The Betensky-Kraut Family Album

Leon's Aden memoir, 1947-1948

Judah Magnes

[From letter of 4/83]

I must retrace my steps and return to Jerusalem for a while. Viteles had asked me to be sure to see Dr. Judah Leon Magnes (1877-1948), who was one of the founders of the Joint Distribution Committee and then president of the Hebrew University. He agreed to see me briefly at the University, and I saw him between classes for only two or three minutes. He had been a handsome man, but now he looked very sick, with deep lines from his nose and around his lips down to his chin. He wished me well.

Magnes was born in San Francisco and received his rabbinical training at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, plus a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg. To give you an idea about Magnes, I will quote from and paraphrase an article by one B.Z. Goldberg, "The Passing of the Day--Jewish Morning Journal," in Midstream of April 1972. (Goldberg was at least tri-lingual, writing in Yiddish, English and Hebrew. He came from Lithuania and, when he asked for a job at the Yiddish newspaper The Day, he had to change his name from something like Wofsie.) He wrote that the originator in 1914 of The Day was a great and pathetic figure in American Jewish life, Dr. Judah L. Magnes. He had seen the need for a new kind of Yiddish paper (in addition to the Yiddishes Tageblatt--orthodox, Forward--socialist and anti-religious, even publishing on Saturday; The Warheit--a spinoff from the Forward; and the Jewish Morning Journal.) Magnes found support not among the German Jews, of which he was one, but from the newly rich Russian Jews.

Magnes began his public life as the pride of the German Jews in America, becoming Rabbi of Temple Emanuel, the prestigious citadel of Reform Judaism, which had more millionaires among its worshippers than any house of God in the land. He was young, tall, handsome, with a captivating naivete, a silver tongued orator speaking excellent American, when even the top men of his Temple still spoke with heavy German accents. When he married into the family of Louis Marshall, prominent jurist and Jewish leader and also president of the Temple, Magnes' career reached its peak.

But something had happened to Dr. Magnes during his stay in Europe. East of Germany he discovered a new Jewish world. He was appalled by the conditions of the Jews but not repelled by them, as most Germans were. Instead, he identified with them. He returned with a spiritual restlessness that led him to Zionism, then considered by the reform Jews as worse than apostasy. He even fraternized with the East Side intellectuals. (I think that I have mentioned that even in the late twenties, the AZA, which was a child of B'nai B'rith which had been founded by German Jews, repulsed my attempts to put a little Zionism into its program.) Before he was conscious of it, he became a bridge between the Yahudim and the Ost Juden.

Magnes lasted only two years at Temple Emanuel. Despite their admiration for him and his family connections, they could not tolerate his outspoken heresies. It was inconceivable that the secretary of the Federation of American Zionists should be their rabbi and that he should hobnob with the Jewish socialists and anarchists of the East Side. He did not last very long with the semi-reform B'nai Jeshurun synagog either, and in 1910, aged 33, he was out in the cold.

Then he spent 13 years organizing an umbrella community organization, a Kehillah, in New York. This was to incorporate all Jewish activities, communal and religious, and embrace all the Jews in the city. He planned to build the Kehillah "pillar by pillar," and one of the pillars was to be a new and different Yiddish newspaper. The Kehillah lasted until 1922, but The Day until 1971. The Forward is the only surviving Yiddish daily in the U.S. (There is now a Day or maybe M.J. [Modern Judaism??] issued once a week.)

Magnes is remembered in The New Jewish Encyclopedia "for his activities in behalf of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, for the organization of which he secured funds. In Palestine Magnes took part in the political life of the country, and advocated close cooperation between the Arabs and the Jews, even going to the extreme of suggesting the establishment of an Arab-Jewish State as part of an Arab Federation in the Near East. (The organization for this was the Brith Shalom and Buber was one of its members.) He was very well known as a pacifist and humanitarian."

In Israel Magnes is also remembered for his desperate efforts on April 11, 1948 to save a medical convoy on its way to the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. On April 8 a combined force of Etzel and Stern forces had captured the Arab village of Dir Yassin near Jerusalem. It was an unprovoked attack and had a great effect on the Arabs, most probably setting in motion their exodus from the area designated for the Jewish state. Figures on casualties vary. The Jews say that 250 were killed out of a population of 400. The Arab survivors claim that 110 were killed out of a population of 1,000. The Jews lost 40% of their forces, but there is no figure on how many attacked. To this day you will see occasional references to Dir Yassin as a crime against the Arabs of Palestine.

Three days later there was reprisal. A medical convoy to Scopus was ambushed in an Arab quarter and 79 doctors, nurses and students were killed. During the attack Magnes telephoned the High Commissioner Chancellor and begged him to stop the attack, but no help came. When the British intervened towards evening, they found six survivors.

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