The Progressive Saviour Complex: Quakers, American Jews and Israel

AuthorAsaf Romirowsky & Alex Joffe
Publication Date27 Jul 2021
Quakerism has long had a certain appeal to Jews; its pacifist nature and liberal values harmonise well with the universalism of most Jews on the religious and political left. But its influence on American Judaism in the 20th and 21st centuries has been poorly charted. At the extreme, that influence is seen in 'Quaker Jews,' who purport to unite the doctrines of a 17th century Christian dissenter sect with those of Judaism, in the manner of 'Buddhist Jews' and other syncretisms based on agnosticism. The irony of liberal Jews 'quaking' before God – like Haredim who 'tremble' – is rich, but is pointed out mostly in vain.

But the influence of Quakerism on modern American Judaism arguably goes deeper. Quaker similarities with Reform Judaism – which since the 19th century often vacillates between a social practice and an ethnicity in which liberal values are central, and with only minor ritual glosses – seems pronounced. Quakerism is also more individualistic practice than group theology, at once a personal means of accessing the 'inner light' of God without formal prayer, but it is also a social movement oriented toward pacifism and good works; 'tikkun olam' in all but the name.

There have also been other unspoken influences of Quakerism on Reform Judaism. Pacifism and its direct political impacts, and the more subtle influence on attitudes towards war and peace, 'conflict resolution,' strength and weakness, are in evidence. All this is to say that Quaker attitudes towards power may have influenced Jews on the religious and cultural left more than has been acknowledged.

Not surprisingly, during the 20th century and after, the Quakers have also been at the forefront of religious 'peace-making' aimed at the Arab-Israeli conflict. Quakers were deeply involved in refugee relief from World War One, even winning the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Their work helping Palestinian Arab refugees from the 1948 war, however, was a turning point. Though they were effective at delivering aid and services, the American Friends Service Committee was unsuccessful at convincing refugees to resettle in surrounding countries. It then gradually distanced itself from refugee relief, and began a transformation into a left wing pressure group opposed to nuclear weapons, the Cold War, and ultimately, Israel. Here, too, Quakerism appears to have influenced a portion of American Judaism.

How did this influence take place? How does 20th century history help explain the influence of Quakerism on American Judaism as religious and political movements, especially with respect to Israel? A focus on a few leading individuals will help us to unravel the story.

Quakerising Judaism: The Vision of Judah Magnes

At one level, the influence of Christianity on American Jews is not especially new. Early American Reform rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise recounts an 1847 meeting with Isaac Leeser, an intellectual forerunner of Modern Orthodox and Conservative standpoints, at which Leeser commented that:

the native Jews were, if I may say so, tinged with Christian thought. They read only Christian religious literature, because there was no Jewish literature of this kind. They substituted God for Jesus, unity for trinity, the future Messiah for the Messiah who had already appeared, etc. There were Episcopalian Jews in New York, Quaker Jews in Philadelphia, Huguenot Jews in Charleston, and so on, everywhere according to the prevailing sect.[1]

The Reform movement was founded in Germany in the 1830s, and had found its first institutional supporter on American soil in Isaac Mayer Wise. Quakerism, however, was already 200 years old and had been a force in America for almost as long. The colony of Pennsylvania had been founded as a 'holy experiment' by a Quaker, William Penn, in 1682. Quakers had dominated the political and cultural life of that colony, founding many of its leading institutions. With the founding of the US, however, Quaker political dominance came to an end, although its intellectual and social impact continue to be felt even today, most notably through the network of Quaker schools, colleges and universities.

Of all the Jews who have embraced the influence of Quakerism, the most famous was Judah Magnes, the first chancellor of the Hebrew University and later as its president. His influence extended widely across the new institution, its graduates and advocates worldwide, and the Reform community. Where his influence did not resonate was within the Yishuv or Israel.

Born in San Francisco in 1877 and educated at Hebrew Union College, Berlin and Heidelberg, Magnes was a prominent Reform rabbi in both the US and Mandatory Palestine. He is best remembered as a leader in the pacifist movement of the World War One period, for his advocacy of a binational Jewish-Arab state in Palestine, and as one of the most widely recognised voices of 20th century American Reform Judaism. Magnes was a follower and subscriber to the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform adopted by the American Reform movement, which among other things stated:

We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel's great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.

We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. We are convinced of the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past. Christianity and Islam, being daughter religions of Judaism, we appreciate their providential mission, to aid in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth. We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men.

At Magnes' funeral in October 1948 a speaker from Society of Friends offered a eulogy stressing his prophetic nature saying, 'he tried to look at the world for the point of view of an Isaiah or a Jeremiah'[2] But while Magnes' Jewish idealism was heartfelt, it had roots not only in the Reform movement but also in Quakerism.

Quaker-style pacifism was central to Magnes' thought. As Mandate official Norman Bentwich describes in his biography of Magnes:

He had an instinctive sympathy with their outlook. Man was created in the image of God, and human life was sacred. After his marriage, he saw much of their community in Chappaqua. He was inflexibly opposed to American participation in World War One; and not only opposed, but passionately, militantly resistant. He had no use for 'a detestable indifference and neutrality' on the question of war or peace.[3]

Shortly after the American entry into World War One, Magnes chaired the First American Conference for Democracy and Terms of Peace at Madison Square Garden, out of which came the People's Council of America for Democracy and Peace. Chappaqua was one of the oldest Quaker settlements in New York, founded in 1785, and was the center for a Quaker coeducational institute. Magnes had lived in a Christian community in Cos Cob, Connecticut but moved to Chappaqua after his opposition to World War One antagonised his neighbors. This itself was a harbinger of things to come.

As another biographer, Daniel Kotzen, notes, Magnes' diary records that his goal was 'to make Jew and pacifist identical, like "Quakers and pacifist" were identical.'[4] But its influence extended beyond the question of World War One and pacifism. Bentwich, explains how, after World War One Magnes launched plans in America for a Jewish fellowship, on the model of the Quakers' Religious Society of Friends. Those plans and the later attempt in Palestine to found with a few colleagues at the University, a Society of 'Seekers for Thy Presence,' miscarried. In neither country could he gather a group of Jews, knit together in work for peace and humanity and illumined by the inner light – because he himself lacked this inner light. The society in Jerusalem, which was to help resolve the religious perplexities of its members, came indeed into being, took the Hebrew name 'The Yoke' (of the Kingdom of Heaven). It published the 'open letters' to Gandhi by him and Buber; but it did not live long, as a society. Even the small circle could not share his religious questioning.[5]

Magnes' mission, as Kotzin puts it, was to take 'the American nationalist mythic language of mission, fused it with the Quaker ideal of pacifism, and placed it at the foundation of Jewish nationalism. His goal was to avoid Zionism becoming an extreme form of nationalism that was intolerant of difference, whether ideological or ethnic.' Kotzin goes on: 'Magnes praised those Jews who joined him in opposing the war because it showed "one of the glories of Jewish life ... It saves Judaism from the bankruptcy which has overtaken Christianity. It distinguishes Jewish prophetic nationalism from the heathen nationalism of Christian nations."'[6] Bentwich puts it more simply and notes that Magnes 'was often taxed by Jewish critics with being too Christian in his political ideas; and was regarded by Christians as a true Christian in...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT