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A Zionism of Mutual Recognition and Hope: Reconsidering Judah Magnes

In today’s ‘modern Left’ ‘Zionism’ is often taken as a term of abuse. The oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians is widely seen as negating the very right of the ‘Jewish State’ to exist. Judah Magnes himself is commonly dismissed in modern Zionism as a ‘destructive and naïve influence.’ (We will discuss these claims at some length). But Magnes’s legacy; as well as the legacy of others such as Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber; show “another kind of Zionism is possible.” On the other hand, modern anti-Zionism is itself at best naïve in believing that the defeat of the Jewish state would lead to a secular, democratic, pluralistic and inclusive Palestine. There is a cycle of revenge and Terror going back from before Israel’s formation, and to the current day. Modern right-Zionism (including in the Revisionist legacy of Likud; which follows after the Irgun Zionist faction) presumes that conciliation is impossible; that only Israel will stand for its own interests; and that political and military ruthlessness is the only road to survival.

Though his binationalism is often held by dissenters in opposition to modern Zionism, it is forgotten often that Magnes himself was a Zionist. Raised in the United States, Magnes adopted a pacifist posture during the horrors of World War One. He also adopted what he saw as American ideals of democracy and pluralism. But Magnes also came to oppose assimilation in the US amongst Jews most strongly. Though he was later identified as a liberal Reform Rabbi, he was Conservative in the sense of holding strongly to Jewish tradition and a strong Jewish identity. His compromise position became known as ‘cultural Zionism’. (Kotzin, p 119). For Magnes a pluralistic US could accommodate Jewish nationalism (Zionism) within a broader national identity.

As Daniel P.Kotzin argues: “His “progressive” “Zionist ideal” reveals “a larger agenda.” Hence: “Magnes was trying to fashion American Jews as an ethnic group wherein diversity was possible within a construct of Jewish solidarity.” He “forged” “an ethical-liberal Zionist ideal” based on “his cultural Zionism, Reform Judaism and American progressive ideals that combined ethical universalism with Jewish particularism within a pluralistic framework.” Magnes wanted Arab “national autonomy in equilibrium with Jewish national autonomy.” (Kotzin, pp 5-6).

But in his eagerness to preserve Jewish identity, Magnes had sympathy for the Orthodox position as well. Indeed, Magnes openly embraced Zionism at a time when many Jews in America were not willing to make the same leap. Importantly, Magnes came to support the ‘Jewish Defence Association’ (JDA) which aimed to arm Jewish communities to defend against pogroms and the like. (Kotzin, p 66). He tried to embrace Chanukah as a celebration of Jewish nationhood. He also embraced the teaching of Yiddish as part of a “cultural Zionist program” which actually promoted unity instead of fragmentation. (Kotzin, p 73).

Specifically, Magnes supported a Jewish national home in Palestine as opposed to proposals for elsewhere – like Uganda. But importantly, he felt it was essential to come to an understanding with Palestine’s Arab residents; to consult with them and arrive at a kind of co-determination.

Rather than pure majoritarianism, Magnes promoted ‘deliberative democracy’ within the broader Jewish community as the road to unity. His perspective of ‘equal opportunity’ extended to Arabs in Palestine; and for him a large Arab community there had to be accepted and worked with. (Kotzin, pp 135-140).

During World War One Magnes defended civil liberties and free speech in the context of his pacifism. He also came to oppose the ‘Red Scare’ following the Bolshevik Revolution.

Following World War One, the Balfour declaration – establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine – heightened tensions between Jews and Arabs. Arabs launched anti-Jewish riots in Palestine. Some Zionists thought Jewish migration would bring benefits to Arab society and thus would eventually be accepted. But the Zionist Organisation of America held that “the land, natural resources and public utilities would be owned by Jews, and all schools would be conducted in Hebrew.” By contrast Magnes interpreted Jewish ethics as “radical pacifism.” (Kotzin, pp 155-156). He only reconsidered this uncompromising pacifism in the context of World War Two and the threat posed by Hitler.

Again, Magnes’ position on ‘national self-determination’ translated as co-determination between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. For Magnes: “[the] very prestige and reputation of the Jewish nation, which presented itself as liberal and ethical, depended on this.”

Upon migrating to Palestine, Magnes was appointed as Chancellor of the Hebrew University which was being established there.

The Faculty of Humanities opened in 1928. Magnes also promoted the teaching of Yiddish language and culture, though conducted in Hebrew. He thought it was important to be inclusive while establishing Hebrew as the national language. But many protested – finding Yiddish a threat to Hebrew culture. Magnes wanted the Hebrew University to be inclusive of all Jewish culture – ancient and modern. (Kotzin, p 194-196).

The British tried to appease both Jews and Arabs; and in the 1920s said they had no intention of creating a Jewish State. Transjordan was established in an appeal to Arabs. Arab resistance was minimal by 1924.

BUT critical of the other Zionists’ willingness to compromise with the British, the controversial Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky resigned from the World Zionist Executive in January 1923. Jabotinsky recognised the existence of Arab nationalism, but he believed Jews had a moral right to Palestine. Declaring a maximalist Zionist objective, he demanded a Jewish State that included Transjordan. According to him, Arabs must accept the inevitability of Zionism. Once they did, they could live peacefully with Jews in a Jewish State.” Jabotinsky called his new movement “Revisionist Zionism.” (Kotzin, p 197).

In response, “Arthur Rippon, a member of the World Zionist Executive who was also active in the expansion of Jewish settlement in Palestine, presented a program for a Binational Palestine at the 1925 Zionist Congress. He argued that Jews should work with Arabs to obtain their consent to the Zionist movement rather than engaging in an endless conflict.” (Kotzin, p 197).

Hans Kohn and Robert Weltsch, students of Martin Buber – along with their mentor – believed co-operation with Arabs could be achieved by renouncing any exclusive claim to Palestine. They believed in a Zionism based on ethics and justice that “transcended mere political aims.” An organisation called “Brit Shalom” (Covenant of Peace) was established. Magnes built relations with the members of Brit Shalom. Though he did not join. (Kotzin, p 198).

With the rise of Nazism in Germany Magnes feared that Jews were threatened with “Systematic extermination.” He wanted the University to be a refuge for Jewish scholars. (Kotzin, p 213-214).

But as a binationalist, Magnes was willing to let go the dream of a Jewish State for a reality of liberal democracy; where Palestine was ‘the Jewish national home’; but where Arabs and Jews lived and governed together as equals. He believed in the Israeli nation’s “ability to act as a moral and liberal beacon for the world.” And he believed Arabs and Jews should actually support and assist each other in their national aspirations. Though secretly, Magnes feared Arabs would stop Jewish migration outright if given the chance. (Kotzin, p 220, pp 226-227).

Magnes enunciated “three conditions” as a framework for Zionism in Palestine: “the right for Jews to immigrate to Palestine based on the country’s economic absorptive capacity, the rights for Jews to buy and sell land in Palestine, and the right for Jews to build their own cultural and religious institutions in Palestine.” (Kotzin, p 224).

But as Kotzin explains:

“… such views had little meaning for the Zionist leadership, and in their eyes had no tactical merit.” “They viewed him as a rogue American Jew, one who could have dangerous influence because of his connections but who acted recklessly, without respect for official bodies like the Jewish Agency and without consideration for the political consequences of his actions.” (Kotzin, p 221).

In 1928/1929 there was an Arab/Jewish dispute over the Western Wall. This led to Arab attacks on Jews. Over a week 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed, and many others wounded. Labor Zionists made comparisons with pogroms in Russia. Most rejected the need for Jewish/Arab co-operation. (This was seen as unrealistic.) As Kotzin explains: “Jews who called for peace and understanding, like the members of Brit Shalom, were condemned on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the belief that they demonstrated Jewish weakness, not Jewish strength.” (Kotzin, p 222).

P 233 “[Chaim] Weizmann, while sympathetic to Magnes’s ideas, found his political tactics problematic. Magnes ignored the fragile political situation” and hence could “damage… the Zionist project.” He believed “Arab intransigence” made it “impossible to negotiate with them.” He accused Manges of “breaking our united front.” Some Arabs tried to play Magnes off against other Zionists, depicting the others as “extremists.” (Kotzin, p 233).

Stephen Wise also feared Magnes was turning liberal opinion against Zionism in the US. Zionists were worried at the prospect of democratic institutions before there was a Jewish majority. But moderate Opposition Arabs within ‘the Arab Executive’ had long favoured co-operation with Jews and wanted to defeat the Grand Mufti (of Jerusalem) – who was to go so far as to collaborate with Hitler. (Kotzin, pp 234-235).

The rise of Hitler in Germany accelerated Jewish migration into the tens of thousands – over 66,000 in 1935. By 1936 Jews were more than one fourth of the population in Palestine. Arabs feared this; including migration and land purchases; but turned most of their anger against the British. Meanwhile Revisionist Zionists promoted a hate campaign against Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionists for their willingness to negotiate with the Arabs. David Ben-Gurion now felt the improved Zionist position would force Arabs to the table. Revisionism began to retreat at this time as well. (Kotzin, pp 247-248).

But Ben-Gurion still had an end objective of a Jewish State as opposed to Magnes’ ‘Binational’ state.

Magnes was desperate to make a difference. In negotiations Magnes was interested if Arabs would be willing to compromise on Palestinian Arab national aspirations for the sake of broader Pan Arab aspirations. (pp 250 -251).

Magnes and the Partition Plain

During 1935-37 the British developed a partition plan; to partition Palestine and Transjordan between Jews and Arabs. Some thought the proposed Jewish State was too small; but for Ben-Gurion the prospect of sovereignty was appealing. American Zionists led by Stephen Wise opposed the plan as the proposed Jewish State could not absorb all Jewish migrants – it was too small. For his part Magnes was partly sympathetic – but feared partition could sow the seeds of future war. Magnes came around to Felix Warburg’s anti-partition perspective. (Kotzin, pp 259-260).

Instead, Magnes proposed “a binational state” to the Jewish Agency – as an alternative to partition. He “believed that he could make Zionist discussions about democracy and establishing solidarity with the Arabs.” (Kotzin, p 261).

He feared if Zionism neglected the importance of “consent” it would become “oppressive.” Ha-Kibbutz Haartzi shel Hashomer Hatzair (“The Country-wide Kibbutz of the Young Guard”) accepted the principle of binationalism, but under conditions of a Jewish majority. They believed worker solidarity could overcome Arab-Jewish conflict. (Kotzin, p 262).

While Magnes focused on Jewish-Arab relations he was also strongly concerned in the mid to late 30s with the situation of Jews in Europe and especially Germany. He came to the view that Jews must free themselves from dependence on Britain because Britain was susceptible to Arab influence for strategic purposes at their time of greatest need.

Jews attempted to subvert British immigration restrictions. Magnes became a mediator between the Haganah (an organisation of Jewish self-defence and illegal immigration) and the British. Despite his pacifism Magnes supported WWII as ‘a war for humanity.’ He said; “the incarnation of the Devil sits on the German throne.” When pressed hard he chose “the preservation of the Jewish people over his pacifist ideals.”

In the midst of World War Two Magnes combined with over a hundred other like-minded individuals to form the ‘Ihud’ (‘unity’ or ‘union’) organisation – which favoured a binational solution as opposed to partition.

Progressive Zionists wanted to find a solution “that would open up Palestine for European Jewry but would not infringe on Arab rights.” Many who were already sympathetic to “the notion of a binational Palestine” “became more overt supporters” of Ihud; though others didn’t want to be linked with Ihud “in the public mind.” By 1942 most American Zionists believed free migration and a Jewish State in Palestine had become necessary. (Kotzin, p 294).

But after the war Magnes did not endorse the offensive (military and terroristic) strategies against the British. He opposed “offensive violence.” Following the Holocaust many Jews demanded control over Jewish migration to Palestine, but Magnes believed a peaceful Palestine was better for Jews in the end. (Kotzin, pp 274-276). In short, the Holocaust changed everything; and linked the creation of a Jewish State with an existential question of Jewish survival. Magnes’ binational vision was progressively side-lined.

Magnes was in the end proven correct that partition and a ‘Jewish State’ would lead to war. But the Jewish State managed to survive regardless. However, the Yom Kippur war of 1973 demonstrated that Israel’s security was in some ways still precarious; and should Israel lose any broader conflict with Arab nations Jews would probably be treated no better than Arabs were treated with the Palestinian ‘Nakba’ (the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians).

Leading up to the creation of modern Israel, Kotzin explains how:

“Whereas [Magnes] was previously portrayed as a fool, now he was characterised as an ‘anti-Zionist’, a traitor to the Jewish people and the Zionist cause.” Hevdah Ben-Israel thought he “was a traitor advocating an insane idea.” “Zionists increasingly insisted that the very existence of the Jewish people depended on acting with power and strength, which would be undermined by compromise.” (Kotzin, p 288).

Kotzin explains how both Arab and Jewish leaders failed to back binationalism in practice. “Magnes’s Reform Judaism and Buber’s religious socialism both emphasised that religious morality must influence politics.” “They hoped Ihud would introduce moral and ethical values into the politics of the Arab-Jewish conflict.” Magnes suggested a universalism based on a “Strong Jewish identity”; while Buber claimed the Jewish nation had a “supernational task” of becoming “a true people” by submitting to God’s demands of “truth and righteousness.” “According to Buber, Jews will be a “humanitarian nation” if they say “we will not do more injustice to others than we are forced to do in order to exist. Only by saying this do we begin to be responsible for life.” (Kotzin, pp 297-299).

Magnes was convinced there was an Arab constituency for peace – but that they were cowed by ‘internal Terror.’ Together with others like Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt he attempted to form a ‘loyal opposition’ to the mainstream Zionist position from within Zionism. Towards the end of his life, Magnes continued to promote federalism as a solution to the conflict. He was glad to see a national home for the Jews created with Israel’s declaration of Independence; but was deeply troubled by the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees. Sadly, while he had spent a great deal of time in the old Palestine, he passed away outside of Israel and never set foot in the newly created state.

In the 1940s Magnes lost support because “he failed to understand… that the Arab-Jewish conflict was no longer [considered the] primary concern” (instead the focus shifted to the Holocaust, Nazism, refugees). Kotzin concludes that “by not focusing on the best means to help Jewish refugees, he failed to sell the binational plan.”

Today, though, a two-state solution seems a long way away. Jerusalem is united; and Zionist leaders loathe to consider significant compromise. It seems there may be ‘one Jewish state’; but without meaningful co-determination or mutual recognition between Jews and Palestinians. But with the Two State Solution retreating, the project of One State based on co-determination deserves serious reconsideration. Today – with the rejection of Zionism on most of the Left – it is easy to forget that those such as Magnes, Arendt and Buber were also Zionists. Jewish security could be preserved with a monopoly on the apparatus of force; but with structures of self-governance and identity for both Jews and Palestinians beyond that. For instance, Arabs have always been at the margins of Israeli democracy. That needs to change in a binational state which is at the same time a safe haven and Jewish National Home. ‘Deliberative’ and inclusive democracy as the way forward.

And the Israeli Left needs to become a voice for co-existence and co-determination over the long term.

Magnes stands as an example which demonstrates for the broad Left that not all Zionism ought to be ‘tarred with the same brush’. Hence “Zionism” ought not be a ‘term of abuse’ on the Left. Though the obstacles are great; with cautious hope the kind of mutual recognition and coexistence imagined by Magnes may still prevail over the long term.



Kotzin, Daniel. P, ‘Judah L. Magnes – An American Jewish Non-Conformist’, Syracuse, New York, 2010

Loewenstein, Anthony; ‘My Israel Question’; Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2006

Warburg, James. P, ‘Crosscurrents in the Middle East’, Gollancz, London, 1969



This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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  1. New England Cocky

    An interesting commentary on Israeli history showing that Balfour and the British were uncaring and out of their depth in MIddle East politics ….. before the Americans stormed in and added to the confusion after WWi and again after WWII.

    But this article appears to seek justification for Zionist dispossession disenfranchisement of Palestinians that cannot be supported by any reasonable person in a Western Democratic society.

    Indeed, it reminds me of the joke, “”What is the difference between a Nazi storm trooper with his jack-boot on the throat of a Jewish teenager in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 and a Israeli Defence Force member with his jack-boot on the throat of a Palestinian teenager on the West Bank in 2021”.

    ANSWER: 78 Years.

  2. Tristan Ewins

    Hi NEC; The article is not trying to justify the oppression ; only to put it in context ; the article is arguing for co-determination and binationalism ; and not a ‘purely Jewish state’. The point is that not all Zionism is the same ; and the positions of Magnes, Buber, Arendt – were compatible with a just peace with the Palestinians. If you read the article through it is clear that the binationalist approach is in stark contrast to the Revisionism which Likud has inherited. Two nations with an equal right to exist.

  3. Andrew J. Smith

    Good read. It is a pity the direction Zionism went in Israel, and in recent years the Netanyahu regime has played up on ethnic and religious differences as opposed to the shared experiences of Ottoman times (has also been a supporter of Orban in Hungary and indirectly involved in promoting the ‘Soros conspiracy’), plus several legal or corruption issues outstanding.

    If Israel had been more embracing of others including, Palestinians and/or Islam, through more secular, tolerant and social leadership, it would make Israel and especially Tel Aviv a more secular and attractive place for like minded people throughout the region to be.

    Like Cyprus and/or Greece Turkey, Egypt or Iran and Israel, their own middle classes are drawn to each other when in other places through shared culture, food, music etc.. For example, in European cities many are students, young professionals and small business people who work and socialise together but precluded doing same at home by divisions of religion, ideology, corruption and politics created by those in power.

    Apparently now more secular minded Israelis are emigrating due to issues with government corruption, uncertain future and too many religious rights given to the orthodox who immigrated in the past from US etc.; the latter known as ‘born agains’ and can be very influential….

  4. Tristan Ewins

    Unfortunately Revisionism has become the mainstream Zionist discourse. Likud is descended from Irgun – who bombed the King David Hotel. Labour Zionism and Binationalism are increasingly marginalised. We need to change the direction of Zionism ; but the precondition for that is to engage. And on the way we can all recognise there are two sides to every story.

  5. Dr Tristan Ewins

    I don’t know which one of us that’s directed at, but my argument that “there’s two sides to the story” is more generous to Zionism broadly then you’ll find from most people on the Left today. (looks like the comment I was responding to was removed)

  6. Roswell

    Hi Tristan. I removed the comment. We don’t appreciate such language being directed to any of the authors (or for that matter, any other commenters).

  7. leefe

    ‘He feared if Zionism neglected the importance of “consent” it would become “oppressive.” ‘

    Well, he wasn’t wrong, was he?

  8. Tristan Ewins

    Leefe, that was the point – he (Magnes) was a Zionist himself and he recognised as much. Things don’t have to remain as they are now. There are people on both sides of the divide who are interested in a just peace. We need leadership to mobilise people around the kind of ideas promoted by Magnes, Buber and Arendt.

  9. Henry Johnston

    Tristan. How was your article received by the ALP Left Forum?

  10. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Henry: not any opposition ; but not the kind of discussion I was hoping for either.

  11. wam

    As a renowned simpleton, I believe the jews lay claim to the land using a book they wrote and a god they invented. After WW1, they had access to better lawyers than the arabs and their lobby groups in the uk and usa were all cashed up powerful then and now. The israelis took full advantage of the pommie penchant for the failed policy of partition and used the war refugee situation to the fullest. They utilised the septics ability to avoid any risk by blaming the victims and relished the power of their gifted weapons.
    Your words offer many places where the palestinians could have been included rather than be kept out of any negotiations. The conclusion, should Iran be successful in developing a nuclear weapon or buying one from pakistan, is too terrible to imagine because allah will have no hesitation in its use.

  12. Dr Tristan Ewins

    They’d be killing a lot of Palestinians as well.

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