Recently, I read a particularly awful piece of the "Zionism-Is-Racism" variety on Znet by Jason Kunin. It was awful mostly not because of the thesis – much of classical Zionism is racist in the leftwing sense of that term – but because of the sloppy reasoning, tendentious citations, and downright ignorance of the author. As I wrote in a comment, a monkey with a typewriter could have written a better critique of Zionism.
I have just spent the last twenty minutes trying to log on to Znet to attach my comment. Because Kunin calls Magnes a racist, I will publish it here.
In any event, I challenge Mr. Kunin to respond to my comment wherever he sees fit. I wrote:
This article is simply awful. It is full of lies, tendentious readings, half-truths, and shows pretty much a complete ignorance of it subject.
Let me just focus on one example. We are told by Kunin that Buber and Magnes, who opposed political Zionism and, in the case of Magnes, actively worked against the establishment of a Jewish state, were racist towards Arabs. Now, since it is well known that neither favored a state in which Jews would have more rights than Arabs, then what would be the point of their racism?
But enough of hypotheticals. What is the evidence for the author's remarkable claim? He writes:
"It is a testament to the racism of even the most enlightened Zionists - the ones who supposedly promoted Jewish-Arab cooperation - that Judah Magnes referred to Arabs as "half savage" , and Martin Buber lived after 1948 in the confiscated house of Edward Said's family, despite their letters imploring its return.
First, note the "supposedly" – does the author have any evidence for the qualifier, or does he just want to be snide?
The reference to Buber is simply ridiculous. How does Buber's not wanting to leave the confiscated house of Said's family make him into a racist? The story is not even true and does not appear in Said's authobiography (see below). But even if it were, tmat may make him a jerk -- but a racist? That is your evidence? And so if somebody buys a house that was confiscated in war, rightly or wrongly, and doesn't want to move out, that ipso facto makes him a racist? Doesn't that term have any meaning for Kunin? If Kunin knew anything about Buber, he would have focused on an earlier stage of his career, before he had anything to do with Arabs, and when he was influenced – as were many European intellectuals -- by romantic, volkish notions of blood, soil, and man. But Kunin's knowledge of Buber apparently extends to Said's house in Talbieh.
Let's go on to Magnes. One would expect from the reference to "half-savage" that Magnes had written something like this:
"There is something in the Arab race, or people, that makes them incapable of intellectual improvement. Their race, their culture, is inferior, oriental, semitic. They will never be equal to us -- they are in their very nature half-savages."
In fact, Magnes believed nothing of the kind. In the 1929 letter referred to, written after the massacre of non-Zionist Jewish men, women, and children in Hebron by bands of Arabs, he speaks of his version of Zionism as "not depriving the Arabs (or the Jews) of their political rights for a generation or a day." His Zionism "is desirous of having Palestine become a country of two nations and three religions, all of them having equal rights, and none of them have special privileges.: a country where nationalism is but the basis of internationalism, where the population is pacificistic and disarmed -- in short, the Holy Land...."
"We have been toying with the words 'Jewish State,' 'majority,' "Jewish Palestine," 'politics', "Balfour Declaration,' etc. long enough. It is time that we come 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 all small men. But this policy of cooperation is certainly more possible and more hopeful of achevement than building up a Jewish Home (National or otherwise) on bayonets and oppression."
So, as you see, Magnes doesn't even refer to "Arabs" as half-savages, but to the "Palestinian Arab" masses – mostly fellahin -- as "still" half-savages. So much for Magnes's alleged racism – and Kunin's intellectual honesty.
What did Magnes mean? Some background.
The letter, as I said, was written in 1929, a particularly difficult time for Magnes, when his vision of cooperation was going up in smoke following inter-communal violence. He had urged Arab cooperation, and his American friends and backers like Felix Warburg were pointing to the Arab massacres as a reason against such cooperation.
Was Magnes a Eurocentrist, an American snob, who could look down his nose on the fellahin? Certainly, in that sense he was a creature of his times and his upbringing, European orientalism -- and he was a university president. Yes, he uses the phrase " still half-savage" (the author leaves out the adverb"still" thereby intentionally distorting Magnes's point for the purpose of his diatribe) in a private letter, and he uses ethnic terms and generalizations that, after WWII, we are rightly sensitive about. But if anything, this makes his willingness to give full and equal political rights to the Palestinian Arabs immediately, and, at a later date, to limit Jewish immigration, even more impressive. And if one looks at his writings on his views of Palestinian Arabs, one finds in general a positive attitude, and always an attempt to balance negative remarks about them with similar statements about the Jews.
The truth is that Magnes opposed Palestinian Arab nationalism as much as he opposed Jewish nationalism. He hated all nationalism. In the same letter he writes:
"Palestine does not belong to the Jews and it does not belong to the Arabs, nor to Judaism or Christianity or Islam. It belongs all to them."
What about this paragraph from a letter written one week later:
"I must say that I have been amazed that not one official Jewish voice has been lifted in sympathy with such slain and injured Moslems or Christians who may have been innocent: that no money was earmarked for their injured. Of course, the Arabs were the aggressors and the most bloodthirty. Do I also have to be shouting that? But do you not know that we, too, have had our preachers of hate and disseminators of lies, our armed youth, our provocative processions, our unforgivable stupidity in our handling of the Western Wall incidents since last Yom Kippur, making out of what should have been a police incident an international political issue."
In other words, while he did not absolve Arab gangs of responsibility of massacring Jews in 1929, Magnes also was quick to claim that a local incident had been fanned into a big deal by Jewish nationalists, like the Revisionist youths. He unceasingly criticised Jewish terror, as he unceasingly criticized political nationalism, and was called 'traitor" by his students at Hebrew University for it.
Look, one can find problems with Magnes' Cultural Zionism, and it is understandable that his binationalist schemes didn't go far with the Arabs at the time, who were intensely nationalistic and saw no reason why the Jews should have any political rights in Palestine, besides that of minority rights at best.
But elements of the vision of Magnes are now almost the official doctrine of Palestinian and Jewish non -Zionist intellectuals – whereas he is completely ignored by even the most liberal Zionists.
Let me give the last word to Edward Said, whom Kunin apparently despises -- or will, after what he sees what Said said about the "racists" Magnes and Buber.
"…during the inter-war period, a small but important group of Jewish thinkers (Judah Magnes, Buber, Arendt and others) argued and agitated for a binational state. The logic of Zionism naturally overwhelmed their efforts, but the idea is alive today here and there among Jewish and Arab individuals frustrated with the evident insufficiencies and depredations of the present. The essence of that vision is coexistence and sharing in ways that require an innovative, daring and theoretical willingness to get beyond the arid stalemate of assertion and rejection. Once the initial acknowledgment of the other as an equal is made, I believe the way forward becomes not only possible but attractive. (italics mine)
(from "Truth and Reconciliation")
Edward Said was a great Palestinian and a great man (despite the fact that I didn't agree with all of what he said.) The way forward that he personally found attractive was first forged by Judah Magnes.
(For further reading, Arthur A. Goren's Dissenter in Zion, from which the above passages are taken, is indispensable.)
Note to commentors on this piece – if you are to the right of Meretz, don't even bother to write. This is a family squabble among leftwing Jews.