1948 Diaries: Saving the Jews From Themselves

Judah Magnes was a Zionist leader, but he flew to U.S. to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Judah Magnes, a founder of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and its first president, was in poor health on April 13, 1948. The 70-year-old Magnes knew the end was near, but that didn't stop him from flying to Washington, D.C., in an effort to end the violence in the soon-to-be-born State of Israel. He represented almost no one other than a group of peace-seeking professors, but was nonetheless able to access and influence the American administration. The details of this forgotten period during Israel's struggle for independence are revealed in excerpts of Magnes' diary, published here for the first time, which describe the Zionist leader's attempt to convince the president of the United States to force a cease-fire and prevent both the implementation of the partition plan and the establishment of a Jewish state.

When the United Nations passed the partition plan on November 29, 1947, not all the Jews celebrated in the streets. A group of intellectuals, most of them Hebrew University lecturers, believed that the war that would break out in the wake of the establishment of a Jewish state would bring disaster down on the Jews and the Arabs alike. Magnes, a Reform rabbi, pacifist and anti-imperialist who was known for his opposition to World War I, was one of the most important Zionist leaders of his era. He was a leading figure in the New York Jewish community and was a key liaison between the Zionist leadership and the American administration. He moved to Israel in 1922 and came out in support of the establishment of a single, binational state for Jews and Arabs, with a government comprised of representatives from both peoples.

Magnes' personal diary, which he wrote in English, discusses his despair at the violence as the British Mandate came to an end, intermingling those accounts with descriptions of his worsening health and his nightmares.

On April 12, 1948, Magnes wrote in his diary: "For more than a generation I have been pleading for peace, conciliation, understanding. How can I not and stand before the world and say: 'Friends, stop the bloodshed. Understanding is possible.' This is the moment I have been preparing for all these years."

The American consul told Magnes that if no trusteeship were formed by May 15, Palestine would enter a period full of "very grave danger with bloodshed," Magnes wrote the same day. "Great need of courageous, constructive attitude such as mine," he wrote. "Therefore time come for me and others selected... or me alone to come to U.S. in order to cooperate." Magnes expressed the hope that if a state were declared, the United States would impose sanctions on Israel, saying that there can be no war without money or ammunition.

On April 13, Magnes was informed that 34 Hebrew University and Hadassah hospital employees were killed in an attack on a convoy to Mount Scopus. All told, 77 people were killed in the attack, many of them Magnes' friends. But Manges was no less shocked by the massacre than he was by the circumstances that preceded it: Four days earlier, the Irgun and Lehi pre-state Jewish underground militias killed more than 100 Palestinians at Deir Yassin.

At the funerals of those killed in the convoy attack, Magnes condemned the cruelty of both sides, and was denounced as a traitor by many members of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine).

"Unlike other Zionist leaders, like [David] Ben-Gurion, Magnes' diaries are not just a political document," says Hebrew University Prof. Aryeh Goren, who is researching and editing Magnes' writings. "His writing is very personal - he shares and talks about his misgivings and his weaknesses."

Magnes considered himself to be a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and the prophet Jeremiah, and opposed all forms of nationalism that are based on military force. The Ihud (Unity) association he established with several others is seen as the flagship group of left-wing Zionists regarding all that pertains to Jewish-Arab relations. Its members were attacked by nearly all the political parties in the pre-state period, and were described as defeatists, ghetto-like and anti-patriotic.

"Magnes predicted that even if we win the war, there would then be another war, and another one. It would never end," says Goren. "When the battles of the War of Independence began, he tried to halt the implementation of the UN decision and advance the idea that was promoted then by the American State Department, that the UN would freeze the partition decision and in the interim force both sides into a trusteeship with a temporary government, until the conditions suit another arrangement. Magnes thought that this was an opportunity to stop the turn of events, in the hope that in the meantime there would be understanding and it would be possible to talk."



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