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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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