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For nearly half a century, until his death in October 1948, Judah Magnes occupied a singular place in Jewish public life. He won fame early as a preacher and communal leader, but abandoned these pursuits at the height of his influence for the roles of political dissenter and moral gadfly. During World War I he became an outspoken pacifist and supporter of radical causes. Settling permanently in Palestine in 1922, he was a founder and the first president of the Hebrew University.
Increasingly, he viewed rapprochement with the Arabs as the practical and moral test of Zionism, and the formation of a bi-national state of Arabs and Jews became his chief political goal. His life interests thus focused on the core issues that confronted and still confront the Jewish people: group survival in democratic America, the direction and character of the return to Zion, and the reconciliation of universal ideals with Jewish aspirations and needs.
Dissenter in Zion draws upon a rich corpus of private letters, personal journals, and diaries to offer a moving account of an eloquent and sensitive person grappling with the great questions of the day and of an activist striving to translate private moral feelings into public deeds through politics and diplomacy. We see Magnes disagreeing with Brandeis over the leadership and direction of American Zionism and with Weizmann and Ben-Gurion over ways to achieve peaceful relations with the Arabs; defending himself against charges by Einstein that he was mismanaging the affairs of the Hebrew University; and persistently negotiating with Arab leaders, trying to reach a compromise on the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel.
Dissenter in Zion also contains a biographical essay on Magnes by Arthur Goren, assessing his ideas and motives and placing him in the context of his times. It shows Magnes’s profundity without covering up his weaknesses, his lifelong tactic for courting repeated defeat in favor of long-term goals that could not come to pass in his lifetime.