Among philosophers and theologians, Martin Buber (1878-1965) is known as the author of the influential work I and Thou. Another aspect of his life, lesser known to most, is his political activism in Israel, being a staunch anti-Zionist (or at least a critic of mainstream Zionist thought). This is important primarily, in my opinion, because so many Zionists try to paint the anti-Zionist crowd as anti-Semites. Buber, a Jewish theologian, clearly cannot seriously be labled an anti-Semite. While I am no scholar of Buber’s, a brief overview of his politics seems in order.
First Encounters With Zionism
Martin Buber became a Zionist in 1898, after coming to the conclusion the Jews needed their own homeland to escape the oppression and anti-Semitism that was prevalent in Europe. How well fleshed out his ideas were at this point (at age 20), I am not entirely sure.
Buber contra Theodor Herzl
The founder of Zionism is generally considered to be Theodor Herzl, the author of Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”). While Buber is considered a Zionist, he believed in and practiced a form known as cultural Zionism, whereas Herzl’s view might be considered political Zionism. Herzl wanted to create a “Jewish state”, with little emphasis on Jewish culture or even the Jewish religion.
Martin Buber, on the other hand, felt that the core of Zionism must be its Jewishness, and he pushed to create a movement of social and spiritual enrichment. This is more consistent with the views of cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am. (Ha’am, as it turns out, had met Herzl at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. Historian Walter Laqueur says that Ha’am found in Herzl “little more than a confidence trickster” and felt that “the salvation of Israel will come through prophets, not through diplomats.”)
Buber’s Break With Zionism (1902-1904)
Martin Buber was a very influential member of the Zionist movement, despite his disagreements with Herzl. In 1902, at the age of only 24, he became the editor of the weekly publication Die Welt, the voice of the Zionists.
By 1903, though, Buber also became involved with the Jewish Hasidism movement. The Zionists were often discussing politics and spending very little time with their faith (Buber’s original concern). With the Hasidic community, on the other hand, he found people who tried to make Jewish religion a central focus of their daily lives and culture. The views expressed by the Hasidic followers very closely mirrored Buber’s in many regards. This exposure to Hasidism led Buber to grow distant from Zionism in 1904 and he took up writing and study in its place.
Buber’s Zionist Views Mature (1920-1925)
In the early 1920s, Buber began promoting the idea of a binational Jewish-Arab state (in contrast to the political Zionist idea of a purely Jewish state). He felt the Jewish people ought to express “its desire to live in peace and brotherhood with the Arab people and to develop the common homeland into a republic in which both peoples will have the possibility of free development.” In 1921 he proposed what would be called a “federation of Middle Eastern states to link the Jewish community with its Arab neighbors”.
There had been many national movements in the past and over the course of the 20th century would be many more (with the decline of British imperialism). Buber wanted something more than just a nation; he wanted something more utopian where Jews would not dominate over the Arabs (as many, including journalist Joe Sacco, would argue they do today). Even if Jews would be the minority in this ideal state, Buber felt that price was worth the victory of consensus.
To help reach these ends, Martin Buber was involved in the creation of the organization known as Brit Shalom (“Covenant of Peace”). In fact, to say he was “involved” is a bit of an understatement, as the Palestinian organization was founded based largely from his writings. Brit Shalom supported the ideal of the binational (Jew and Arab) state, and Buber continued to fight for this for the rest of his life. Even after the creation of Israel in 1948 (a Jewish, non-Arab state) he hoped for peace among the two peoples, and still pushed for a joint nation (more on this shortly).
Buber Comes to Palestine (1938-1946)
In the 1930s, Buber was likely the most influential Zionist in Germany. After Hitler’s rise to power, he worked hard to raise the spirits of the various Jewish communities in Germany. This admirable action was to be ultimately short-lived.
As Adolf Hitler and Nazism became more powerful and more oppressive of the Jewish people, Martin Buber left Germany in 1938 to settle in Jerusalem (which was at this time in “Palestine” and not “Israel”). Buber was hired on as a professor at Hebrew University, where he would lecture on anthropology and introductory sociology. He took part in the heated debates of the Jews’ problems in Palestine and of the Arab question — working from the point of view of his Biblical, philosophic and Hasidic work.
Being a cultural, rather than political, Zionist was not easy in Palestine. According to biographer Will Herberg, Buber’s “brand of religio-cultural Zionism had all along been frowned upon by the ‘politicals’ in the Zionist movement, and now in Palestine itself he developed a viewpoint which threw him into sharp opposition to the dominant ideology.”
In 1939, India’s Mohandas Gandhi published an article asserting that imposing Jews on the Middle East (which is essentially another way of describing Zionism) was wrong and inhumane, because the land and region belonged to the Arabs. Contrary to later statements by Golda Meir, there was a thriving Palestinian community in the Middle East. Gandhi, naively, wrote that Jews should stay in Europe and practice non-violent civil disobedience to counter the Nazis. Buber, rightfully so, believed Gandhi was completely off base. In a letter to Gandhi he wrote:
“We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin which cannot objectively be pitted against one another and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just, which unjust. We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to honor the claim which is opposed to us and to endeavor to reconcile both claims. We could not and cannot renounce the Jewish claim; something even higher than the life of our people is bound up with this land, namely its work, its divine mission. But we have been and are still convinced that it must be possible to find some compromise between this claim and the other, for we love this land and we believe in its future; since such love and such faith are surely present on the other side as well, a union in the common service of the land must be within the range of possibility. Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found even to what appears to be a tragic opposition.”
Buber became a founding member of the group Ichud (sometimes written Ihud, “union”) in 1942, which, like Brit Shalom, was pushing for a bi-national state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine. He and his colleagues, most notably Rabbi Judah L. Magnes (president of Hebrew University), worked with moderate Arabs to try to bridge the gaps between the two peoples. Another notable founder was Henrietta Szold, the American-born founder of Hadassah (the Women’s Zionist Organization).
Britain had been trying for some time to convince American President Harry Truman to join them in an effort to study what should be done in Palestine (a British colony). They succeeded in October 1945. An Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry was set up to study Palestine, and had twelve members (six from America, six Britons). The group studied Jewish refugeee camps in Europe and toured Palestine itself. Many people were called in to testify: Arabs, Zionists, Anti-Zionists and both Martin Buber and Judah Magnes. According to historian Fred J. Khouri, the committee’s report of May 1, 946 had the following conclusions:
- Most European Jews had a desire to emigrate to Palestine, but there simply was not enough space to make this feasible. The United States was encouraged to accept an increase of immigrants from Europe.
- The number of permits for entry to Palestine ought to be set at 100,000 for 1946.
- While Jews were rightfully claiming a historical connection to Palestine, the reality was that the land was holy to three major religions. As such, Palestine should be considered a binational state where both Jews and Arabs had a democratic voice in the region.
- As independence could likely not be achieved through peaceful means (an opinion that proved correct in 1948), Palestine should be set up as a trust through the United Nations until peaceful independence could be reached.
- Future immigration must be agreed upon between the Jews and Arabs. The Jewish practice of only employing Jews must cease immediately.
While the results seem to be favorable to Buber’s ideals, Khouri suggests that Truman had little desire to implement them due to the upcoming Congressional elections and the power of the American Zionist vote. That such a relatively small group has so much sway on a President’s decision contrary to evidence is a scary thought, though one we will not concern ourselves with for the time being.
Also in 1946 Buber published his work Paths in Utopia, in which he outlined his communitarian socialist viewpoint and his theory of the “dialogical community” grounded on interpersonal “dialogical relationships”. Communitarian socialism can be summed up, according to Kehilla Community Synagogue, as the theory that “small intentional communities were the ideal forms of social existence.”
After the Creation of Israel (1948-1965)
Following the creation of Israel in 1948 and the ensuing war, Buber told Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that he believed that one of the most crucial and pertinent priorities of the new state of Israel ought to be solving the Palestinian refugee problem. Ben-Gurion, a Jewish hardliner, refused to consider this suggestion.
Buber continued fighting on behalf of the Arab refugees the remainder of his life, arguing for (in the words of Fred Khouri) “a combination of repatriation (of at least a “token” or a “limited” number of the refugees), resettlement, and compensation.” Unfortunately, more than forty years after his passing, we have yet to see a viable option for peace or Arab reparations in the Middle East.
Herberg, Will. The Writings of Martin Buber. Meridian Books, 1959.
Kehilla Community Synagogue. “Martin Buber, Zionism and the Palestinians”. http://www.kehillasynagogue.org/KehillaMEPeace/Document_II.html (viewed November 23, 2006)
Khouri, Fred J. The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, Third Edition. Syracuse University Press, 1985.
Sacco, Joe. Palestine. Fantagraphics Books, 2001.
Tivnan, Edward. The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy. Touchstone, 1988.