Monday, November 2, 2015

Martin Buber on Zionism

Martin Buber as a young man

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Buber was recruited by … Herzl to edit the main paper of the Zionist party, Die Welt. He soon found a more congenial home in the “democratic faction” of “cultural Zionists” led by Chaim Weizmann, then living in Zurich. …[H]e never ceased to write and speak about what he understood to be the distinctive Jewish brand of nationalism. …He … search(ed) for psychologically sound foundations on which to heal the rift between modern realpolitik and a distinctively Jewish theological-political tradition. 
Very much in keeping with the nineteenth-century Protestant yearning for a Christian foundation of the nation-state, Buber sought a healing source in the integrating powers of religious experience. …[H]e … began publishing the journal Der Jude, which served as an open forum of exchange on any issues related to cultural and political Zionism. 
In 1921 Buber attended the Zionist Congress in Carlsbad as a delegate of the socialist Hashomer Hatzair (“the young guard”). In the debates that followed the first anti-Zionist riots in Palestine, Buber joined the Brit Shalom, which argued for peaceful means of resistance. During the Arab revolt of 1936–39, when the British government imposed quotas on immigration to Palestine, Buber argued for demographic parity rather than trying to achieve a Jewish majority. Finally, in the wake of the Biltmore Conference, Buber (as a member of Ihud) argued for a bi-national rather than a Jewish state in Palestine. At any of these stages Buber harbored no illusion about the chances of his political views to sway the majority but he believed that it was important to articulate the moral truth as one saw it. Needless to say, this politics of authenticity made him few friends among the members of the Zionist establishment.

At the theoretical core of the Zionism advanced by Buber was a conception of Jewish identity being neither a religious nor a national form, but a unique hybrid. From early on, Buber rejected any state-form for the Jewish people in Palestine. This was clear already in a widely-noted 1916 exchange of letters with the liberal philosopher Hermann Cohen. Cohen rejected Zionism as incommensurate with the Jewish mission of living as a religious minority with the task of maintaining the idea of messianism that he saw as a motor of social and political reform within society at large. In contrast, Buber embraced Zionism as the self-expression of a particular Jewish collective that could be realized only in its own land, on its soil, and in its language. 
The modern state, its means and symbols, however, were not genuinely connected to this vision of a Jewish renaissance. While in the writings of the early war years, Buber had characterized the Jews as an oriental type in perpetual motion, in his later writings the Jews represent no type at all. Neither nation nor creed, they uncannily combine what he called national and spiritual elements. In his letter to Ghandi, Buber insisted on the spatial orientation of Jewish existence and defended the Zionist cause against the critic who saw in it only a form of colonialism. 
For Buber, space was a necessary but insufficient material condition for the creation of culture based on dialogue. A Gesamtkunstwerk in its own right, the Zionist project was to epitomize the life of dialogue by drawing the two resident nations of Palestine into a perfectible common space free from mutual domination.
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