A Pacifist Leader Who Was More Prophet Than Politician

Magnes_011411Laurence Zuckerman on Daniel P. Kotzin’s Judah L. Magnes: An American Jewish Nonconformist, in The Forward:

Judah Leib Magnes may just be the most important American Jewish leader you have never heard of. Born in Northern California in 1877, the baseball-loving Magnes was integral to the creation and development of nearly all major American Jewish organizations, from the American Jewish Committee to Hadassah. He was also one of the principal founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and served as its head for its first 23 years. Magnes, who died a few months after the creation of the State of Israel, in 1948, is largely forgotten today because, as a passionate advocate of a binational state in Palestine in which Jews and Arabs had equal rights, he ended up on the wrong side of history.

Or did he?

As the likelihood of a two-state solution seems to fade with each passing White House initiative, the idea of a binational solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long seen as heresy by both sides, is now inching its way in from the fringe. Magnes’s quixotic quest suddenly has new currency, and his proposals and numerous missteps carry important lessons.

Magnes’s rich, profuse life had so many acts that he has proved to be elusive prey for scholars. (His papers in Jerusalem are a treasure trove that would take years to go through.) The lack of a major Magnes biography has been a glaring hole in American Jewish historiography for decades.

Daniel P. Kotzin’s “Judah L. Magnes: An American Jewish Nonconformist” is not the definitive, magisterial work, but it is almost something better: a concise, readable and evenhanded survey of Magnes’s life and ideas that is a must-read for anyone committed to understanding American Jewish life and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kotzin, an American Jewish historian at Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y., deftly traces how American idealism, Jewish tradition, Zionism and radical politics shaped Magnes’s intellectual development.