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More Than A Nation: The Cultural Zionism of Martin Buber

Solveig Eggerz
Fall 1998

In the early days of Zionism the flourishing tradition of disagreement among Jews provided many different interpretations of what it meant to be a Zionist. The interpretation depended on what the Zionist sought in Palestine.  

Moses Hess (1812-75) was the first to express Zionism in his book Rome and Jerusalem (1862). He sought a moral and spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people which he felt must precede settlement in the Jews’ own historic homeland.  

But it was Theodor Herzl who really created Zionism as a movement. An assimilated Jew who believed in the rational theories of the Enlightenment, Herzl discovered that anti-Semitism survived the Enlightenment, especially in his native Austria. After witnessing, as a journalist in Paris, the outburst of anti-Semitism that followed the Dreyfus affair, he wrote the pamphlet Der Judenstaat (1896). Himself lacking ties to Jewish and Hebrew religious values, Herzl felt that Jews needed to live concentrated together in a particular territory as a nation. Whether the territory was Uganda or Palestine was, to Herzl, inconsequential because he was not interested in Jewish cultural rebirth.  

In August 1897 Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland. This program proclaimed that "Zionism strives to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law." As a proponent of Jewish nationalism, that is Jewish identity as a people with national rights, he stressed diplomacy over Jewish culture. His was a political Zionism.  

Rediscover Roots  

The adherents of cultural Zionism, on the other hand, wanted a place where Jews could go to rediscover their roots, but they did not necessarily seek a Jewish state. The religious philosopher and poet, Martin Buber, exemplifies the cultural Zionist. His biographer, Maurice Friedman, notes that "Zionism meant for Buber a return to Jewish roots which Herzl never had, and an escape from that very assimilation which, except for his political activity, marked Herzl to the end."  

As early Zionism developed, the rift between these two viewpoints became a chasm. The unbridgeable nature of the dissent between cultural and political Zionists can be understood by examining the motivations of its leaders.  

Herzl, deeply disappointed in the failure of the Enlightenment to eradicate anti-Semitism, sought a place where enlightened Jews could continue to live a cosmopolitan culture untroubled by bigots. In his novel Altneuland (1902) he describes an utterly un-Jewish life that the settlers would live in the new nation of Palestine.  

Martin Buber, although the child of assimilated parents, nevertheless gradually turned toward Judaism. When Buber was three years old, his mother left the family, and he was sent to live with his grandparents. They too were assimilated. Yet his grandfather, Solomon Buber, a wealthy philanthropist, was a gentleman Hebrew scholar who had dedicated his life to the critical edition of the Midrashim. Through his grandfather, Buber learned Hebrew, but was, at first, more interested in Schiller’s poetry than the Talmud.  

Lost Moorings  

Friedman explains that during his university years in Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig and Zurich Buber largely lost his moorings from the thoroughgoing Judaism of his grandfather. Still something of the authentic Jewishness as well as the authentic humaneness of his grandfather remained permanently instilled in him, something from the world of the Midrash. In January 1900, on the occasion of his grandfather’s birthday, Buber wrote his grandparents a letter:  

"Since I have been away from home, I have made the acquaintance of many persons of culture: artists, poets, and men of science. But I have never seen the childlike, magical force of the spirit, the might of a strong and simple striving so purely and beautifully embodied as in grandpa."  

It was through his study of Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of modern culture that Buber was attracted to Zionism. In 1900 he wrote a poem "To Narcissus" which expressed his longing for roots in a tradition:  

And every day you dip yourself into life only  

To give your soul new jewels  

New song and new play;  

And every night you weave yourself  

In sweet faery feasts and varicolored dreams.  

Zionism provided an escape from narcissism as well as a promise of roots and a more wholesome culture. The Jewish renaissance which Buber described in his essays, first took place in his own soul. Palestine, he felt, was a place for spiritual renewal, where Jews might experience a rebirth of their culture.  

Buber and Herzl  

In his book JEWS: The Essence and Character of a People Arthur Hertzberg describes the difference between Buber and Herzl, men belonging to different eras: "As a man of the Enlightenment, Herzl still believed that society could be perfected, that progress was the wave of the future, and that anti-Semitism could be solved by rational means: removing the Jews from all Diasporas and creating a Jewish state. Buber, on the other hand, was fleeing from the emptiness of a world in which secular ideologies had failed to perfect society. Buber was turning to God."  

In 1901 Herzl invited Buber to become editor of the Zionist weekly Die Welt. That same year his search for Jewish spirituality deepened through his marriage to a non-Jewish, pro-Zionist woman, Paula Winkler, who converted to Judaism. Also in 1901 Buber turned to the 18th century eastern European pietistic movement, Hasidism, in which he saw a spiritual essence with which to infuse Judaism, lost to secularism in the Enlightenment. He looked both to Hasidism as well as Zionism for an overall spiritual renewal. He envisioned it taking place in agricultural settlements in Palestine, where the humane precepts of the Enlightenment would preferably apply.  

Thus, Buber sought to blend the best of Hasidism and the haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, and let it flow into Zionism. As spokesman for the Agitation Committee at the Third Zionist Congress at Basel in 1899, Buber, calling Zionism a Weltanschauung, a world view, decried the political conception of Zionism:  

"We must win the whole people for our cause and win them not merely by external agitation but through inner transformation. They must not be Zionists as one is a conservative or a liberal, but as one is a man or an artist. This can be accomplished through ‘inner agitation’ through nourishing Jewish culture ... the spirit of the people, its national history, and its national literature, through education of the people."  

Distance Widened  

But Herzl, with his love of cosmopolitan art and literature, had no interest in cultural Zionism and the distance between Herzl and Buber widened. After resigning the editorship of Die Welt, Buber generally stood in opposition to official Zionist party politics. Unlike his contemporaries, who studied comparative religions, Buber immersed himself in the Biblical prophets. He was also moved by the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov:  

"It was then that ... I experienced the Hasidic soul, the primally Jewish opened to me ... man’s being created in the image of God I grasped as deed, as becoming, as task ... I recognized the idea of the perfected man ... I became aware of the summons to proclaim it to the world."  

Herzl sought to recreate secular European civilization in Palestine without the anti-Semitism. But Buber was disappointed in the salon-driven emptiness of urban European, post-Enlightenment civilization. Jews, he felt, had lost much when they assimilated to non-Jewish culture. In working the land of Zion and living in accordance with the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, the Jews could regain their sense of spiritual wholeness.  

For Buber Zionism was not a religion unto itself, but it provided the environment in which a spiritual renaissance could be realized. The return to Palestine implied far more than it did for the political Zionists in search of a safe haven. In his essay on "Hebrew Humanism" Buber quoted Dante’s statement: "The greatest desire Nature has implanted in everything from its beginning is the desire to return to its origin." But he interpreted this not in geographic terms but as the spirit returning to the source of its strength. He adds a quote from Conrad Burdach, that it is the goal of humanism, "to return to the human origin, not by way of speculative thought, but by way of a concrete transformation of the whole inner life."  

Influence of Hasidism  

Mordecai M. Kaplan notes that, "Hasidism had provided Buber with the main fuel, so to speak, for the flame of his Jewishness which was sparked by Zionism." Zionism by itself lacked substance. Buber felt that the Jewish religious tradition "is the indispensable means of achieving that inner transformation of the Jewish people both individually and communally, without which the outer transformation which Zionism has been fostering is less than half the task."  

In 1901 at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Buber, leading the "Democratic Fraction’s" fight against Theodor Herzl on behalf of cultural Zionism, described a rebirth of creativity: "A whole and complete Jewish art, like a whole and complete Jewish culture in general would be possible only on Jewish soil."  

For Herzl cultural Zionism distracted from political goals. But the young Zionists, or the Democratic Fraction, under Buber’s leadership, founded in 1902 the Judischer Verlag. This publishing house produced a Jewish almanac, collections of Jewish Porte, and books on Jewish art.  

In 1904 Martin Buber and Chaim Weizmann became the editors of a new journal Der Jude, which became the central forum for most Jewish intellectuals who read German. In this publication Buber not only advocated the Jewish spiritual renaissance but also Jewish-Arab cooperation in the form of a binational state in Palestine.  

In these endeavors Buber was closely associated with the man who is considered the founder of cultural Zionism, Asher Ginsburg, who wrote under the pen name of Ahad Ha’am. He joined the Odessa branch of Chibbat Zion (Love of Zion) society in 1886, and three years later published his first article in the Hebrew literary journal Ha-Melitz, "This is Not the Way," which criticized the settlement policy of the movement. Unlike those who wanted a Jewish state, Ha’am felt that the "prime task of the Jewish national movement should be to imbue its followers with zeal for cultural regeneration."  

Jewish Settlements  

In 1891 he visited the new Jewish settlements in Palestine and wrote the essay "The Truth From the Land of Israel," in which he criticized the land speculation. He was among the first to raise the Arab question:  

"We tend to believe abroad that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted, a non-cultivated wilderness, and anyone can come there and buy as much land as his heart desires. But in reality this is not the case. It is difficult to find anywhere in the country Arab land which lies fallow ..."  

Like Buber, Ha’am viewed Zionism as an expression of the Jewish spirit. He said, "before the Jews can be concentrated physically in Zion, their hearts and minds must be concentrated spiritually on the love of Zion."  

The behavior of Jewish settlers towards the Arabs disturbed him. For he felt they treated their Arab neighbors with contempt. He warned of the consequences:  

"If the time should come when the lives of our people in Palestine should develop to the extent that, to a smaller or greater degree they usurp the place of the local population the latter will not yield easily," he wrote.  

Indigenous Population  

Gradually the reality of the problem that the movement for a Jewish renaissance in Palestine faced from the indigenous population dawned on the young Zionists.  

Yitzhak Epstein wrote in an article in 1907: "there is one [question] which is more weighty than all the others put together. This is the question of our relations with the Arabs. This question, on the correct solution of which our own national aspirations depend, has not been forgotten, but rather has remained completely hidden from the Zionists, and in its true form has found almost no mention in the literature of our movement."  

But the acquisition of Arab land and the flow of Jewish immigration accelerated without the development of a system for cooperating with the Arabs. "The objective was not merely a national home for the Jews, as proffered by the Balfour Declaration, but through massive immigration to transform the demography of Palestine, so that the Jewish minority acquired equal status in the eyes of the mandate authorities and international opinion, and a plausible basis for demanding self-government," writes David Goldberg, in his book To the Promised Land: A History of Zionist Thought.  

"This was the tacitly understood goal of Zionist policy during the mandate period. The practical demands of creating an autonomous Jewish society in Palestine ready for eventual statehood took precedence over theoretical ruminations about coexistence with the Arab majority."  

Resisted Injustice  

Buber was in the forefront of those who resisted formal nationalism in Palestine, as well as all forms of inhumanity and injustice toward the Arabs. He urged peaceful coexistence with the Arabs rather than domination of the indigenous population. He resisted the notion of Zionism as an ordinary political nationalism, and the idea of Jews as a nation like all the nations. Buber’s friend Robert Weltsch explains how Buber rejected a Zionism that was just another national movement: "Deeper and higher is the idea of Zion... national forms without the eternal meaning from which they have arisen, would be tantamount to the end of Israel’s specific creativeness. It would not be rebirth, but self-deception which conceals the death of the soul."  

In 1925 Buber and several other cultural Zionists founded Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace). Its official founder and first president was, curiously enough, Dr. Arthur Ruppin, head of the Palestine Land Development Company, which bought land from the Arabs. Brit Shalom had between 100 and 200 supporters. Its founders set out their credo in their first publication Sh’ifoteinu (Our Aspirations) issued in Jerusalem in 1927. Brit Shalom wanted to create in Palestine "a binational state, in which the two peoples will enjoy totally equal rights as befits the two elements shaping the country’s destiny, irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any given time." This renunciation of Jewish majority flew in the face of political Zionism which propagated majority status and sovereignty.  

Brit Shalom consisted of a cosmopolitan group of intellectuals, "for whom Zionism was a moral crusade or it was nothing," Goldberg notes. They included, Robert Weltsch, editor of Judische Rundschau, journal of the German Zionist movement; Jacob Thon from the settlement department of the Jewish Agency; Chaim Kalvarisky, director of the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association in the Galilee; Judah Magnes, chancellor of the Hebrew University, as well as Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon, Gershom Scholem, and Martin Buber.  

Binational State  

In 1925, when Jews were entering Palestine by the thousands, Weltsch described the benefits of the binational state: "Within the framework of such a state, we see the possibility of creating that which now is lacking — the complete legal basis upon which independent, free and normal national life can be grounded, within the fabric of general society."  

Yosef Luria, a Romanian born journalist, a settler of the class of 1907, had warned earlier that, "During all the years of our labour in Palestine we completely forgot that there were Arabs in the country." Later he cited Switzerland and Finland, two countries with multinational and binational constitutions respectively, which granted equal cultural and linguistic status to all national groups regardless of size and guaranteed their rights, as models for Palestine:  

"It is the land of two peoples, who live there or should live there by equal national right; any political institution must be based solely on a political arrangement which cannot be changed for the worse by majority vote. Without acceptance of this principle, the parliament will inevitably become the instrument of the majority, which will suppress the national rights of the minority."  

But by 1925 it may have been too late. In 1905 Nagib Azouri, a French educated Christian Arab, born in Jaffa, had written a book, Le Reveil de la Nation Arab, pointing to the conflict between the awakening Arab nation and the Jews intent on restoring their ancient kingdom: "These two movements are destined to fight each other persistently, until one prevails over the other."  

Homeland Not State  

Hugo Bergmann, advocating binationalism and universalism, wrote in the third issue of Sh’ifoteinu in 1929:  

"The historic task of the Jewish people at this time is to rebuild the ruins of Palestine together with the inhabitants of the country, and to be restored to life in all the countries of exile through this endeavour. It is not a state to which we aspire, but a homeland."  

Although Judah Magnes did not officially belong to Brit Shalom because of his position as Chancellor of Hebrew University, he was a leading spirit of the group and the most consistent of the advocates of binationalism. In a pamphlet, written in 1930 and entitled, "Like Unto All Nations," he asked "What is Zionism?" and answered: Immigration, Settlement of the land. Hebrew life and culture. "If you can guarantee these for me, I should be willing to yield the Jewish state and the Jewish majority." He maintained that the living Jewish people did not need a Jewish state either to maintain its very existence or to "perform its great ethical mission as a national-international entity."  

Buber’s religious concepts spilled over into his aspirations for Brit Shalom. Out of his studies of Hasidism grew his theological doctrine of I and Thou. The basic and purest form of this relation is between man and God (the Eternal Thou), which is the model for and makes possible I-Thou relations between human beings. The relation between man and God is always an I-Thou one, whereas that between man and man is very frequently an I-It one, in which the other being is treated as an object of thought or action. The concept of I-Thou should color not only relations between Jews and other Jews but also the relations between Jew and Arab. Human beings should not be treated as objects encountered on one’s political path.  

Justice and Compassion  

Palestine, to be an authentic Jewish state, had to be constructed upon a foundation of justice and compassion for all. "Israel can endure only if it insists on its vocation of uniqueness, if it translates into reality the divine words spoken during the making of the Covenant," Buber said.  

After making several efforts at establishing a joint Jewish-Arab effort in administration, economics, education, medicine, culture, politics, and labor, Brit Shalom folded in 1933. Explaining Brit Shalom’s lack of influence on Zionism, Hugo Bergmann said the group represented "the last flicker of the humanist nationalist flame, at a historical moment when nationalism became amongst all the nations an anti-humanist movement."  

Binationalism, prior to the creation of the Jewish state, was not considered an anti-Zionist concept. Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist organization and first president of the state of Israel, supported binationalism or "parity." In July 1931 at the Basel Congress, Weizmann resurrected the idea:  

"The Arabs must be made to feel, must be convinced, by deed as well as word, that, whatever the future numerical relationship of the two nations in Palestine, we, on our part, contemplate no political domination. Provided that the mandate is both recognized and respected, we would welcome an agreement between the two kindred races on the basis of political parity. It is our duty to explain our aims and ideals clearly and without ambiguity to the Arab peoples, and to neglect no opportunity of coming into touch with them and no channel of communication which may help towards a mutual understanding...Only in this way shall we succeed in cooperating with the Arab peoples, who themselves are struggling toward the light and now, after many centuries, are reentering the political arena of the world."  

Rational Perception  

The members of Brit Shalom have been labeled unrealistic idealists, academic personalities not well versed in realpolitik. But the opposite may be true, for in the long run, the warnings of this justice-oriented group may have proved to be a rational perception of the situation. In her study of binationalism, Susan Hattis writes:  

"Bi-nationalism, they said, is not the ideal but the reality, and if this reality is not grasped Zionism will fail. They were not defeatists who were willing to make any concession for the achievement of peace, they simply realized that the Arabs were justified in fearing a Zionism which spoke in terms of a Jewish majority and a Jewish state. Their belief was that one need not be a maximalist, i.e. demand mass immigration and a state, to be a faithful Zionist ... What was vital was a recognition that both nations were in Palestine as of right."  

The idealism with which Buber viewed Palestine bore him to great verbal heights. His "Zion of the souls" could not have been more different from the Jewish state envisioned by the political Zionists. He wanted an unwritten program of a movement rather than a party platform to break the fetters that held Jewish spirituality. "This movement will cause the Jews again to feel themselves as an organism and to strive for the harmonious unfolding of their powers, to put as much of their souls into walking, singing, and working as into the intellectual problems, to call trees, birds, and stars their brothers and sisters."  

Religious Quality  

There is no mistaking the religious quality of Buber’s Zionism. If it was anything it was infused with spirituality:  

"Zion must be reborn in the soul before it can be created as a tangible reality. When all who belong to the movement make their Zionism active not merely with words but with their whole being, when they regard their whole life as a holy preparation for the new and wonderful time that shall come, when they live it as such, with true seriousness and purpose, when such a Zion of the souls exists — then the other, the Palestinian Zion, will not be long in following. For where there is true dedication, there is strength."  

But Buber did not remain in an ivory tower. He did not move to Palestine until 1938 when he was no longer allowed to teach in Europe. But he was aware of the unanswered Arab question long before that. In addition to working with Brit Shalom, he formed an organization with Judah Magnes called Ihud, the goal of which was to find a just settlement for both peoples of Palestine. But his disappointment went as deep as his idealism had soared. Regarding the failure of all proposals for peaceful co-existence with the Arabs, he wrote:  

"Only an internal revolution can have the power to heal our people of their murderous sickness of causeless hatred ... It is bound to bring complete ruin upon us. Only then will the old and the young in our land realize how great was our responsibility to those miserable Arab refugees in whose towns we have settled Jews who were brought from afar; whose homes we have inherited, whose fields we now sow and harvest; the fruits of whose gardens, orchards and vineyards we gather; and in whose cities that we robbed we put up houses of education, charity, and prayer, while we babble and rave about being the ‘People of the Book’ and the ‘light of the nations’."  

Power and Conscience  

Brit Shalom, Goldberg notes, "could not steer its way between the exigencies of power and the dictates of individual conscience and petered out." Yet their ideas have lived on in the debates regarding Israel today.  

"Those who hammer out an unwavering message of principle are scoffed at for their naivety, accused of living in an ideal world; then slowly, the public perception of them alters their repetition of beliefs impervious to changing fortune, their seeming indifference to easy popularity, evokes grudging acknowledgment and belated respect, then, finally, genuine admiration," writes Goldberg.  

Those who sought equal rights for the Arabs soon discovered they were on a collision course with Zionist expansion. Adapting Zionist aims to ethical demands became an insoluble problem. In 1918 the German sociologist Max Weber wrote an essay called "Politics as a Vocation" which pointed to the distinction between the ethics dictated by the exigencies of power and the imperatives of the individual moral conscience. Brit Shalom members, such as Buber and Ernst Simon, both professors at Hebrew University, rejected Weber’s thesis.  

Moral Dilemma  

Yet Weber’s theory describes well the moral dilemma of Ruppin, the first president of Brit Shalom, whose career, Goldberg notes, perhaps more than that of any other single individual, "illustrates the moral ambiguity at the heart of Zionism ... If any one person can be said to have promoted Zionism at the expense of the native Arab population, it was Ruppin." His job was to purchase land from the Arabs, and he did it very successfully. It was Ruppin who systematically expanded settlement policy. While the right hand shifted land out of the hands of the Arabs and into those of the settlers, the left tried to do something to soften the realities of the Arab dispossession.  

Between the violent Arab uprisings of 1921 and 1929, Ruppin remarked, "What continually worries me is the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Palestine ... Neither has any understanding of the other, and yet I have no doubt that Zionism will end in a catastrophe if we do not succeed in finding a common platform." He wanted a more equitable situation. It was out of Ruppin’s sense of moral ambiguity that the plans for Brit Shalom had been laid.  

Later, when Brit Shalom had disintegrated, Ruppin said:  

"One of the determining factors was that the Zionist aim has no equal in history. The aim is to bring the Jews as a second nation into a country which already is settled as a nation — and fulfill this through peaceful means. History has seen such penetration by one nation into a strange land only by conquest, but it has never occurred that a nation will fully agree that another nation should come and demand full equality of rights and national autonomy at its side."  

Significance In Failure  

It is no wonder that Brit Shalom failed given the ambiguous nature of its leader. Goldberg, however, sees the significance of Brit Shalom precisely in its failure:  

"It correctly foresaw the consequences of Zionist policy, and while there is no proof that its approach would have been any more successful, it can be claimed with the benefit of hindsight that it represented the one brief, genuine attempt to bridge the chasm between Zionism’s aims and recognition of the indigenous population’s rights. Moreover, it was a noteworthy affirmation of liberal values at a time when these were being discarded in Europe, and where support for totalitarianism, whether of the right or the left, was growing and finding its echo among Zionists. The wan flicker and demise of Brit Shalom is a handy metaphor for the wider fate of political liberalism in the twentieth century."  

For sixty years Buber strove to combine his love of Zion with principles of haskalah as well as of Hasidism. He always hoped that Jews might live in Palestine in a society that revered the concept of equal rights that emerged during the Enlightenment. He also prayed that the people of Palestine might regard one another in a relation that went beyond the I-It.  

More Than A Nation  

In 1929 Buber was chosen by the Labor Zionists in America as well as by the German Labor Zionists as their representative to the Sixteenth Zionist Congress. He gave a speech advocating an Israel that is more than a nation, that is, an Israel that has everything by which a nation is defined, but rejects the sacred egoism that makes the nation an end in itself.  

"If Zionism erects a small state like all the other small states, it will remain with them on the periphery of history and, like them, will disappear," Buber told the audience, quoting from Max Weber. "But if instead it builds up a spiritual power, then it will remain in the center of history and will endure." This was Buber’s dream for Palestine, a spiritual rather than a worldly realm. And if it must bow to pressure and take on the trappings of a worldly realm, then let it be more than a nation, a light unto the nations.

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