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Martin Buber – Zionism: Not Only a Goal But a Means

Reflections on Zionism- Its Thinkers and Implementers (6)

In the late 1950s and 1960s, a debate, although passionate nevertheless, based on mutual respect and admiration, took place between the philosopher-theologian, Martin Buber (who immigrated to Palestine in 1938 from Nazi Germany) and the philosopher-statesman, David Ben-Gurion.  Zionism, Buber proclaimed, is not only a goal but it means.

… true Zionism is like  … the City of the Great King (Isaiah 6:5) … a living and enduring thing,” (Israel and the World).   It does not happen. It must be strived for continually. A true Zionist never becomes satisfied with being, but perpetually longs to becoming, more and more, righteous – more worthy to be a light amongst the nations.

Zionism, to Buber is a dialogical process, in constant action, forever in motion, never static. Buber held that the independence and establishment of the State of Israel is a condition of Zionism, but not its fulfillment.

The basic teaching that fills the Hebrew Bible is that our life is a dialogue between the above and the below.  (The Dialogue between Heaven and Earth), … The Bible is the Book of the I and Thou, relationship between the people of Israel and God; however, the third partner is essential to this dialogue and that is the land of Israel.

Buber, the philosopher of dialogue, world-acclaimed for his book , I and Thou, taught that ” the land is not merely a living being, but it is also the partner in a moral, God-willed and God-guaranteed association”.

Zionism, therefore, unlike other national movements, is named, not for the people but for a place, a holy city, extolled by the prophets and the psalmist (Psalm 48).  In the City of God, in Zion, Jerusalem, God alone is King; therefore no man is subjugated to another. This gives it spiritual strength, as a light to the country itself, and eventually to the world, as a beacon of righteousness and kindness.

Every relationship, for Buber, requires moral scrutiny. Its aim is to ensure that each partner to a dialogue, each “I” endeavors to approach the  “other” as a “thou”, as a subject, not as “ an object” and ”not as an it”; meaning that each “I” approach the “thou”, not for a use, as an instrument, not  as a tool but a comprehensive entity, each individual representing a unique world, in God’s image.  And God, as the “Thou of Thou’s, whose imminence permeates all his creation, also transcends it. The Kingship of God, therefore implies, in Zion, in Israel, complete equality amongst men, a true democracy based on a model of justice and compassion; and, only then can the people call themselves holy. Holiness, for Buber is not a fact or a title, given by God, but a task, a goal.

The reason,  “God chose Israel,”  Buber states in his essay, Hebrew Humanism, was not merely to elect but to demand: “…A truth and  righteousness and He does not demand it for certain isolated spheres of life, but for the whole life of man, for the whole life of the people…”

In an open letter to Mahatma Gandhi in 1939, describing the diabolical persecution of the Jews by the Nazis and the essence of Zionism, Buber explained that “what is decisive for us, is not the promise of the land, but the demand, whose fulfillment is bound up with the Land”.

“ Zion,” Buber wrote to a critic, “signifies to me, no Divine security but a God-given chance”.

About the Author
Michel M.J. Shore is a retired judge of the Federal Court of Canada and recently made a home in Israel. He is the writer of several published books and poetry collections.
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