MARTIN BUBER AND JEWISH-ARAB PEACE
by Dan Leon

The road to peace between Arabs and Jews, as Buber knew, is not paved by power.

DAN LEON, who lives in Jerusalem, is co-managing editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics, and Culture, the first joint quarterly, now in its fifth year.

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 (1878-1965). 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? Won't we be compelled, and I mean really compelled, to maintain a posture of vigilance for ever, without being able to breathe? Won't this unceasing effort occupy the most talented members of our society"? (1949).

Buber died two years before the Six Day War of June 1967 -- and this article is being written twenty-five years after the Yom Kippur War of 1977, when Israel suffered 2,697 dead. Israeli survival since 1948 has cost six wars and the Intifada, with terrible casualties on both sides. Buber, it seems, understood the nature of the conflict more deeply than many of the political pragmatists who scorned him as being merely an unrealistic visionary.

Hope from Oslo

Five years ago the Oslo Accords signed in Washington by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for the Government of the State of Israel and the PLO team agreed "to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict" and to "recognize their mutual political and legitimate rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed peace process."

Following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an extremist religious Jewish student, we witnessed the unexpected victory in the summer of 1995 of the young rightist Benjamin Netanyahu over Shimon Peres, after a spate of monstrous terror attacks against Israel. For the last two years the rightist-religious coalition, while outwardly reluctantly accepting Oslo, set about the systematic destruction of its spirit and its content.

Netanyahu's warning at the UN in September 1998 against the establishment of a Palestinian State is a good expression of that contempt for the Arabs which he expressed in 1993 in his book, A Place among the Nation. Nevertheless, on October 23, 1998, Netanyahu joined Yasser Arafat and President Clinton in signing the Wye River Memorandum, which broke the deadlock in the peace process imposed by Netanyahu himself, and defined "steps to facilitate implementation of the (Oslo) Interim Agreement," including Israeli territorial concessions an the West Bank.

Labor leader Ehud Barak welcomed Wye as a continuation of Rabin's legacy but noted that "for no good reason Israel lost 19 months in which the spirit of the process was eradicated, trust between the sides was lost, and Israel wasted international and economic assets" (Ha'aretz, October 25, 1998). The lost trust will not easily be restored. On the other side of the political spectrum, rightist parliamentarian Ruby Rivlin said that Wye has been presented as a tremendous achievement; in fact almost half of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank -DL] will be handed over to Yasser Arafat, who is well on the way to establishing his state. How sad and ironic that this is taking place under the auspices of a Likud (rightist) -- National Religious Party government" (Jerusalem Post, November 22, 1998).

Why Wye?

In the opinion of Uri Elitzur, a West Bank settler leader who heads the prime minister's Bureau, Netanyahu faced unprecedented American pressure but his final decision was made out of pragmatic domestic considerations. Above all, the two powerful and influential forces in Israel are "the ideological left and the ideological right." "After 30 years of struggle, the contours of the outcome are emerging: we [the right] were victorious in the sphere of settlement [there are some 750,000 Jewish settlers in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 -DL] and the left won the battle for [recognizing] the existence of the Palestinian people." Netanyahu barely won the confidence of the middle third of the public, which does not want the annulment of the Oslo accords or a huge falling-out with the United States and is interested in a settlement with the Arabs (Ha'aretz, November 5, 1998).

Many political observers see Wye as expressing the final collapse of the rightist-religious "Greater Israel" ideology and a victory for realism and pragmatism,

But in a piece called "An Uncertain Future," Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, praises Clinton's accomplishment at Wye but expresses a view frequently heard on the Israeli left -- namely that had Netanyahu wanted to implement the Oslo Accords, he could have done so earlier to the extent that Netanyahu entertains a 'strategic objective,' that objective has been, and continues to be, the nonimplementation of the Oslo agreements in a manner that allows him to escape blame and to point an accusing finger at the Palestinians and the USA" (Jerusalem Post, October 27, 1998).

While welcoming Wye, prominent Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab in an article called "Nothing New" writes that the implementation of Wye "will certainly not solve the Palestinian problem." The Palestinians strive for a comprehensive peace which "must start with the recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination, including their rights to live in peace and tranquility in their own state. All are therefore in agreement that Wye is an important station in the negotiating process but only events in the political life and among the populations of the three signators to Wye will show whether the road will be opened up for the benefit of peace or blocked again to its detriment.

Independence and Nakba

Thus, fifty years after the birth of Israel, negotiations are at least under way, even if the genuine "historic reconciliation" foreseen at Oslo has not yet been guaranteed.

The real problem lies even deeper since the establishment of Israel corresponded with the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), in which 750,000 Palestinians became refugees from their own homeland. Only a small minority of Israelis is prepared to accept at least moral responsibility for the events of 1948; most blame the Palestinian leadership for rejecting the 1947 UN partition proposal and initiating the 1949 war, with its tragic consequences.

In terms of international legitimacy, conventional thinking and education in Israel consider the birth of Israel as vindicated both by the United Nations and by subsequent developments. Its historical justification as a shelter for Jews in distress from holocaust survivors, from Arab lands and from the former USSR, is seen in Israel's Jewish population growth from 650,000 in 1948 to some five million today, along with a million Israeli Arabs. Militarily, Israel is the strongest power in the region, and this was and is seen as the only guarantee for its future.

As for the official Zionist leadership, its moral ambiguity in the Jewish-Arab conflict is evident. Professor Chaim Weizmann, who led tho Zionist movement between the world wars and was to become Israel's first president, was considered a moderate. He declared in 1947 that "there must not be one law for the Jews and another for the Arabs. . . . the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do for the Arabs." Yet he saw the Arab exodus of 1948 as a miracle.

Israel's 1949 Declaration of Independence promised "full and equal citizenship" to the Israeli Arabs, yet in 1962 in a protest to David Ben-Gurion, Buber 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." Some thirty-five years later, this is still true. Unhappily, it is equally true that most official representatives of the Jewish religion in Israel have failed to take a stand in the name of Judaism over the great moral questions of our times, including Jewish-Arab rapprochement. The present coalition government in Israel depends on religious support while for the last quarter of a century national religious circles have sanctified territory ("a Greater Israel") over other political and human values. If and how they will adapt to the option of mutual Israeli-Palestinian recognition, which involves what they see as "surrendering parts of the historical Jewish Homeland," remains to be seen. It is worth noting that ultra-orthodox Judaism, which is gaining strength in Israel, is less attracted to this nationalist-territorial form of religion.

Building and Destroying

Chaim Weizmann, for all his innumerable faults, was both a renowned scientist and a man of the world who had a deep understanding of the Jewish people. In 1951, a year before his death, he talked of "all the mistakes that are being made in this country. The Jews are a very small people quantitatively, but also a great people qualitatively. An ugly people, but also a beautiful people, a people that builds and destroys. A people of genius and at the same time a people of incredible stupidity."

In a speech in 1958 Buber, aged eighty, while affirming the factual reality of the State of Israel, referred to "the most pernicious of all false teachings, that according to which the way of history is determined by power alone. . . . while faith in the spirit is retained only as mere phraseology." Buber maintained that "he who will truly serve the spirit must seek to make good all that was once missed: he must seek to free once again the blocked path to an understanding with the Arab peoples [in] a peace of genuine cooperation." Surely, a good message for Israel in her jubilee year.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1998-99, Vol. 49 Issue 1.