This article was last modified on November 26, 2006.

Martin Buber’s Utopian Israel

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”. (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.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical, Political, Religious
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

4 Responses to “Martin Buber’s Utopian Israel”

  1. D. Tsernoglou Says:

    Tried to find a story I vaguely remember about MB but could not find anything in this or related
    sites. Can somebody confirm or deny it. Here is what I remember. When Eichmann was condemned to
    death in Israel, Martin Buber wrote to Ben Gurion that Israel had no right to execute Eichmann and
    that he would like to go, see Ben Gurion and explain this to him. Ben Gurion replied ‘you need not
    come to see me. I shall come to your place to discuss the matter with you, because you are older
    and wiser than me’

  2. jim montel Says:

    I believe David ben-gurion was himself in favour of a binational state at least through the 1920s and that far from being the invention of a small group this was the default position of the yishuv and of the British Christian supporters of the balfour declaration and indeed of herzl himself who imagined in his novel Altneuland that Arabs would welcome Jews. (any comments?)of course b-g and herzl may have had a secret position, but it seems the position changed because a. arabs themselves would not accept a binational state or any kind of coexistence with jews in their country as their numbers continued to increase and b.persecution of jews in germany (after 1933) and in poland (after 1935) created pressure for immigration when other countries like the U.S. would not increase their quota, established in 1924, beyond 40,000 per annum. this immigration spurred arab riots and then arabs stonewalled every attempt to resolve the problem including partition in 1937 with 20 pc to jews and 80 pc. to arabs. (the exact reverse of the pre-1967 borders and today’s peace proposals). As the persecution increased to its horrifying conclusion the urgency of free immigration and therefore jewish sovereignty took precedence over everything else. that demand was made in 1942 at the Biltmore conference in new york. it was the only sensible response to the gravest situation that ever befell a people, religion, ethnic group.the question is whether today, in somewhat calmer times when the yishuv is stronger it would be possible to achieve something like a federal state. probably not. the situation is that most jews want peace but dont trust arabs. most arabs dont trust jews. that does not make peace impossible. trust is not altogether a healthy sentiment in international affairs. trust may come in time, but only after a peace agreement. who after all would not welcome a larger, calmer, accepted country called Israel with happy muslims and Jews happily engaged in commercial and cultural and political exchange. But could it work? meanwhile what is wrong with two separate states and an exchange of territory to maintain the pre-’67 80-20 ratio, despite the fact that in all the world there is but one Jewish, Hebrew-speaking state with which other jews can identify or in the perverse way many jews have, can find their identity by refusing to set foot in it.

  3. wolff bachner Says:

    Buber could wish all he wanted for a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs, but as much as the world continues to deny the truth about Islam, it is painfully obvious from the last 1400 years of history that Arabs will only accept Jews as Dhimmis and never as equals. After 1900 years of relentless murder and persecution of the Jewish people, is it really too much to ask that the world to give our own tiny nation back to us; one that is the size of New Jersey and was stolen by an invading Arab army in 638 ce. Arabs come from Arabia, Jews came from Israel until they were forced into exile by the Romans and then the Arabs.

    The Arabs have more than 5000 times the land and have refused to grant citizenship to one Palestinian refugee for 64 years. It is the Arabs, and not Israel, that are responsible for the plight of the Palestinians. They were offered a nation of their own, they chose to start a genocidal war to kill Jews in 1948 and they lost. Israel thrives and there are no do-overs.

    No one disputes the legitimacy of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, all carved out of the same defeated Ottoman Empire as Israel by the British and the French in the 1940’s. Why don’t we ever hear cries to return Lebanon to the majority Christian population forced into exile after the British mandate created the new borders of Lebanon. Why don’t we ever hear cries to return Jordan to the Jews instead of giving it to Saudi Arabian Hashimites who never set foot in Jordan before the British mandate gave them 60% of the land promised to Israel. Why is Iraq who embraced Hitler or Syria, ruled by a family dynasty of Fascist murderers any more legitimate than Israel? Why is Saudi Arabia, a nation that has banned all other religions but Islam and executes people for witchcraft or leaving Islam, somehow acceptable to the world, yet the only Democracy in the Middle East, Israel, is condemned as illegitimate? Obviously, the Jews, who only number 14 million out of 6 billion are a much safer target than 1.5 billion Muslims who control most of the world’s oil.

    Why are 56 Islamic states accepted by the world body and welcomed to the United Nations specifically as Islamic states, but the existence of one tiny Jewish state is denounced as racism? Again, it is because Jews are a safe target. Jews haven’t committed 19,000 plus acts of terror in the name of Islam since 2001 and Jews didn’t fly planes into the World trade center or the Pentagon screaming “Allahu Akbar” ON 9/11. Jews don’t want to make Judaism the one religion for all of mankind and eliminate all other religions. This is the goal of Islam, as openly declared in the Koran and in 1400 years of Islamic law. Jews don’t call people “vile descendants of apes and pigs”, Muslims do. Even President Morsi of Egypt, called Jews “descendants of apes and pigs,” and called for the destruction of Israel, when he was a leader of the Muslim brotherhood.

    I shudder to think what would happen to the rest of the world’s Jews if Israel was not a modern nation armed with nuclear weapons. The answer is simple. The job Hitler started would have been finished long ago. When we told the world “Never Again” after the holocaust, we meant it! NEVER AGAIN WILL OUR PEOPLE BE HERDED INTO GAS CHAMBERS BY THE MILLION. NEVER AGAIN WILL WE SUFFER 2000 YEARS OF BRUTAL PERSECUTION. NEVER AGAIN! NEVER AGAIN!


  4. gavin Says:

    I’m too busy to response to these falsehoods point by point… would anyone else like to tackle it?

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