The sadness of Martin Buber

“We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population.” – David Ben-Gurion


In 1938 the distinguished Jewish philosopher and theologian of dialogue, Professor Martin Buber (1878-1965) came from Germany to live in Palestine at the age of sixty. While a lifelong Zionist Buber was becoming increasingly disenchanted by the growing xenophobic brand in Israel.

In 1942 Buber reiterated his deep belief that crass nationalism would never be enough. His simple stance as a believer was that  ”Israel was and is a people and a religious community in one…he who severs this bond severs the life of Israel.”

It was obvious that due to the extraordinary energy released by the kibbutz movement and civic fire unleashed  by the founding of the state, the “nation was on the rise.” Sadly, he lamented, “religion is on a steep downward fall, for it is no longer a power which determines all of life; it has been confined  to the special sphere of ritual or sermons.” For Buber the separation of religion and national life “was a fatal error.”

Buber  called  the power which emanated from Torah and which was meant to infuse state politics, “Hebrew humanism.” The compassion which all the Abrahamic religions hold absolutely central, in its Israeli incarnation was “in opposition to that Jewish nationalism which regards Israel as a nation like unto other nations and recognizes no task for Israel save that of preserving and asserting itself.”

“Hebrew humanism” must prevail over “a nationalism which is nothing but empty self-assertion. The Zionist movement must decide either for national egoism or national humanism.”

Six years later  in 1958 Buber uttered an almost heretical statement which many Jews of conscience  came to agree with: “The majority of Jews preferred to learn from Hitler than from us ( prophetic Torah inspired humanists)…Hitler showed that history does not follow the path of the mind, but that of power, and that when a people is quite strong, it can kill with impunity.”

In its Declaration of Independence in 1949 Israel had promised “full and equal citizenship to Israeli Arabs. This was a ploy to placate the Western world still in the afterglow of the human rights movement which emerged from World War ll. The 1948 UN Declaration stated that,”Everyone has  a right of freedom of movement and residence  within the borders of each state,” and “Everyone has  the right to leave any country, including his own and to return to that country. Boh of these  rigts would in time be denied to the original inhabitants of the land they called Filastin. The somewhat innocent Martin Buber never realized the hidden machinations of the Zionist leadership whose intention was always  to expel the Arab population and claim the whole of the land.

In an 1962 protest  letter to Prime Minister Ben Gurion the theologian noted that Israel “has committed acts which have engendered in the Arab inhabitants of the State a feeling that they are but second-class citizens.”

Today he would be stunned at the staggering oppression and abuse of the Palestinian people. He could not help but see what the brilliant Palestinian intellectual Edward Said said  in 1980 about his own people,”an anti-imperialist and anticolonialist  Third World people whose basis for action includes  their own dispossession as a people as well as their opposition to racial discrimination, territorial expropriation, and military occupation.” Not to mention one of the sorest wounds to the Palestinian psyche contained in the UN  Commission  on Human rights that “No one shall be deprived of his nationality or forced to renounce his nationality as a means of divesting the right to return to his country.” The Law of Return today in Israel means  any Jew born anywhere is entitled to claim immediate Israeli citizenship and residence but no Arab can.


Buber  would have to conclude that the virulent nationalism of men like Ben Gurion had almost totally destroyed the Hebrew humanism he had championed.

While Buber was dreaming his beautiful dream so central to the heart of Judaism, men like Ben Gurion were plotting otherwise

In a famous letter to his son Amos (October 5, 1937) the cynical first Prime Minister laid out the Zionist plan:

My assumption (which is why I am a fervent proponent of a state, even though it is now linked to partition) is that a Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning.

When we acquire one thousand or 10,000 dunams, we feel elated. It does not hurt  our feelings that by this acquisition we are not in possession of the whole land. This is because this increase in possession is of consequence not only in itself, but because through it we increase our strength, and every increase in strength helps in the possession of the land as a whole. The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.

We shall admit into the state all the Jews we can. We firmly believe that we can admit more than two million Jews. We shall build a multi-faceted Jewish economy– agricultural, industrial, and maritime. We shall organize an advanced defense force—a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best  armies in the world. At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country, through agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbors, or through some other means.

Ben Gurion was the apotheosis of the blind nationalism divorced from Torah compassion.



  1. 1

    Is peace possible in the Middle East?


    The Arab-Israeli conflict should end with a two-state solution under which all the Arab and Muslim states-indeed the entire world-acknowledge Israel’s right to continue to exist as an independent, democratic, Jewish state with secure and defensible boundaries and free of terrorism. In exchange, Israel should recognize the right of Palestinians to establish an independent, democratic, Palestinian state with politically and economically viable boundaries. For these mutually compatible goals to be achieved, extremists on both sides must give up what they each claim are their God-given or nationalistic rights. Israeli extremists must give up their claimed right to all of biblical Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), and their claimed right to maintain Jewish settlements on, or to continue the military occupation of, disputed areas that would be allocated to the Palestinian state. Palestinian extremists must give up their claimed right to all of “Palestine,” including what is now Israel, as well as the alleged right of millions of descendants of those who left or were forced out of what is now Israel during the war of 1947-1949 to “return” to their “ancestral homes” in Israel. Unless these claimed rights are mutually surrendered in the interest of achieving a pragmatic, compromise resolution to the conflict, there can be no enduring peace. But if these claimed rights are surrendered, peace can be achieved. The remaining disputes-and there are many-will be much easier to resolve if agreement is reached on these fundamental issues.

    A. Dershowitz. See Case for Peace.

    Note the difference between this no nonsense defence lawyer who knows something of the basics of reasoning, and this fluffy, dreamy, theological poetry that reeks of selection bias, that remains on one side, and settles for theological dreaming that offers no concrete solutions. His former students should sue the school board for educational malpractice.

  2. 2

    the dog is barking again

  3. 3

    That’s one smart dog!

  4. 4

    nevertheless, still a dog

  5. 5

    Well that’s just an ad hominem attack. If he’s a dog, what does that make Ted? A mouse? A rat? A snake? It might be more productive to respond to the arguments, if you can, that is.

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