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
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).
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
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).
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
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
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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