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October 14, 2009 – 8:12 pm13 Comments

Letters to the EditorMartin Buber: a model for Australian Zionists

The debate on Zionism and the Israeli /Palestinian conflict within the Australian Jewish community, as reflected in Jewish media forums and public events, represents a diverse and seemingly endless range of views. One powerful view, however, that casts the conflict in quite a different light, has been notably absent from the Australian Jewish public discourse, and worthy of consideration. This view was originally proffered by Martin Buber in the early – mid twentieth century. Written from a religious Zionist perspective, these views retain as much relevance to the conflict now as they did during the time of his writings.

Central to Buber’s view is the idea that each of the two prior Jewish Commonwealths had a spiritual mission relevant to its time and faced different challenges. Consequently the political, social and religious structures each adopted differed based on the issues of the day. In Buber’s view, it would make sense that the third Jewish commonwealth, the current State of Israel, has its own mission and challenges. The social, political and religious structures it establishes should address these unique challenges without the requirement or necessity for it to re-instate old political structures. This position is distinct from and indeed contrary to positions which appear to hallow the idea of sovereignty over the land, all of the land, as a Jewish religious value or imperative in and of itself.

An obvious unique circumstance confronted by the current Jewish commonwealth is that the Jews are legitimately returning to their land which is also rightfully occupied by native inhabitants, the Palestinians, who have been there for a considerable period during the Jewish exile. Given the varied mission of each Jewish commonwealth, Buber proposed that from a religious Zionist perspective, the manner in which Israel deals with this territorial dilemma is a significant part of the actual mission of this third commonwealth of Israel, rather than a problem to be dealt with before the mission begins. Buber’s writings suggest that the mission of this commonwealth could be conceptualised as providing an example of co-existence in the context of serious conflict. This, of course, is consistent with Judaism’s underlying themes of working toward the messianic era of the “Lion lying down with the lamb” and Israel being an “Or La Goyim” (a light to the nations).

While forced to defend itself militarily, it seems clear that Israel cannot end the conflict by military means. This makes sense if Israel’s mission was to model coexistence. So if Buber’s ideas have some merit, then it may be extrapolated that there are a number of key ingredients that the conflict would need to have in order for it to have credibility as a model for the world’s most implacable conflicts.

It would be important that the conflict could not be solved militarily, as this would offer no positive example. The world has enough “might means right” historical precedents.

The foe would have to be implacable in its quest for justice, as acceptance of anything less that the most viable amount of justice would also not be a suitable model.

There would need to be irrational violence disrupting negotiations, as the co-existence model needs to demonstrate a capacity to deal with extremism without overreacting.

There would need to be an influence of international opinion as a further pressure, often unhelpful.

Finally there would need to be both religious and territorial conflict to maximise its value as an example of a working model for the world.

Israel currently faces all these five challenges. No doubt it may be preferable that establishing peace was not this extremely difficult challenge. However if one holds to the religious Zionist perspective that the Jewish people have a divine purpose as “a light unto the nations” and the third Commonwealth of Israel has a mission beyond its own existence, then the parameters or elements represented in this conflict make sense. The standards by which Israel is judged by the world then also make sense.

There is inherent injustice for both the Jews and Palestinians in sharing the land with the other. However, as the returnees after two millennia, Buber proposed that there is an additional onus on the Jews to minimise the injustice to the Palestinians. Assuming that Buber’s propositions have merit, then nothing but the most far reaching model of justice and coexistence will facilitate a solution to this conflict. No military or realpolitik solution, much to the frustration of all concerned, is likely to succeed as this would offer no value to the world and would not fulfil Israel’s mission for which they have returned to the land.

David Forbes

Elsternwick, VIC

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  • Larry Stillman says:

    Whether or not Buber’s relgious Zionism has any practical basis in reality for a third commonwealth is another question, but I’d like to contrast Buber’s vision with what I can only describe as relgious-Zionist paranoia from Isi Leibler in the most extraordinariily paranoic outburst. This time, it appears, he has abandoned restraint in lumping together all critics of Israel with the sectarians as ‘fiendish enemies’.


    “m ein ani li mi li? If we are not for ourselves, who will be? We are engaged in a battle against fiendish enemies committed to our destruction. The Israeli government must now take steps to neutralize the impact of renegade Jews who present themselves as legitimate alternative Jewish viewpoints.”

    This is an argument that was being thrown around at least 15 years ago to deny legitimacy to other viewpoints–has the situation changed? No. Has the occupation, oppression and cycle of self-reinforcing violence continued? Yes. Time to take the ‘renegades’ seriously.

  • ariel says:

    This is a great letter. I think the “Third Commonwealth” has failed in too many areas and needs to regain its compass.

    Israel operates completely ad-hoc, responding quickly to a situation by applying a bandaid and with little or no forward planning.

    One thing in the letter I find perplexing. You say that “An obvious unique circumstance confronted by the current Jewish commonwealth is that the Jews are legitimately returning to their land which is also rightfully occupied by native inhabitants, the Palestinians, who have been there for a considerable period during the Jewish exile”.

    If the Jews are returning to their land, then surely by extension, they are the natives, not the Palestinians who arrived later?

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Oy weg, the sooner we keep away from historical essentialism and irredentism the better.

  • Chaim says:

    isn’t it interesting how we define what is important to the topic / situation depending on our personal views…

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Because religion, by definition, is a belief system and not a rational, also by definition, argument, it is not revelent to the Middle East conflict; I mean, you can’t convince someone who does not belief that Israel is ours because the Torah says so. But history is. What also is relevent is that Jews do need a homeland and because of our historical connection and continuing presence, allbeit small, Israel is ours. let the true peace makers work out the borders.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    I forgot to include in my last comment …. if they can be found!

  • ariel says:

    Henry, it’s amazing that the Torah argument actually won us the State in the first place when David Ben Gurion held up the Tanakh and claimed that that Book was the Jewish People’s deed and title to the Land of Israel…

  • Henry Herzog says:

    ariel, with the greatest respect, I love that story too, but the struggle for Israel began long before and was fought and won with much blood, sweat and tears, and not Ben Gurion holding up the Tahakh. That, by the way, happened at the UN and what a great friend the UN has turned out to be.

  • Jon says:

    Larry, it looks like Leibler is now lumping as “fiendish enemies” J-Street and Haaretz, amongst others. Paranoid in the extreme. I suspect if Leibler had been around in the 1930’s, Buber who was associated with Judah Magnes’s binationalist movement would have also been ranked as a “fiendish enemy”.

  • ariel says:

    Henry, I should have clarified that what I meant was that his argument was accepted because at the time most of the democratic world were a) sorry for the Jews and b) more religious than today and hence had faith in the Bible

  • david says:

    ariel, interesting question. The Palestinians are native to the region and in terms of this particular piece of real estate, a prolonged period of settlement (at least hundreds of years) is probably sufficient to warrant the term (which we define rather subjectively) of native. I guess in this unusual circumstance we have two native peoples. As Buber says “A land of two peoples” each with moral and historical ties.

  • Chaim says:

    There will never be peace unless people realize there is also a religious aspect to the conflict. I dont see Hamas, Al Quaida Groups or even Religious Jewish groups thinking about the conflict only on your terms.

    Interestingly the Lubavitcher Rebbe who was completely against giving up land said it was only because of Pikuach nefesh (learnt from Halacha regarding a border city being attacked) that we do NOT give back even an inch – which is exactly what happened – we were attacked even more from a closer distance.

  • Leo Braun says:

    “Martin Buber: a model for Australian Zionists”! [David Forbes]

    • Are we’re talking about the same person? Mentioned in Raimond Gaita’s speech: “I believe, that the concept of ‘an indigenous inhabitant’ hinders rather than helps thinking justly about the conflicting claims of Arabs and Jews to the same territory. And in this connection it is important to remember something when one reads writers – Jacqueline Rose, for example – who advocate a one state solution and who enlist in their support earlier anti-state Zionists like the theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber”!

    Who was able to combine Zionism with the ardent German patriotism during World War-I. In his book Drei Reden ueber das Judentum (published in 1911), Buber spoke of a youth who sensed: “The immortality of generations, the community of blood”! Which he felt were the: “Antecedents of his I, the perseverance in the infinite past”! Combined of discoveries and promoted awareness as such at the time: “That blood was a deep-rooted nurturing force within the individual”! Claimed as the: “Deepest layers of human being to be determined by blood”! Moreover that “One’s innermost thinking and will, were affected by it”.

    Buber saw the world around him as: “An ambience of influences and imprints, where blood was a realm’s substance, admitting influences and imprints, a substance absorbing and assimilating all into its own form”! Hence he concluded: “Whoever faced a choice between the environment versus substance, and decides for substance, he henceforth will have to be a Jew truly from within. To live as a Jew with all the contradictions, all the tragedy and all the future within a promise of his blood”!

    As far as one can tell Jews have been in Europe for millenniums, far longer than say the Magyars, yet no one to dream of referring to Hungarians as Asiatics. But to Buber the Jews of Europe were still Asians and presumably always be. Complemented by his analogy: “You could get a Jew out of Palestine, but you could never get Palestine out of the Jew”!

    In 1916 he wrote that the “Jew was driven out of his land and dispersed throughout the lands of the Occident. Yet despite all this, he has remained an Oriental. One to detect all of this in the utmost assimilated Jew, if one knows how to gain an access to his soul”. “The immortal Jew unitary drive will come into being, only after continuity of life in Palestine. Once it comes into contact with its maternal soil, it will revert to become creative again”!

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