Martin Buber’s Zionism

The Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, the subsequent Israel-Hamas war and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza have intensified Jewish communal debates about Zionism and a growing interest in various forms of non-Zionism or anti-Zionism. Within these discussions, it is generally assumed that “Zionism” denotes a commitment to the existence of a Jewish nation-state, and that non-Zionism or anti-Zionism denotes a rejection of such a state in favor of a binational state (the “one-state solution”) or confederation. At a juncture such as this, it is worth recalling that there was a vocal and well-respected group of Zionist activists — many of them important intellectuals within the movement — who themselves advocated for bi-nationalism as a form of Zionism through the work of such groups as Brit Shalom and the Ichud Party.

One such scholar and activist was Martin Buber (1878-1965). Perhaps best known for his translation of Hasidic tales and his philosophy of dialogue, Buber was an influential Zionist thinker who inspired many young Jews in Europe with his passionate speeches about the need to revive Jewish life through idealistic settlement in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. At the same time, Buber argued that Zionism should not aspire to create a Jewish nation-state, as such an arrangement would deny full equality to Palestinians and likely provoke war. Buber recognized that this approach to Zionism was losing ground as the movement coalesced around the nation-state model. In late May of 1948, as the first Israel-Arab war raged just two weeks after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Buber, then living in Jerusalem, published an article in a Hebrew periodical titled “Zionism and ‘Zionism.’” With this title, Buber labels his own commitments as the true Zionism and the nation-state model as a distorted, false ideology: “Zionism” in scare quotes. Today, we might have to reverse the scare quotes to acknowledge that the equation of Zionism and the nation-state model predominates in our discourse.

Buber argued that Zionism should not aspire to create a Jewish nation-state, as such an arrangement would deny full equality to Palestinians and likely provoke war.

Even if Buber lost the battle over the meaning of Zionism in his own day, his teachings remain vital for those concerned with the ethical and spiritual consequences of Jewish statehood. There are two particular reasons why this might be so. First, because Buber was part of the Zionist movement, his vision for Zionism might help us articulate a compelling vision for why Jews could and should live in their historic land under different political conditions. Second, as a scholar of Judaism, Buber’s Zionism is deeply rooted in the spiritual and ethical teachings of the Jewish tradition. My goal here is not to explore political proposals for a binational state or confederation, the two most common alternatives to a Jewish state (alongside a Palestinian one or otherwise). Instead, I will briefly explain Buber’s Zionist thought and contrast his approach to the predominant form of Zionism (I’ll call it “Political Zionism,” as I explain below) on three key points: 1) the political goals of Zionism; 2) the meaning of exile and messianism; and 3) the centrality of moral values in politics. Buber’s approach to Zionism may yet be able to guide us in thinking through the challenges of the present moment and inspire hope for the future.

For Buber, the central purpose of Zionism is the spiritual and cultural renewal of the Jewish people. In this respect, he became and remained a disciple of the great Zionist theoretician and Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am (Asher Zvi Ginsburg). In their vision, known as Cultural Zionism, the goal was to gradually and organically cultivate a new Jewish society with a thoroughly modern Jewish culture shaped by the texts, ideas and values of the Jewish tradition. This approach put them at odds with the vision of Theodor Herzl, what I am calling Political Zionism. Herzl prioritized the creation of a Jewish state above all other goals and sought to bring millions of Jews to settle in Palestine in a short period of time. For Cultural Zionists like Ha’am and Buber, Herzl’s plan was not only unrealistic but failed to prioritize the gradual process of spiritual renewal. They did not oppose politics or political aims for Zionism, per se, but they insisted that cultural renewal should be the principal goal. Buber himself worked closely with Herzl for several years on cultural efforts within the movement, among other things editing a prominent literary journal. However, he eventually broke with Herzl because he felt that Herzl did not sufficiently appreciate the role of culture and spiritual renewal in the Zionist project.

Buber became a more politically radical and theologically robust voice within the tradition of Cultural Zionism. He completely opposed the creation of a Jewish state and defended this view drawing on classical Jewish texts. In his view, a Zionism that centered cultural renewal must maintain Judaism’s distinctive moral and spiritual character. As he Buber went so far as to associate this aspiration with “idol-worship in our homeland if only the idols bear Jewish names.”[1] The accusation of idolatry may sound like exaggerated religious rhetoric, but Buber was serious about a God-centered vision for radical politics rooted in biblical texts. The model of nation-state sovereignty presumes that a particular nation owns or controls the land collectively, allowing them to use it in whatever way they see fit. Buber argues that the Bible presents a radical alternative, namely that God alone owns the land (Leviticus 25:23) and the role of Israel is to work and maintain the land according to God’s instruction, which in the biblical context meant the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee. Buber viewed these injunctions as models, rather than strict law, for social justice in a new Jewish society in the land. Buber called this vision of politics the creation of “true community” in contrast to the creation of a state. Buber viewed the establishment of idealistic agricultural settlements as the first step in creating a society that could embody this vision: “The establishment of a true community cannot come about unless the agrarian life, a life that draws its strength from the soil, is elevated to a service of God and spreads to the other social classes, binding them, as it were, to God and to soil.”[2] For Buber, living in the land was essential as a vehicle for Divine service, meaning a life on the land that serves social justice rather than the human desire for safety and power.

Buber’s vision for Zionism differed in a similar way from that of Political Zionism on the question of exile and messianism. Among Herzl’s successors, many Zionist thinkers came to endorse a view known as the “negation of the diaspora,” which asserted that Jewish life in the diaspora for 1,900 years had been debased and demeaning, and that only a renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the people’s historic land could restore them to full dignity. In this way of thinking, the aspiration for a Jewish state replaces messianic hope. The state, rather than the Messiah, would end the oppression of the Jewish people.

In contrast to this claim, Buber articulated a positive role for the notion of exile in his Jewish theology. For Buber, exile was a spiritually necessary process in the Jewish people’s confrontation with its ethical and spiritual limitations, even though the suffering of exilic life could not be said to be a punishment from God. Summarizing the view of Rabbi Judah Loew, the great Maharal of Prague, Buber writes that “because Israel is the holy people it cannot come to its own might except by coming into the might of God; and because the land of Israel is the Holy Land, Israel can only come into its own land by coming to God. The purificatory effect of the Exile … is purification for the service of God.”[3] Being in exile from God, either on a personal or communal level, is an integral part of a spiritual life that human beings must confront even as they strive to overcome such exile. Where Political Zionists viewed the founding of a Jewish state as a quasi-messianic ending of the exile, Buber viewed Zionism as the striving to overcome exile but not the completion of that task. By claiming to overcome exile, Buber believed, Political Zionism impoverishes Judaism of a crucial spiritual concept for addressing material suffering and spiritual failure.[4] Moreover, he believed that this move functioned as a kind of false messianism, asserting the arrival of redemption when redemption had yet to arrive. If we could claim to overcome exile, then we could claim to have overcome the need for moral criticism and spiritual development. On the individual level such spiritual evasion is obtuse, but on a social and political level, it is dangerous.

Where Political Zionists viewed the founding of a Jewish state as a quasi-messianic ending of the exile, Buber viewed Zionism as the striving to overcome exile but not the completion of that task.

Likewise, it was crucial for Buber that Zionism place Jewish ethical values at the center of its vision. This meant that political leaders in the new Jewish community must view themselves as accountable to these values even when it stood at odds with either their perceived political interests or those of the nation. Buber addressed this theme increasingly after his arrival from Nazi Germany in 1938 to Palestine, where the Zionist leadership already had the look of a state-in-waiting under David Ben-Gurion. The rise of the Nazis understandably made the cause of a Jewish nation-state seem that much more urgent. At the same time, violent conflict with Palestinian Arabs seemed inevitable after the great Arab revolt of 1936-39. Increasingly, Zionist leaders spoke openly of needing to abandon moral values in the realm of politics for the sake of the security of the nation.[5]

Buber strenuously objected to this compromise of morality for the sake of political security and power. Again, drawing on biblical sources for inspiration, Buber found within the prophetic tradition a model of leadership as contingent upon and accountable to the moral demands of God. As he wrote in his essay, “Hebrew Humanism,” the Bible tells us “what no other voice in the world can teach us with such simple power … that there is truth and there are lies, and that human life cannot persist or have meaning save in the decision in behalf of truth and against lies; that there is right and wrong, and that the salvation of man depends on choosing what is right and rejecting what is wrong … .”[6] Morality is not a private matter for an individual to choose or reject for themselves. The fate of a human community depends on it, and thus it behooves all national leaders to see themselves as accountable to standards of truth and right conduct in the realm of public affairs.

In a lecture he first delivered in 1939, Buber also spoke of the value of peace as the defining purpose of Zionism: “Our purpose is the great upbuilding of peace. And when the nations are all bound together in one association, to borrow a phrase from our sages, they atone for one another. In other words, the world of humanity is meant to become a single body; but it is as yet nothing more than a heap of limbs each of which is of the opinion that it constitutes an entire body.”[7] The greatest obstacle to peace, in Buber’s view, is national chauvinism, where each nation views itself as the center or apex of humanity, i.e. “as an entire body.” The Jewish people, he believes, are specially charged with maintaining the vision of all humanity united in peace, not by giving up their national distinctiveness, but by working in cooperation with each other.

This vision of peace clearly motivated Buber’s hopes for peace between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, which he worked tirelessly to achieve. After the 1948 war, which saw three-quarters of a million Arabs displaced from their homes, Buber also underscored the importance of truth and justice in addressing the conditions of Palestinian Arabs as a result of the new Jewish state. In 1949, at a meeting of artists and intellectuals called by Ben-Gurion, Buber chastised the new prime minister for failing to address the plight of Palestinian refugees, which could have been a “great moral act.”[8] Instead, the government failed to act and obscured the reality of the refugees. Buber would continue to excoriate the government for the rest of his life for keeping Palestinians under military rule (which ended in 1966), confiscating their land and denying their full humanity.

In 1949, Buber chastised the David Ben-Gurion for failing to address the plight of Palestinian refugees, which could have been a “great moral act.”

This failure of morality — this concession to realpolitik — was not the fulfillment of Zionism Buber that had envisioned. That this became what we think of as Zionism is due, in part, to historical circumstances, and it was not inevitable or necessary. The persistence of injustice and failures to make peace seem impossible to overcome at this moment. The Jews of Israel do not want to leave what has now become their home, and Palestinians do not want to live as second-class citizens in their homes. Whether it would be possible for Zionism and the state of Israel, and for that matter, Palestinian society, to turn more fully towards justice, truth and peace remains to be seen, but Buber’s vision of a Zionism that centers ethical values seems particularly urgent now. Perhaps it can inspire hope for Jews and Palestinians to live together in peace and justice.

[1] “The Holy Way” in On Judaism, 135. Cf. I Sam. 8:5 and Ez. 20:32

[2] “The Holy Way,” 144.

[3] Buber, On Zion, p. 88.

[4] See Shaul Magid’s recent book The Necessity of Exile for a similar argument.

[5] See Paul Mendes-Flohr, Introduction, A Land of Two Peoples, p. 4ff.

[6] “Hebrew Humanism,” in Israel and the World, p. 246.

[7] “The Spirit of Israel and the World Today,” in Israel and the World, p. 186.

[8] Buber, “On the Moral Character of the State of Israel,” in A Land of Two Peoples, pp. 243-244.

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