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Why he rejected a militaristic Zionism: Letter from Judah Magnes to Chaim Weizmann (September 7, 1929)

by Peter A. Belmont / 2009-01-20
© 2009 Peter Belmont


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A Jewish state in Palestine, built by bombs and bayonets, is not worth having. A Jewish cultural home in Palestine is worth building, never mind a Jewish State, a Jewish Majority


Evidently, already in 1929, there was talk of Jewish State in Palestine, and Jabotinsky had already proposed a Jewish state based on militarism and imperialism (letter to the Times (of London) dated 1929/09/06.

Judah Magnes, first President of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explained his pacific views to Chaim Weizmann at some length, in a letter which may be found in here reprinted in “Dissenter in Zion”, Arthur A. Goren, ed. Harvard U. Press., 1982, at p. 276.

Judah Magnes saw the matter clearly and warned of what would happen if the Jews of Palestine opted for a Jewish state. His attitude is well summarized in his own words:

Moreover, a Jewish Home in Palestine built up on bayonets and oppression is not worth having, even though it succeed, whereas the very attempt to build it up peacefully, cooperatively, with understanding, education, and good will, is worth a great deal, even though the attempt should fail.

What he foresaw certainly happened. I am not sure that he foresaw that it would keep happening in Israel’s chosen war-without-end and oppression-without-end (my characterization of Israel’s policy and of the facts as they have unfolded recently in Lebanon and Gaza).
To Chaim Weizmann


Zurich, September 7, 1929

Dear Dr. Weizmann,

You asked me over the telephone last night to write you my views on the present situation. I wanted to have a long talk with you, and for that reason had been trying to get in touch with you for several days. Writing is a poor substitute for an oral exchange of opinions, and I shall try to be brief.

I think that the time has come when the Jewish policy as to Palestine must be very clear, and that now only one of two policies is possible. Either the logical policy outlined by Jabotinsky in a letter in the Times which came today, basing our Jewish life in Palestine on militarism and imperialism; or a pacific policy that treats as entirely secondary such things as a “Jewish State” or a Jewish majority, or even “The Jewish National Home,” and as primary the development of a Jewish spiritual, educational, moral and religious center in Palestine. The first policy has to deal primarily with politics, governments, declarations, propaganda and bayonets, and only secondarily with the Jews, and last of all with the Arabs; whereas the pacific policy has to deal first of all with the Jews, and then with the Arabs, and only incidentally with governments and all the rest.

The imperialist, military and political policy is based upon mass immigration of Jews and the creation (forcible if necessary) of a Jewish majority, no matter how much this oppresses the Arabs meanwhile, or deprives them of their rights. In this kind of policy the end always justifies the means. The policy, on the other hand, of developing a Jewish spiritual Center does not depend upon mass immigration, a Jewish majority, a Jewish State, or upon depriving the Arabs (or the Jews) of their political rights for a generation or a day; but on the contrary, is desirous of having Palestine become a country of two nations and three religions, all of them having equal rights and none of them having special privileges; a country where nationalism is but the basis of internationalism, where the population is pacifistic and disarmed—in short, the Holy Land.

The one policy may be termed that of militarist, imperialist, political Zionism; the other that of pacific, international, spiritual Zionism; and if some authorities will not choose to call the latter idea Zionism, then let it be called the Love of Zion, or the Return to Zion, or any other name that you will.

We have been toying with the words “Jewish State,” “majority,” “Jewish Palestine,” “politics,” “Balfour Declaration,” etc., long enough. It is time that we came down to realities. We have passed resolutions concerning cooperation with the Arabs, but we have done very little seriously to carry them out.

I do not say that this is easy of achievement nor do I absolutely know that it is possible. The Palestine Arabs are unhappily still half savage, and their leaders are almost all small men. But this policy of cooperation is certainly more possible and more hopeful of achievement than building up a Jewish Home (National or otherwise) on bayonets and oppression. Moreover, a Jewish Home in Palestine built up on bayonets and oppression is not worth having, even though it succeed, whereas the very attempt to build it up peacefully, cooperatively, with understanding, education, and good will, is worth a great deal, even though the attempt should fail.

The question is, do we want to conquer Palestine now as Joshua did in his day—with fire and sword? Or do we want to take cognizance of Jewish religious development since Joshua—our Prophets, Psalmists and Rabbis, and repeat the words: “Not by might, and not by violence, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.” The question is, can any country be entered, colonized, and built up pacifistically, and can we Jews do that in the Holy Land? If we can not (and I do not say that we can rise to these heights), I for my part have lost half my interest in the enterprise. If we can not even attempt this, I should much rather see this eternal people without such a “National Home,” with the wanderer’s staff in hand and forming new ghettos among the peoples of the world.

As you know, these are not new views on my part. I was read out of the Zionist Organization of America in 1915 because among other things, I contended that the Jews should ask for no special privileges in Palestine, but should be content with equal rights. When the Balfour Declaration was issued and the Mandate signed, I did not rejoice. I wrote two modest newspaper articles and delivered a speech (which is printed) in the sense of the views as given above. When you and Felix Warburg and I were discussing matters in Palestine, you with your usual keenness referred to me as believing Zionist policy was altogether too political. I have, as you also know, done what little I could to help bring about a united front for Palestine ever since the beginning, and I must confess that I had hoped that the non-Zionist members of the Agency might give the whole movement a non-political, non-imperialist turn. But your great per­suasiveness has carried them with you on the political issues also, and it was mainly on this account that I could not accept the invitation to participate in the Agency. It is also for this reason that I have resolutely tried to keep the University entirely distinct from the political organization.

All these years I have kept silent, not wishing to obtrude what appeared to me my minority views, and I had thought that by devoting myself wholly and without deflection to the University, I could make a contribution to my kind of Zionism. But I cannot keep silent for Zion’s sake in these tragic days, and I want to do what little I can to give voice to the views
to which I have been trying hitherto to give expression through work alone.

You said you would want to convey my views to the meeting of the Actions Committee, and you are at liberty to read them this letter if you think it worthwhile.

I am sending a copy of this letter to Felix Warburg.

I sympathize with you in the fearful burden you now have to bear, and I can only pray that you may be led to walk in the right path.

Yours truly, JIM


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