Martin Buber and Jewish-Arab Peace

By Leon, Dan | Cross Currents, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Martin Buber and Jewish-Arab Peace


Leon, Dan, Cross Currents


The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the establishment of the state of Israel were separated by about half a year (January and May 1949). Writing in 1938, Gandhi had not been sympathetic to the Jewish national home in Palestine since he thought that "Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. Why should [the Jews] not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and earn their livelihood"?

He urged German Jews "to claim Germany as their home" and to follow the example of civil resistance. "The Jews of Germany can offer Satyagraha under infinitely better auspices than the Indians of South Africa." "The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of Jews (but) to the God-fearing, death has no terror" (1938).

Buber's Response

It is doubtful whether the great Indian exponent of nonviolence, whose life has inspired generations of disciples all over the world, ever saw a reply sent to him in February 1939 by the distinguished Jewish philosopher and theologian of dialogue, Professor Martin Buber (18781965). Buber, who came from Germany to live in Palestine in 1938 at the age of sixty, writes of Gandhi's voice as one "which he has long known and honored." But he asked Gandhi: "Do you know, or not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what does on there? Do you know of the torments in the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick torture? I cannot assume that you know of this." Among Jews in Germany Buber had "observed many instances of genuine Satyagraha" but "a diabolic universal steam-roller cannot thus be withstood...[it is] ineffective, unobserved martyrdom [and] no maxim for suitable behavior can be deduced therefrom."

But the main thrust of Buber's letter concerned Jewish rights in Palestine. He wrote that Jews and Arabs must

develop the land together without one imposing his will on the other. We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different origin, which cannot be pitted one against the other and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just and which is unjust.

We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to honor the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavor to reconcile both claims. We have been and still are convinced that it must be possible to find some form of agreement between this claim and the other; for we love this land and believe in it future; and seeing that such love and faith are surely present also on the other side, a union in the common service of the land must be within the range of the possible.

What Sort of Peace?

Buber had been a Zionist since 1888, but as far back as 1918 (soon after in the Balfour Declaration the British recognized a Jewish National Home in Palestine) he rejected what he called the concept of "a Jewish state with cannons, flags and military decorations." He and his colleagues worked for a bi-national Palestine based not on a colonial alliance but on cooperation and parity between Jews and Arabs.

A year after official Zionist policy achieved its aim of Jewish statehood in 1949, Buber expressed his fears that after the war peace, when it comes, will not be peace, a real peace which is constructive, creative (but) a stunted peace, no more than nonbelligerence, which at any moment, when any new constellation of forces arises, is liable to turn into war.

And when this hollow peace is achieved, how then do you think you'll be able to combat "the spirit of militarism" when the leaders of the extreme nationalism will find it easy to convince the young that this kind of spirit is essential for the survival of the country? The battles will cease - but will suspicions cease? Will there be an end to the thirst for vengeance? …

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