|Judah Leon (or Leib) Magnes|
|Born||July 5, 1877(1877-07-05) San Francisco, California, USA|
|Died||October 27, 1948(1948-10-27) (aged 71) New York, New York|
The recent mini-row over Baroness Jenny Tonge’s comments about Israel and her ‘explanation’ (accepted at face value by some quite sensible people) got me thinking about the whole question of denying Israel’s right to exist. I’m (just about) willing to believe that some people who deny the right of Israel to exist and/or promote slogans like “for a democratic secular state of Palestine” are benign and niave, rather than antisemitic. The problem is (as I commented at Representing The Mambo):
The problem with Jenny Tonge is that her words can be interpreted in at least two ways – one benign if naive (Israel must voluntarily give up its statehood and turn itself into some kind of bi-national state in which Jews and Palestinians will live together in happy harmony), the other definitely *not* benign (Israel must be destroyed). The fact she appears not to recognise the need to be very precise and clear about what she is, and isn’t, saying, and the fact that she’s quite happy to share platforms with people whose “anti- zionism” has definitely crossed the line into antisemitism, makes me very doubtful about her motives – to say the least. Unfortunately, she’s only too typical of the kind of “well-meaning” liberals in and around the PSC who claim they’re not antisemites, but seem quite willing to associate with people who are.
Finally, even if we accept Tonge’s claim that she simply means Israel reforming itself out of existance , or the widely-touted argument that socialists are in favour of the “withering away” of all states…how come these arguments are virtually never used about other nation-states, including those (like the USA, Australia and Argentina) that – unlike Israel – were created by means of genocide?
All of which got me thinking about binationalism (the main benign version of “Israel has no right to exist”) and its leading champion, Judah Magnes. The best brief account of the political life and thinking of Magnes that I’ve been able to find is the following by Benny Morris (himself a controversial figure in some circles, but a pretty good, and always truthful historian) :
Politically, the most important figure linked to Brit Shalom and Agudat Ihud was Magnes. He enjoyed a strong following among American Jews and was respected by the Mandate government; his diplomatic, orotorical, and intellectual skills also won the sneaking admiration of Ben-Gurion and other mainstream Zionists. The American-born and -trained Magnes, a rabbi and pacifist, viewed the call for a Jewish “National Home” in Palestine, to which he immigrated in 1922, as, above all, a call for the creation of “a Jewish spiritual, educational, moral and religious center,” as he put it in a letter to Weizmann in 1913. In this, he was an heir to the spiritual or cultural Zionism propagated by Ahad Ha’am (Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, 1859-1927), the great Russian Jewish essayist. Magnes supported immigration (or Jewish “ingathering”) in Palestine and hoped the country would become “the numerical center of the Jewish People.” He opposed the idea of conquest, which he called “the Joshua way,” and did not believe in the Great Powers’ right to dispose of the country as they saw fit. Like Jews, the Arabs also had historical rights to the country, he believed. So Palestine was the home of two peoples and three religions and belonged neither to the Arabs nor to the Jews nor to the Christians: “it belonged to all of them.”
The Balfour Declaration “contains the seed of resentment and future conflict. The Jewish people cannot suffer injustice to be done to others even as a compensation for injustice [over the centuries] done to them,” he wrote in 1920. The Jewish “National Home” should not be established “upon the bayonets of some Empire.” Magnes, like Buber, feared that the Jews in Palestine would “become devotees of brute force and militarism as were some of the later Hasmoneans, like Edomite Herod.” Magnes dissented from Brit Shalom in that he believed that its desire for an accomodation with the Arabs was tactical and practical rather than deeply felt; he knew that most of its members, including Ruppin who at times espoused the transfer of Arabs, were not pacifists.
All of this left Magnes with a somewhat fuzzy picture of what a future Palestine would look like. He spoke variously about both open-ended “international control through a mandatory” — that is, perpetual rule by a foreign power — and “a binational [Jewish-Arab] government.”
The problem with binationalism, however — apart from mainstream Zionist opposition — was that Brit Shalom and Magnes could find no Arab partners, or even interlocutors, who shared the binational vision or hope. As Magnes succinctly put it as early as 1932: “Arabs will not sit on any committee with Jews…[Arab] teachers…teach children more and more Jew-hatred.” In this sense, things only got worse with the passage of time, the deepening of the Arabs’ political consciousness, and the increase in Jewish immigration.
In 1937, in the privacy of his study, against a backdrop of the bloody Arab Revolt, Magnes took off the gloves: “The great drawback on the Arab side was the lack of moral courage. If only one man would step out now and brave his people and plead that his leaders should sit down with Jewish leaders, the situation would be saved…[but] not even one Arab stood up.” Yet perhaps it wasn’t so much a matter of the Arabs’ lack of courage as of Arab convictions. “Islam seemed to be a religion of the sword,” a monumentally despondent Magnes concluded.
(Indeed, many observers defined the Arab Revolt as a jihad. After reviewing the the testimony of Bishop Hajjat, the metropolitan of the Greek Catholic Church in Acre, Galilee, and Samaria, and other Christians before the Peel Commission, one of the commissioners concluded: “We were informed that though they [that is, the Christians] are not afraid of the educated Moslem or the Effendie class who live in the towns, they have come to realize that the zeal shown by the fellaheen in the late disturbances [that is, in 1936] was religious and fundamentally in the nature of a Holy War against a Christian Mandate and against Christian people as well as against the Jews.” Already in June 1936, two months into the revolt, the deputy inspector-general of the British Mnadate police, J.S. Price, wrote, in summarising the revolt, under the subheading “The Religious (Moslem) Aspect — Jehad or Holy War”: “It has long been the considered opinion of students of the Palestine problem that real and prolonged disorder can only be stimulated and protracted through the medium of religion…There are now demands that Haj Amin al-Husseini…should declare a Holy War (Jehad). It is unlikely that he will do this openly as he is not prepared to stake his all…[But] there are…indications that this spirit is being engendered by the medium of the Ulamas (learned religious[figures]). Fullest prominence is likely to be given to any incident having a religious complexion…There are [already] allegations of defilement of the Quran.” He had a point. At the start of the revolt, the Palestinian Arab political parties established a supreme cabinetlike body, the Arab Higher Committee. is founding declaration stated: “Because of the general feeling of danger that envolops this noble nation, there is need for solidarity and unity and a focus on strengthening the holy national jihad movement.” As the revolt unfolded, the mufti and kadi of Nablus toured the surrounding villages “preaching that anyone who killed a land seller would reside in paradise in the company of the righteous.” The language of the rebellious nationalists was commonly the language of jihad. ‘Abd al-Fatah Darwish, a penitent land seller, swore in May 1936: “I call on Allah, may He be exalted, to bear witness and swear…that I will be a loyal soldier in the service of the homeland. I call on Allah and the angels and the prophets and the knights of Palestinian nationalism to bear witness that if I violate this oath, I will kill myself.” A placard hung on the walls in the village of Balad al-Sheikh, outside Haifa, after the murder of a collaborator, read: “Nimer the policeman was executed…as he betrayed his religion and his homeland…The supreme God revealed to those who preserve their religion and their homeland that he betrayed them, and they did to him what Muslim law commands. Because the supreme and holy God said: ‘Fight the heratics and the hypocrites; their dwelling-place is hell.”
Magnes occasionally found an Arab willing to meet and talk with him — and ready to hear what he, Magnes, might be willing to concede. In 1936 he met Musa al-’Alami, a Palestinian Arab “moderate” and mandate government senior official, and agreed to the limiting of Jewish immigration to thirty thousand per year. In late 1937 or early 1938, Magnes met the leading Iraqi politician Nuri Sa’id. Sa’id apparently proposed a ten-year truce during which the Jews would promise not to exceed 40 percent of the country’s population (though Magnes later always insisted that he had never agreed to permanent minority status for the Jews). But these contacts and their outcome were hardly the comprehensive, final binational accord Magnes was striving for. (And, of course, neither ‘Alami nor Sa’id were leaders of the palestinian national movement.)
By mid-World War II Magnes realized that an open-ended international mandate was no longer feasible. He had despaired of ever reaching substantive Jewish-Arab negotiations or agreement and decided that the only solution would be an externally imposed “union between the Jews and the Arabs within a binational Palestine.” Further, he determined, this union would need to be subsumed or incorporated in a wider economic and political “union of Palestine, Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon” and linked to and guaranted by an “Anglo-American union.” And the binational state would need to be based on “parity” in terms of political power, between the two constituent groups, in order to guarantee the rights of whichever group was in the minority.
By mid-1948, with the first Arab-Israeli war in full swing, Magnes was deeply pessimistic. He feared an Arab victory: “there are millions upon millions of Muslims in the world…They have time. The timelessness of the desert.” An Arab ambush on 13 April 1948 of a Jewish convoy bearing doctors and nurses travelling through East Jerusalem to the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School campus on Mount Scopus — in which seventy-eight were slaughtered — was in effect the final nail in the coffin of Magnes’s binationalism. It was not that he publicly recanted. But he understood that it was a lost cause — and that his own standing in the Yishuv had been irreparably shattered. Within days, he left for the United States, and within months, never returning to Palestine/Israel, he was dead.
-from ‘One State, Two States’ by Benny Morris (Yale University Press 2009).
NB: I have not included Morris’s extensive footnotes, giving sources. These can be found in the book itself – JD