In 1917, when the Zionists were celebrating Britain’s endorsement of their aims in the Balfour Declaration, Buber objected that he did not envision the redemption of the Jews as something that could be achieved through political victories. Later, after Buber moved to Jerusalem, in 1938, he opposed a Jewish declaration of statehood, arguing that Palestine should become a binational state shared by Arabs and Jews. And, after the State of Israel came into being, in 1948, Buber continued to criticize its policies and its leadership on many issues—including, especially, its treatment of Arab refugees—becoming a thorn in the side of David Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister.
Characteristically, though, Buber would not renounce the Zionist ideal just because he was disappointed in its reality. “I have accepted as mine the State of Israel, the form of the new Jewish community that has arisen,” he reportedly told a friend. “But he who will truly serve the spirit . . . must seek to free once again the blocked path to an understanding with the Arab peoples.” Like other liberal Zionists then and since, Buber found himself exposed to criticism from all sides. In Israel, he was famous but unpopular, suspected of disloyalty to the Jewish community. “Whether on the street or in a café, among the intellectuals of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv,” a disappointed follower told him, “nowhere did I hear a kind word about Martin Buber.” The man also upbraided him for displaying a cross in his house. (The offending item, Buber explained, was actually a Piranesi engraving of a church.)
Meanwhile, Buber also had to face progressives and pacifists who condemned Zionism altogether. In 1939, he engaged in a polemic with Gandhi, who had published a statement saying that Zionism was an injustice to the Arabs of Palestine, and also recommending that the Jews of Nazi Germany stay there and resist by means of nonviolent satyagraha, or “soul force.” The agonized open letter Buber wrote in response explained that, although such a course might work against the British Empire, against Hitler it was meaningless: “An effective stand in the form of non-violence may be taken against unfeeling human beings in the hope of gradually bringing them to their senses; but a diabolic universal steamroller cannot thus be withstood.” Buber insisted that Zionism was not an aggressive or violent movement. “No one who counts himself in the ranks of Israel can desire to use force,” he wrote. This was its own kind of wishful thinking, and Buber admitted that his attitude toward violence involved a contradiction: “We should be able even to fight for justice—but to fight lovingly.”
Buber’s escape to Jerusalem underscored the need for a refuge for Jews. Had he remained in Germany, he surely would have perished in the Holocaust. Instead, he went on to live for another twenty-seven productive years, in Palestine and in Israel. Yet the destruction of the Jews of Europe also destroyed the basis of much of Buber’s work. He had hoped to provide modern European Jews with a sustaining connection to their tradition, and now those Jews were almost all dead or scattered. He had preached the importance of saying “You,” but the Holocaust represented the ultimate triumph of the “It,” reducing human beings to mere things.
In old age, Buber was the perfect image of a sage, with twinkling eyes and a white beard. Mendes-Flohr opens his book by recounting a perhaps apocryphal story of children pointing at Buber in the street and calling him God. Late in life, when he was living in Jerusalem, he was visited by a stream of young kibbutz members seeking solutions to their religious quandaries. Buber responded by denying that he had anything to teach. “I do not know what ideas are,” he claimed. “Whoever expects of me a doctrine . . . will invariably be disappointed.” His words sound like the utterance of a Zen master contemplating a koan, and, indeed, Buber had long been fascinated by Taoism and Buddhism. The best way to understand Buber, ultimately, may be not as a thinker but as a seeker—a religious type that became common in the twentieth century, as many Europeans and Americans turned to Eastern faiths or modern ideologies in their search for meaning. [Continue reading…]