Monday, January 5, 2009

Magnes’s “Half-Savages” Remark

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" [2], 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...."

Magnes continues:

"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.


Anonymous said...

Can a leftwing Christian participate?

Anyway, I agree with you. I don't know much about Magnes beyond what I've read in Tom Segev and here and Finkelstein, but he seems to have been a genuinely decent person--not perfect and with some of the prejudices of his time, but it's also not fair for people living 80 years later to think that we would necessarily have been free of bigotry then (or now, for that matter).

On a more general point, I don't think it does anyone any favors to pretend that all truth is on one side, and everyone on the other side (or not completely on one's own side) is pure evil. When one reads about the anti-Jewish slaughters in the 20's it is sickening, and there's no excuse for grown men to kill defenseless children in mob violence. So I wouldn't get too upset if Magnes did use the word "savage" to describe the people who actually did that. And I say that as someone who thinks mainstream Zionism is an ideology that rationalizes ethnic cleansing and who is quite comfortable using the "apartheid" word to describe Israel's policies towards the West Bank and Gaza.


JoBro Hater #3 said...

I don't normally comment on your blog, but be aware of a few facts:

(1) Said and his father did not own a house in Jerusalem. Said's uncle did, however.

(2) Buber rented a basement apartment in Said's uncle's house in the early 1940s and was evicted pursuant to a lawsuit at that time. Buber never lived in the house after that. The house was indeed confiscated by the Israeli government, but not by Buber who had nothing to do with it.

(3) This urban myth began when Said, for some reason, decided to confabulate his uncle's loss of a house and told the story in the first person. Said obviously misunderstood some half-remembered complaint that his uncle had about Buber and confabulated a story about it.

(4) Interestingly, Said's autobiography is accurate. His claims about the loss of a house to Buber were made in speeches rather than his autobiography.

(5) Justus Reid Weiner set forth an account of Said's confabulation in an article in the September 1999 Commentary entitled "My Beautiful Old House And Other Fabrications by Edward Said" at http//

(6) The entire brouhaha, which you may have missed, was covered in the New York Review of Books. Defenders of Said claimed that it didn't matter whether what Said described in the first person actually happened to Said or to his uncle, that what Said described had happened, but perhaps not to Said, and so on.

Peter H said...

The entire brouhaha, which you may have missed, was covered in the New York Review of Books. Defenders of Said claimed that it didn't matter whether what Said described in the first person actually happened to Said or to his uncle, that what Said described had happened, but perhaps not to Said, and so on.

Pure BS. The response to Weiner was that his charges against Said was both dishonest (e.g. Weiner had evidence that Said attended St. George School in Jerusalem but chose not to presence it his Commentary article) and trivial.

LeaNder said...

Thanks, this was interesting. Jonathan Mark's comment too. I had a series of verbal fights with someone that weaves Martin Buber neatly into his larger anti-Zionist propaganda.

But is Said really the only source for this? ... It feels much more that these matters are knitted with hot and fast needles and not much historical foundations, as Donald pointed out. I'll try to read the Commentary article though.

And I added Arthur A. Goren here. ;)

LeaNder said...

Here is a free online copy for non-subscribers of Commentary. Saves me a walk to the library.

Jerry Haber said...

Look, I did not want to get in the business of whose house Buber was in, or not. At the time, I read Weiner's article, and the whole brouhaha, and it the personal story of Said did not interest me. My point was that even if one were to grant Said's comment as true, it would hardly make Buber a racist. But the term "racist" has been so expanded by some loonies of the left that it bears no relation to what the dictionary says it means.

meddy said...

I probably don't qualify under your stringent qualifications. But I'm guessing these guys do.
Tony Cliff on Judah Magnes' integrity --
"I remember in 1945 a cafe in Tel Aviv was attacked and almost entirely broken up because of a rumour that there was an Arab working in the kitchen washing the dishes. I also remember, when I was in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem between 1936 and 1939, repeated demonstrations against the vice-chancellor of the university, Dr Magnus. He was a rich American Jew and a liberal, and his crime was that he was a tenant of an Arab landlord."

As for Buber, Uri Davis has him living in Said's house both before & after 1948. [Pace Jonathon Mark & Justus Reid Warner's collection of insinuations]
Selling out
Like Buber, one of my father's relatives (Leon Roth), was a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the time. He also witnessed the atrocities committed against the Palestinian Arabs in the name of the "Jewish State". Unlike his colleague Buber, however, he resigned his post and returned to Britain.
Buber, on the other hand, sold out. In 1963 he had this to say: "I have accepted as mine the state of Israel, the form of the new Jewish community that has arisen from the war. I have nothing in common with those Jews who imagine that they may contest the factual shape which Jewish independence has taken." (Martin Buber, "Israel and the Command of the Spirit", Israel and the World, p257.) According to Edward Said, prior to 1948 the Buber family were tenants of the Saids in Jerusalem. They paid their rent for their house in the wealthy mixed Arab-Jewish Talbiyya Quarter to Edward Said's father. Sometime towards 1948, a tenant-landlord dispute erupted between Mr Said and Professor Buber, and the case was taken for adjudication before the British Mandate court. Buber lost the case and had to leave the premises.
At the door, after returning the keys to Edward Said's father, Buber turned round and said: "Mr Said, you just wait. I will be back."

Buber: comeback kid
The war that began with the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948 ended in 1949 with the expulsion of approximately 75 per cent of the indigenous Palestinian Arab populations from some 400 Arab localities that came under the control of the Israeli army.
In the armistice agreements between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Jerusalem was partitioned and Talbiyya was ceded to Israel. In consequence, the Said family were classified under Israeli law as "absentees", their rights to their properties in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel were nullified and vested with the Israeli Custodian for Absentees' Property.
Immediately after the war Buber was as good as his word. He returned to take residence in the Saids' house in Talbiyya, now as tenant of the Custodian. He lived there for the rest of his life. (Uri Davis, op cit, p54.)
Against the backdrop of the continuing Israeli denial of the rights of the 1948 Palestine refugees to return, and the occupation since 1967 of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Martin Buber's "Epilogue" in Paths in Utopia makes for an almost surreal reading.

JoBro Hater #3 said...

Justus Reid Wiener's September 1999 Commentary article "My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications By Edward Said" is available online here at McGill University's website

An authoritative source for Edward Said's life might be Said's own 336 page autobiography Out of Place, published in 1999. You can search the book here at Amazon.

A search of the book's contents indicates that the word "Buber" does not appear there. It boggles the mind that Said could have grown up with Martin Buber living in a house at 10 Brenner Street, lost possession of the house to Buber, and not have mentioned a word of it in his 336-page autobiography.

A reasonable conclusion is, therefore, that Edward Said in the last decade or so of his life dropped claims which he had earlier made about Martin Buber and 10 Brenner Street. No good will come from repeating Said's original account as if Said himself had stood by it.

meddy said...

I see one of Magnes' fellow Jewish thinkers mentioned by Said has been accused of ractism in a recent New Yorker article --

While she retained a lifelong interest in the fate of the Jewish state—“Any real catastrophe in Israel would affect me more deeply than almost anything else,” she told Mary McCarthy—she had an equally strong distaste for its politics and for most of its citizens. Among the posthumous revelations that have done the most damage to Arendt’s reputation are the letters that she wrote from Jerusalem in 1961, when she was attending the Eichmann trial. Her description of the crowd at the courthouse, in a letter to Jaspers, passes beyond condescension into outright racism: “On top, the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the prosecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic. Some downright brutal types among them. They would obey any order. And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.”

Beware of Pity Hannah Arendt and the power of the impersonal.
by Adam Kirsch January 12, 2009

Jerry Haber said...

Nu, Meddy, be-emet. Getting Adam Kirsch, an ardent Zionist, to write a fair and balanced piece on Hannah Arendt, is about as possible as getting Leon Wieselthier to write a fair and balanced piece on Noam Chomsky.

Read Hannah Arendt's Jewish Writings, and you won't recognize her from Kirsch's exercise in groupthink. "Blaming the victim" indeed!

But to the point -- did Hannah Arendt suffer from the cultural and ethnic chauvinism of German Jewish intellectuals (the phrase "Halb-Asiens" was used originally to describe Galician Jews?) You bet your booties she did -- fortunately, she kept it for her private correspondence. In Israel, you will hear lots of Ashkenazim make comments about "Chach-chachim" (spelling?), and in that letter, she correctly charted the divisions in Israel society. I would not be surprised if Magnes and Buber spoke similarly in unguarded moments.

But the article I was reacting to seemed to see this stuff as something particular to Zionism or Zionists. And that is silly.

meddy said...

Thanks. I'll add your rider to my copy of the article.
I judge in-group comments with a different standard. A black mother who swats her kid and says "Get your little nigger ass back to the car" may be crude, but not necessaily racist.
At the other extreme, a British PhD student newly arrived at Harvard from Britain in the 60s was told that "nigger" was not the kosher expression stateside.
There's no formula.
Another non-Zionist example. I'm what one might call celtic-diaspora. In Dublin recently, I heard the blessing "May the pavement rise to meet you, and may you be in heaven before the devil knows you're dead" one too many times, I guess, and I blurted "I've seen the pavement rising to meet quite a number of people around here ...."
Apparently I wasn't quite the in-group member I thought I was, and got a few cold stares. [One girl had the charity to laugh.]