Pacifism, Natan Hofshi (artwork: Gil Dekel)by Tamar Hermann.

Natan Hofshi (Frankel) was born in 1889 to a religious Zionist family in Poland.45 In the wake of the upheaval of the 1905 revolution, Natan moved to Warsaw in 1908, and a year later he and a group of friends made aliya to Palestine. In his new home, Hofshi first joined the left-wing labor party Hapoel Hatzair, but left in 1921 for ideological reasons, believing the group had become “too political”.46 While still a member of Hapoel Hatzair, Hofshi came out against Dr. Katzenelson’s article in the movement’s journal “On the Issue of the Hebrew Army”: “I was saddened by the fact that such a military article was given a place in our paper, the paper of a party of laborers, all of whose actions, work, and ambitions should be the total opposite of militarism and everything it entails.”47

In his early years in Palestine, Hofshi had no qualms about guarding the settlements in which he lived and worked. Within a short time, however, he adopted an extreme pacifist stance and refused to bear arms, even solely for purposes of guard duty. In a eulogy he wrote on the anniversary of the death of the Jews murdered in a Bedouin attack on Tel Hai, where he had lived for a time and shared in the task of guarding the settlement, he described the process of change he had undergone:

Like stealthy killers we stand in the dark and the silence … night after night … All day in our home, the settlement houses, we hear the clatter of rifles, handguns, bullets, and other fine things … Every now and then I would come to my senses: What is this? Where are we living? … And me, is this really me? Who armed me with all these instruments of death, and who are the unseen people at whom I am to aim my bullets?48

Objecting to the use of arms and militarism, although many of his friends joined the Haganah, Hofshi refrained. A member of Brit Shalom and Ihud, as well as the driving force behind the founding of OWRI, he defined himself as a “religious-Jewish-pacifist-vegetarian”. With deep ties to Judaism, he attributed primary importance to its mission as “a light unto the nations”, to disseminating the prophets’ moral message of world peace and justice.49 He drew his most seminal influence from the spiritual Zionism of Ahad Ha’am.50 Hofshi advocated strengthening the ethical/spiritual aspect of Zionism, and consistently opposed the use of physical force to achieve the renewal of the Jewish people in its homeland. Another powerful influence was the “religion of labor” of Aaron David Gordon, whom Hofshi considered the first Zionist leader to correctly perceive the inherent contradiction in Zionism’s attitude toward the Arabs. In addition, clear signs of a Tolstoyan influence can be discerned in Hofshi’s ideology,51 especially with respect to pacifism and vegetarianism.

Pacifism, Natan Hofshi (artwork: Gil Dekel)

Pacifism, Natan Hofshi (artwork: Gil Dekel)

In the 1930s, he was one of the few at the time to grasp the problem inherent in the Zionist enterprise from the perspective of the local Arab population.52 Although he never wavered in his support for the Zionist project, he continuously sought ways to minimize the friction and display greater understanding of and consideration for Arab rights. He used every opportunity to call for concentrating efforts on finding ways to cooperate with the Arab population; an approach he believed would make it possible to realize the Zionist dream. However, the purist stance against the use of force under any circumstances advocated by Hofshi and the small cadre of absolute pacifists he headed put him in the minority even in Ihud. In reply to Felix Weltsch,53 a member of the group who contended that while it might be morally virtuous to educate for total nonviolence, it did not provide a solution to current problems, Hofshi wrote: “I dare to ask: What would have happened if the Jews had responded with force, with violence, in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and so on? Would their fate not have been a thousand times worse than it is now? In any case—would anything have been better that way, would anything have been saved?”54

Consequently, he waged a systematic battle with the heads of the labor movement, who openly supported reinforcement of the Jewish defense force, which they regarded as both a sign of national normalization and the appropriate moral response to the problems of survival that had arisen as the conflict with the Arabs escalated. One of his sparring partners was Yitzhak Tabenkin, who termed war a constant in the life of nations in the past, present, and future.55 Children should be educated in light of the real world—a world of war in which no problem is resolved by negotiations, but only by struggle, battle, and warfare.56 Hofshi responded, “The role of the school is to educate children from the earliest age to refrain from violence, to despise war which destroys everything, to follow the great Talmudic precept ‘whosoever destroys a single soul … scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world’.”57

Hofshi considered the establishment of a Jewish state a tragedy:

Something steely grey, threatening, spreads over the face, the tongue speaks intensely and high-mindedly about the new honor and the new glory of a hero’s death on the battlefield, and you stand idly by with your idle belief from “before the flood” that only through labor and peace can the individual and the community be reborn.58

Nevertheless, he continued to assume the role of the prophet preaching at the gates:

The Jewish mother must know and recognize the danger of oblivion awaiting the young generation from the politics of the frog puffing itself up. … The Angel of Death gazes greedily at its slaughtered prey with utter confidence, and the mother—in a lone weak voice—prays for an end to war.59

Hofshi’s collection of essays, Lev Va’Nefesh [Heart and Soul], contains a letter from 1949 that he wrote to a friend who had lost his son in the war and had attacked him for his pacifist views. Hofshi responded:

Common sense dictates that a person who wants to avoid danger and let others defend him—such a person would not disapprove of the army, but on the contrary, would urge others on to militarism and warfare, as many of those who say and write ardent patriotic words have done and are doing, sending young boys to the killing fields. They themselves sit in their offices, live the good life, and are busy persecuting the handful of pacifists who do not wish to be lambs to the slaughter and who are convinced there is no need for this war … How much poison and how much ridicule has been poured on us when we warned against this, when we showed the way to get along with the Arabs without war and without independence!60

In a letter to a fellow member of the defunct Brit Shalom, Hofshi disparaged of the spiritual erosion he believed had led to the establishment of the state: “Religious Judaism, the prophets, the Jewish people, from the time of the Talmud to this day, are all being harnessed to the chariot of young Jewish militarism, to the service of the Moloch of state.”61

Such opinions infuriated the Mapai leaders and later the heads of state. In a speech he delivered at a party convention in Ein Harod in 1950, Ben-Gurion attacked Hofshi personally, “I cannot imagine what would happen if Kaukji or some other Arab hooligan really did invade Nahalal and start to slaughter the children there. Would Nathan Hofshi say: No, I’m reading a book by Tolstoy, I cannot shed blood …”62 Hofshi remained steadfast in his beliefs despite the attacks. Even many years later, he reiterated his argument against the claim that conscientious objectors were draft dodgers: “This sort of philosophizing has only one response: I am a human being. I was born and destined for life like every other human being. War is not my way and not what I do.”

Despite Hofshi’s utter alienation from mainstream Israel, he remained a devoted Zionist and a believer; his deep ties to Judaism led him to pacifism in the spirit of the ethics of the prophets, which he upheld throughout his life. In a letter to the editors of the compilation of essays on draft resistors in Israel,63 he explained his reasons for withdrawing from their project. His foremost reason was what he saw as denial of their national roots:

I had forgotten that you are Jews only by force of “biological necessity” and not out of conscious choice. Our bonds with the Land of Israel are alien to you and so you are alien to the whole array of spiritual ties, to the suffering and struggles steeped in blood for this homeland, and to all the endless efforts in the course of the last two thousand years not to completely lose our connection to this piece of land and to return to it en masse at the first opportunity … You understood nothing when I spoke of the Zionism of our great prophets because you did not study them at all or only studied them in a mechanistic manner, without devoting your soul to it.64


45. Gerald Kressel, “Natan Hofshi: Autobiography,” Besha’ar, 33.2 (1980) 118–22.

46. In honor of his 75th birthday, Hofshi’s friends and supporters published a collection of his essays. Natan Hofshi, Heart and Soul: In a Struggle for Nation and Man (Tel-Aviv, 1965) 37.

47. Ibid., 40.

48. Ibid., 44.

49. In the introduction Hofshi expressed his disappointment with the character the Zionist enterprise had acquired: “Sober materialism and the faith in force that have permeated deeper and deeper into our country and taken over the small and the great demand that we sneer at the bold, idle/childish, dream of turning the conception of our visionaries into the way of life of our people in our land, and every legitimate and illegitimate means is used in the attempt to be like ‘a regular nation’.” Natan Hofshi, From the Light of Judaism (Rishpon, 1964 [1933]) 8.

50. Ahad Ha’am, At the Crossroads (Jerusalem, 1955).

51. On the 23rd anniversary of Tolstoy’s death, Hofshi wrote, “These years have taught us a long bitter lesson. We have suffered all the troubles and horrors of which the prophet of truth and love warned us. Humankind has not listened to the great teacher and educator and has not chosen the way of life he showed us. Consequently, life has become a massive despicable slaughterhouse.” (Hofshi, From the Light of Judaism, 58).

52. Natan Hofshi, ed. From the Light in Judaism—Remarks of the Sages on Jewish Values and its Way of Life (Rishpon, 1955).

53. Felix Weltsch, “More on the Issues of Violence,” Baiyot Ha’yom, July–August 1942.

54. Natan Hofshi, “A Response to a Response,”Baiyot Ha’yom, July–August 1942.

55. Yitzhak Tabenkin, “The School and the War” (address at a convention of kibbutz teachers and child-carers, Kibbutz Yagur, August 1942), Shdemot, 34 (1972) 88–93.

56. Eyal Kafkafi, Truth or Faith: Tabenkin An Educator of Pioneers (Jerusalem, 1992) 54.

57. Natan Hofshi, “On Problems of Education in Times of Emergency,” (1943). Reply to Tabenkin, by Tlamin, Nahalal, Movement of the Moshavim.

58. Natan Hofshi, “Eliminating War—How?,” Baiyot Ha’zman, 27 August 1948.

59. Idem.

60. Hofshi, Heart and Soul, 237.

61. Ibid., 236.

62. David Ben-Gurion, “On War and on Immigrant Absorption,” Ner, 28 April 1950.

63. Martin Blatt, Uri Davis, and Paul Kleinbaum, eds. Dissent and Ideology in Israel—Resistance to the Draft, 1948–1973 (London, 1975).

64. Ibid., 30.


This chapter on Natan Hofshi was first published as part of the article ‘Pacifism and Anti-Militarism in the Period Surrounding the Birth of the State of Israel’ by Tamar Hermann, In Israel Studies, Volume 15, Number 2, Summer 2010, pp. 127-148. Published by © Indiana University Press.  Re-published here under permission from Indiana University Press, 18 July 2012.