by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
I became aware of Martin Buber’s views about Zionism and Israel during the 1970s, and since that time his spiritual/political approach to these thorny issues has been central to my own understanding of Jewish nationalism. I adopted a version of Buber’s outlook when I was formulating the original vision for Kehilla Community Synagogue.
Like all early Zionists, Martin Buber believed that anti-Semitism might one day become powerful enough to destroy Jewish life in Europe. By the beginning of the 20th century he became committed to the idea of the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland. Unlike most of the other Zionist thinkers and leaders, however, Buber was a religious humanist who understood the Jews to be a people rather than a nation. Because of this, he opposed the secular nationalism that focused on merely preserving and championing what he referred to as the “national egoism” of the Jewish people. “Our only salvation is to become . . . a renewed people, a renewed religion, and the renewed unity of both.”
Inspired by both the Bible and Hasidism, Buber asserted that the very purpose of the existence of the Jewish people flowed out of its faith in and relationship to God. He wrote that biblical (or what he called Hebrew) humanism teaches that there is a unity to human life under divine direction, which “divides right from wrong and truth from lies as unconditionally as the words of the Creator divided light from darkness.”
Buber’s attitude toward the Arab population of Palestine was significantly different from most other Zionist leaders. He firmly believed that Jews returning to the land of their forbears ought to behave in a just and moral way toward those who had been living in the land for centuries. He wrote that “the Jewish people should “take part in the redemption of the world” by being “a nation which establishes truth and justice in its institutions and activities.” This meant that the Jewish community in Palestine would need to form ties of partnership and cooperation with the Arabs.
Over a forty-year period Buber devoted much of his time to the search for practical Jewish-Arab understanding. In 1925 he joined with other Jewish intellectuals to form Brit Shalom, an organization that sought peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews through the creation of a bi-national state where Jews and Arabs would have equal rights. Buber also proposed the formation of a federation of Middle Eastern countries that would link the Jewish state with its neighbors. The leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine between the world wars opposed Buber’s views, but many thoughtful Zionists were won over by his outlook.
Buber left Germany in 1938 and settled in Palestine. As Jewish persecution grew in Europe, large numbers of Jews sought refuge in Palestine. The growing Jewish population brought fear to the Arabs that their country was being taken from them. Tensions escalated and it seemed like there might be a war between the two peoples. In 1942, Buber and his colleagues formed Ichud, an association to bring moderate Jews and Arabs together. He worked with Fawzi el-Husseini, the founder of the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement and Cooperation, to foster cooperation and political equality between the two peoples. Fawzi el-Husseini was tragically murdered in 1946, probably by extremist Arabs.
After the Israeli War for Independence in 1948, Buber argued that Israel should take steps to ease the plight of the Arab refugees. Until the year of his death, Buber continued to press for a massive Israeli initiative to solve the Arab refugee problem, and he protested the military rule that denied Israel’s Arabs their basic rights as free citizens.
Buber’s social and political outlook was strongly influenced by the insistent demands of the ancient Hebrew prophets for justice and compassion. But his vision was also influenced by the Ba’al Shem Tov and Hasidism. It is clear that what Buber cherished so deeply about the Besht—the master’s ability to unite spirit and matter—became the root of his view of Zionism and of his activism on behalf of Jewish and Arab mutuality. Aubrey Hodes writes of Buber that
“Always he sought to infuse every transient political moment with the demands of the spirit, which transcended and would survive this moment. He urged Jews and Arabs both inside and outside Israel to establish truly human relations on personal and individual levels, rather than as members of groups trapped in the stereotyped dogmas of political conflict. Always he emphasized what both peoples held in common and called upon them to use this common ground to discuss and settle the matters upon which they disagreed.”
Buber died in 1965. Two years later Israel initiated and won the Six Day War. In the process Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza, which had been governed by Jordon. Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has meant that four million people are living without rights of mobility, sovereignty, control over their borders, trade and political self-determination. They are subjected to violent military raids, indefinite detention, extended imprisonment and harassment. A right-wing Israeli government is holding most of the power and it would seem that Israeli leaders have no intention of ending the Occupation or of compromising in any way with the Palestinians.
At the same time, there are Palestinians, especially those who are members of Hamas, who have held a belligerent, uncompromising view toward the very existence of the State of Israel, swearing that they will never give up their determination to destroy the Jewish entity.
Is there any hope? Currently, there are at least a hundred non-governmental organizations in Israel working for Jewish-Palestinian cooperation, preparing the way toward a just and peaceful future for the two peoples. The many joint ventures between Israelis and Palestinians are allowing members of the two peoples to work together and to get to know one another. I believe that eventually this movement may produce a new generation of leadership that will work toward ending the Occupation and bringing about justice, reconciliation and peace.
For decades the conflicts in Ireland and South Africa seemed intractable, but due to the persistence of those who sought justice, reconciliation and peace, the violence eventually gave way to workable solutions. As Nelson Mandela stated: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
And Martin Buber wrote: “We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world, so let us, cautious in diction and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.” He never gave up his hope that someday there would be peace between Jews and Arabs.