, the Imperial Government was basically reduced to taxes and war matters. There was significant autonomy in local matters, with the local administration and justice run by local elites, and local education imparted in the local language, not in German or Hungarian.

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  3. All well and good but all pretty much irrelevant. The Arabs who lived in Palestine did not want (for reasons both mundane and hateful) to share the region with a vast group of Jewish immigrants. They turned to violence and the Jewish immigrants drove them out and displaced them. This is not controversial, it’s just history. Israel, like most nations, was born in violence and the dispossession of the peoples who were there when the state went about being formed. Israel’s difficulty is that it came about late in history when liberalism was on the move. Ethnically cleansing or slaughtering wouldn’t be then and wouldn’t be now acceptable to the world (for reasons both ethical and base) and tiny resource poor Israel needs a certain minimal acceptance level from the world in order to endure. The Israelis treated relatively fairly with the Arabs who had the courage to remain within Israel proper… eventually. What remains the sticking point is the lands they seized in their last defensive wars and then ill-advisedly settled. Israel really wants the land but it really doesn’t want the people that come with it.
    They can retain those lands, they can remain a liberal democratic state or they can remain Jewish; the Israeli’s get to pick two. That’s the core point, the rest is just smoke and sloganeering on both sides. Thanks to their idiotic settlement policy the entanglement is pretty brutal now so the democratic constituency against making that hard choice that has to be made is strong and getting stronger.
    Sharon knew this (was there a more ill placed blood clot in history?) and was moving to do what had to be done. Bibi probably knows it somewhere deep down but he cares more about Bibi then he does about Israel.
    The Palestinians continue to miss opportunities as they historically have done. They have no power to force the matter but they aren’t going to obligingly depart. Land, Liberalism or Jewishness; pick two. The clock is ticking and leaving things the way they are does not avoid that choice, it just moves Israel slowly closer to becoming an illiberal Jewish ethno-state. Tick tock, tick tock.

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    • They can retain those lands, they can remain a liberal democratic state or they can remain Jewish; the Israeli’s get to pick two.

      At the risk of being dark and cynical:

      1) The Arabs fire up (perhaps with provocation) another mass war.
      2) There is another mass displacement of people.
      3) Israel gets pissed or paranoid and closes its borders (as opposed to now?)

      Or
      1) Israel creates arabic micro-states.

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      • 1) There might be Arabs idiotic enough to do that but I think it’s unlikely. The gap in military capability between Israel and every one of her Arab neighbors (even all of them together) is too wide. Also the focus simply isn’t there. The Arabs are too preoccupied with their Sunni-Shiite wars. Even in the unlikely event of a war I am really doubtful that the Palestinians would join in.
        2) If Israel causes it that just is the fireworks signifying the birth of an illiberal Jewish Ethno-state. I have serious doubts about whether such a state could survive long term.
        3) Closing Israel’s borders is pointless since Israel’s de facto borders encompass the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon had an idea in that direction- basically drag his kook coreligionist fanatics out of the territories, disengage from the Palestinians then close their borders. The stroke took him down before he could tackle the really tough nut- Jerusalem and the West Bank but Gaza suggests that his general concept was imperfect but sound. Replicating that in the West Bank is a really good idea but also really difficult and getting harder every day as the settlers dig in and Israel continues to drift away from secularism.

        As to micro-states; that’d require the Palestinians cooperation and international acceptance and the Israeli’s aren’t gonna get any help from the Palestinians to create a chain of little bantustans, Frankly I also think there’re simply too many Palestinians to be able to non-forcibly confine them to such a thing.

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        • Even in the unlikely event of a war I am really doubtful that the Palestinians would join in.

          Mostly we’re talking about making civilians flee so this is a moot point, and I’m not sure if the Palestinians joined in ’48 or ’67. Further I’m not sure how “unlikely” war can be if the Israelis need to take the army for a spin and “mow the lawn” every 4 years or so.

          If Israel causes it that just is the fireworks signifying the birth of an illiberal Jewish Ethno-state.

          You have a war, it goes on for a week or something, shockingly bad things happen, and then after the war they hand out metals and wring hands on how bad it was and what lessons we should learn… but don’t actually do anything to undo the damage or punish the people on point.

          So basically it’s the standard war, illiberal for a week, then normal sanity resumes.

          Closing Israel’s borders is pointless since Israel’s de facto borders encompass the Palestinians.

          I meant after the bulk of the Palestinians are forced to leave in the chaos of war. We’re basically talking about a repeat of ’48.

          As to micro-states; that’d require the Palestinians cooperation and international acceptance…

          Find a charismatic Palestinian strong man with a crew of thugs who is pissed at the “Palestinian powers that be” (PPTB). He announces (correctly) the PPTB are corrupt and self serving and can’t be trusted to represent or help his enclave and he can do better on his own.

          He starts his own enclave, Pal-bantustan. This requires some shielding from PPTB thugs but his place is landlocked with Israel controlling the surroundings. If he has Israeli support then life could instantly get much better.

          I’m not sure what “international acceptance” or the lack thereof does here. If international acceptance is important then the international community will be in the uncomfortable position of wanting to support a highly corrupt ineffectual & unpopular PPTB against a local strongman who is none of those things.

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          • But it’s neither ’48 or ’67. There is no realistic Arab opponent. Who the hell is going to drive a tank or infantry collumn up to Israel’s border and give them an excuse to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians? The answer: pretty much no one and absent genuine threat Israel wouldn’t be able to get away with ethnically cleansing the West Bank. Nor could they ethnically cleanse the Palestinians and not expect it to be watched virtually real time by the world. It’s not like the boycott-divest movement doesn’t exist- it’s just that most people don’t support it. A bit of genuine ethnic cleansing would change that fast. That’d just deliver them to an illiberal Jewish ethno-state status and then things would get very tricky for them.

            As to dividing the Palestinians; the Israeli’s tried that before- they ended up with Hamas. It really didn’t work out well for anyone involved. Turns out when you’re trying to prop up an alternative to what is realistically a very accommodating Palestinian power that be setup you’re going to find that most of their support comes from people who want them to get along with the Israelis less than the PPTB does; not more.

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            • There is no realistic Arab opponent. Who the hell is going to drive a tank or infantry column up to Israel’s border and give them an excuse to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians?

              Obviously there needs to be some serious Arabic “help” for this step… although I can see Israel lowering the bar. Put some Jewish corpses on the TV ripped to pieces by terrorism or rocket attacks… or have Israel’s leaders scream loudly that some radical has nukes.

              My expectation is something (stupid) which can’t be predicted needs to happen. Sometimes we call these “Black Swan” events. But it only needs to happen once and there are professional paranoids in the background making contingency plans. I’d be very surprised if this isn’t on the books somewhere.

              As to dividing the Palestinians; the Israeli’s tried that before- they ended up with Hamas. It really didn’t work out well for anyone involved.

              I think Hamas worked out very well for anti-peace groups inside of Israel. They need some Arabic group to wear a Big Black Hat, ideally with a Swastika on it.

              Arafat probably was strong enough, and a unifying enough figure, to make a peace deal with Israel. There are segments within Israel who want that possibility off the table. Now I also think if Arafat had done so he would have been killed by his own people because he’d need to screw over the “Right to Return” crowd, but ideally the agreement would still be implemented.

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              • Well sure, but that’s more like a movie script than a policy argument.

                I suppose that’s true, Hamas and the Israeli hawks have done well by each other.

                Arafat or even Abbas in the early days certainly could have made the rhetorical gestures that would have made a 2 state separation easier. Arafat probably did fear for his life and was too comfortable ripping everyone involved off; Abbas certainly isn’t capable or inclined to try now. The only question is if the Israeli’s have enough realism to separate unilaterally or if they’ll cling to the territories like a feverish person to the gangrenous arm.

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                • that’s more like a movie script than a policy argument.

                  True that. I’d call it more a way to avoid facing reality than a realistic plan. But Israel has already benefited from several rounds of ethnic cleansings (both their own and the Arabs), what’s one more?

                  In a big way this kind of thinking is kicking the can down the road and hoping future politicians/leaders figure something out.

                  Arafat or even Abbas in the early days certainly could have made the rhetorical gestures that would have made a 2 state separation easier.

                  I think this underestimates just how much pain and trauma dropping the “Right to Return” would inflict on the Palestinians. It’s probably comparable to the USA getting rid of slavery as far as how painful it’d be and how dug in the self interested parties are.

                  The way to ease into this would be to close the refugee camps and wait for the current generations of people who lived there to die off.

                  they’ll cling to the territories like a feverish person to the gangrenous arm.

                  I see little to no evidence they’re willing to cut them off, so one vote for “cling” here.

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                  • The “Right to Return” has always had an obvious means of finessing it; you give them the right to return to the Palestinian entity once it’s created. Obviously they’re never going to return to Israel again but expecting them to renounce the RoR outright is nonsensical.

                    My own personal sympathies have always laid with the Israeli’s since they’re the liberal-er entity in the Middle East and some of my friends and acquaintances live or are connected to there. So obviously since I’m interested in that states long term viability my advice is that they separate themselves from the poison of the settlements and the territories. The sooner the better. Sharon showed that is can be done and time has shown that the further they put it off the worse it’ll hurt. I fear that time is running out for the Israeli’s and they’ll flat out lose the political capacity to achieve that separation. If that happens I don’t think it’ll end well for them.

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  4. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the inconvenient claims made in the article, but it seems about right, in that all conflicts are messy and filled with contradictory people.

    Maybe the worst possible lens to try and view history is the one which needs a heroic narrative filled with spontaneous actions without precedent or context.
    Of course this was planned for months by Hamas, of course there are countercurrents and factions and of course facts are distorted to sway our hearts and minds.

    Which is why we should feel conflicted. Because beneath the propaganda, there is a tremendous amount of actual suffering going on, self inflicted or otherwise.

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