Magnes, Judah Leon

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MAGNES, JUDAH LEON (1877–1948), U.S. rabbi and communal leader. He was chancellor and first president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Magnes was born in San Francisco, California, to parents who emigrated from Poland and Germany in 1863. He attended the Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1900. Magnes spent the years 1900–03 studying in Berlin and Heidelberg. During his years in Germany he traveled widely in Eastern Europe and was profoundly moved by the intensive Jewish life he found. It strengthened his earlier sympathetic feeling toward Zionism and brought him to the commitment to make Zionism and service to his people his mission in life.

On his return from Germany he became rabbi of Temple Israel in Brooklyn (1904–05) and afterward the assistant rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York (1906–10). At the same time he served as the secretary of the American Zionist Federation (1905–08) and later became the president of the Kehillah of New York *City from its founding in 1908 until its demise in 1922; he left for Palestine in the same year. Founded to advance and coordinate Jewish life in New York City, the Kehillah dealt vigorously with such internal problems as religious life and Jewish education; in the latter area its Bureau of Jewish Education, directed by Samson *Benderly, pioneered in the centralization and modernization of Jewish education in the U.S. The Kehillah was active and effective in labor arbitration and helped to repress crime in the immigrant Jewish areas in cooperation with the city's police department. It provided a nexus for cooperation between "uptown" and "downtown" Jews and a forum for Jewish public opinion. Magnes was the Kehillah's moving spirit and most competent leader, spokesman, peacemaker, fund raiser, and philosopher, and thus a leading figure in the metropolis. In 1905 he participated in the Zionist Congress at Basle as a member of the U.S. delegation. It was there that he came face to face with the leaders of Russian Jewry and through them he reached a greater understanding of East European Jewry. Back in New York (after his first visit in Palestine) he headed the greatest Jewish demonstration against the Kishinev pogroms and established the Self-Defense Association which collected funds for the purchase of arms to be smuggled to the Jewish *self-defense bodies in Russia. In 1904 he joined Solomon *Schechter's inner circle and moved toward religious traditionalism. In Zionism he became a disciple and follower of Ahad *Ha-Am, whom Magnes called "The Harmonious Jew." After the Kishinev pogroms he helped Cyrus *Sulzberger and Louis *Marshall in establishing the American Jewish *Committee. In 1908 he married Beatrice Lowenstein, the sister-in-law of Louis Marshall, and this brought him closer to the leading Jewish circles. At the same time he strengthened his ties with the East European Jews.

Magnes' shift toward religious traditionalism brought him to break with Temple Emanu-El. His unfulfilled demands for religious changes led him to resign in 1910. From 1911 to 1912 he was rabbi of B'nai Jeshurun, a leading Conservative congregation, after which he left congregational work altogether to devote himself to Jewish public service. However, Magnes' opposition to U.S. entry into World War i in 1917 out of pacifist convictions, and his activity in the peace movement during the war, undermined his leadership of a Jewish community firmly committed to the war and concerned over possible imputations of disloyalty. His brilliant U.S. Jewish communal career actually ended in 1917. In 1922 Magnes emigrated with his family to Palestine, where he continued his activities in establishing the Hebrew *University of which he was the chancellor (1925–35) and first president (1935–48) until his death. He was active in raising funds for the university, in securing the donation of several personal libraries, and in developing several of its major divisions, especially the Institute for Jewish Studies which was inaugurated in 1924, even before the official opening of the Hebrew University in 1925. The Hebrew University honored him first by publishing Sefer Magnes in 1938 and later by naming one of the Chairs of Bible and the press of the University after him, as well as by granting him and Chaim Weizmann the first honorary degrees of the university. With the beginning of World War ii, in spite of his pacifistic outlook on life, he called for war against Nazi Germany, serving as chairman of the Supply Board Scientific Advisory Committee of the War. He also helped his life-long friend Henrietta *Szold in her Youth Aliyah work and became the chairman of an Emergency Council of Hadassah in Palestine, as well as the chairman of the Middle East Advisory Council of the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which he had helped found in World War i. During World War ii he helped Jews who escaped to Turkey from Nazi-occupied countries, became responsible for the direction of relief work amongst the Jews throughout the Orient. Out of his pacifist convictions and the belief that the Jews are not like all nations, he sought an accord with the Palestinian Arabs and entered the political arena with the conviction that Jewish-Arab accord is of the greatest importance not only for the peaceful building of the country but also for the Jewish spirit. He started his political agitation immediately after the 1929 disturbances (see Israel, State of: Historical *Survey), stating, "One of the greatest cultural duties of the Jewish people is the attempt to enter the promised land, not by means of conquest as Joshua, but through peaceful and cultural means, through hard work, sacrifices, love and with a decision not to do anything which cannot be justified before the world conscience" (Opening Speech of the Hebrew University Academic Year 1929/30). Magnes renewed his activities after the riots in 1936 and opposed the Royal Commission's suggestion for the partitioning of Palestine, always believing in the policy of establishing Palestine as a binational state and feeling that it was his personal mission to bring the Arabs and Jews together (see Berit *Shalom; Palestine Partition and Partition *Plans; *Palestine, Inquiry Commissions on). With this belief he carried on his political activities until his death in New York in 1948 while on a visit there. He was later reinterred in Jerusalem. A Judah L. Magnes Memorial Museum was set up in Oakland, California, in 1961, and later moved to Berkeley. Magnes' writings and speeches were collected in War-Time Addresses 19171921 (1923), Addresses by the Chancellor of the Hebrew University (1936), and in The Perplexity of the Times (1946).


N. Bentwich, For Zion's SakeA Biography of Judah L. Magnes (1954); A. Goren, New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment 19081922 (1970); S.L. Hattis, The Bi-National Idea in Palestine During Mandatory Times (1970), 64–71, 169–72, 258–71 and index; L. Roth, in: Jewish Education, 20 (1949); S.H. Bergman, Faith and Reason (1961); Z. Szajkowski, in: Conservative Judaism, 22 no. 3 (1968); H. Parzen, in: jsos, 29 (1967), 203–33; 32 (1970), 187–213.

[Lloyd P. Gartner /

Daniel Efron]