“The Ploughshare Without Fear”: Remembering Martin Buber (1878-1965)

With Israel armed against its occupied territories and surrounding Arab nations, I often think longingly of Martin Buber’s vision of neighborly relationships between Jews and Arabs. Most Americans know Buber, who died fifty years ago, for his moving renderings of Hasidic tales and his great philosophical treatise, I and Thou. Yet for more than six decades, first in Germany and later in Palestine/Israel, Martin Buber was a vigorous voice in the Zionist movement; he regularly inspired, cajoled, criticized, and, against increasing odds, insisted that there was still a chance for two Semitic peoples to share a peaceful land that both rightfully called home.

For Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the founder of Zionism, the precarious situation of European Jews at the close of the nineteenth century could be solved only by the creation of a Jewish state. Herzl, a secular Jew, took Britain’s offer of land in East Africa seriously enough to ask the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1902 to investigate the offer. When a majority agreed, Buber, for whom only Palestine could be “the promised land,” led most of the remaining delegates in a walkout.

Deeply influenced by a beloved grandfather, who was a devout talmudic scholar, Buber had become an urbane Jew and studied philosophy at the University of Leipzig. It was in Leipzig in 1898 that he discovered Zionism and founded one of the first-known chapters dedicated to its promotion. Critical of assimilation, which made Jews like him particularly vulnerable to both the lures of modernity and anti-Semitism, Buber saw in Zionism the possibility of giving birth to a moral and cultural Jewish renaissance.

In 1901, despite resistance from Herzl, Buber successfully lobbied for a cultural wing in the Zionist movement and engineered a resolution to establish what would twenty years later become Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Buber also co-edited Herzl’s weekly, Die Welt. Although Herzl refused Buber’s request for financing to publish work that would advance a Jewish spiritual renewal, in 1902, Buber founded the Jüdischer Verlag, which issued a Jewish almanac, books on Jewish art, and collections of Jewish poetry.

Conflicts with Herzl led Buber to define tragedy as two people of opposing views having insufficient resources to bridge the gap in their perspectives, and to his concept of “the life of dialogue” as confirming another as a person, despite opposing views.

Living Biblically

Early Zionists were aware of Palestine’s indigenous Arab population. While some hoped that the benefits of Jewish settlements would eventually become apparent to Arabs, others predicted that Arabs would one day feel threatened by Jewish immigration. Nevertheless, most Zionists felt that priority must be given to serving the needs of Jews.

Buber, who viewed all of creation as potentially sacred, believed that Zionism would be actualized “through the way of the Lord, through justice,” or not at all. As he argued in multiple works, moral issues should be placed at the center of Zionism, and the needs of both Jews and Arabs should be considered in settling a land destined to hold both peoples. Indeed, Buber saw the historical right of the Jewish people to Zion as tested by their relationship to their Arab brother, Ishmael.

For Buber, splitting the world into separate political and moral spheres would ultimately destroy both Zionism and Judaism: “whosoever daily trades away a goal against the needs of the hour,” he wrote, “whoever does not achieve a little of his goal every day, is destined in the end to betray it.” The idea of rendering unto Caesar what Caesar is due was a Christian invention, which had led to the moral dissolution of modernity: “The men of the Bible are sinners like ourselves,” he wrote in his essay, “Hebrew Humanism,” “but there is one sin they do not commit, our arch-sin; they do not dare confine God to a circumscribed space or division of life, to ‘religion.’” Limiting God’s sphere was not merely turning away from God, but “standing up directly against him.”

Buber’s faith precluded dividing humanity into friend and foe. In I and Thou, which was first drafted during World War I when he was thirty-eight, Buber argued that it is through genuine “I-thou” relationships with other people that we come to know God. Known to be an empathic listener, Buber maintained that “every responsible relationship between an individual and his fellow begins through the power of a genuine imagination.” Although he kept Biblical references to a minimum in his Zionist writings, Buber’s conviction that all human beings, irrespective of their views, are created in the image of God, fueled his life-long optimism that conflicts between Jews and Arabs in Palestine could be—and in fact, must be—resolved.

Settlement “Together With”

Until the 1920s, Buber hoped that Jewish settlement would be slow enough to allow Jews and their Arab neighbors to form genuine and mutually beneficial relationships. Echoing his dire notion that turning away from God was “standing up directly against him,” Buber warned that when two nations inhabit the same country, settlements that simply take place alongside each other and fail to become “together with,” eventually become settlements “against” each other. Since political slogans and principled claims distorted people’s real needs, he believed that Jews and Arabs should create a shared and equitable daily life—including joint economic projects— before political goals widened their potentially diverging interests.

Zionists were elated in 1917 when Britain’s Balfour Declaration promised Jews a homeland in Palestine. But Buber viewed this sudden thrust onto the international political stage with caution. The First World War had brought home the dangers of modern nationalism. The possibility that Zion could give up its uniqueness as a “community of faith” to become an ordinary self-serving nation augured moral and spiritual disaster. “In the thousands of years of its exile Jewry yearned for the Land of Israel, not as a nation like others,” he wrote, but as the fulfillment of Judaism, “with motives and intentions which cannot be derived wholly from the category ‘nation.’”

Understanding that the die had likely been cast, Buber watched sadly as the Allied nations distributed the spoils of the First World War. Among these was Palestine, part of the former Ottoman Empire. Despite the Balfour Declaration, Britain was wooing Arabs both inside and outside Palestine, and he correctly predicted that the same politics of divide-and-conquer that Britain had mastered in India would be used in Palestine.

Since in 1920 there were approximately ten Arabs for every Jew, Zionists tried to accelerate Jewish immigration in preparation for nationhood. Here, too, Buber took issue with the goal of numerical superiority: “The Jewish people, who have constituted a persecuted minority in all the countries of the world for 2,000 years, reject with abhorrence the methods of nationalistic domination, under which they themselves have long suffered.”

Arab fears of a Jewish state and the attendant loss of Arab property created widespread Arab riots during Passover in 1920. In response, Zionists organized a Jewish defense army, the Haganah. In an essay, “At this Late Hour,” Buber pointed out that the idea of a Jewish state had gone forward without either an international body or the British Government helping Arabs understand the evolving situation or working to “strengthen the understanding between the Arabs and the Jews.” As he reminded Zionists, “It depends on us whether we shall appear before the awakening East as hateful agents and spies or, rather, as beloved pioneers and teachers.”

In 1921, when the Twelfth Zionist Congress took the leap of creating a design for a Jewish nation, Buber responded with a resolution calling for the Zionist leadership to “redouble its efforts to secure an honorable entente with the Arab people,” and to include the promise that “Jewish settlement shall not infringe upon the rights and needs of the working Arab nation.” Although the Zionist Congress took up Buber’s resolution, it was written and rewritten, until Buber complained he was stung by how “the marrow and the blood of [his] original demand” had disappeared. The defeated resolution marked Buber’s last attempt to directly influence Zionist policy; henceforth, he would try to shape the future of Palestine from organizations on the outside.

In 1925, Buber joined a German branch of the newly organized Brith Shalom (Covenant for Peace), a Jerusalem-based “study group” comprised largely of intellectuals. Founding member Gershom Sholem, a young German scholar of mysticism who had recently emigrated to Palestine, described Brith Shalom as a diverse group united by the conviction that “the land of Israel belongs to two peoples, and these need to find a way to live together … and to work for a common future.” The study group envisioned a constitutional arrangement with political and civil parity between Jews and Arabs. To allay Arab fears of a sudden Jewish takeover, Brith Shalom advocated a temporary halt to Jewish immigration, provoking fury among the Zionist leadership.

Buber wrote in the Jüdische Rundschau to express qualified support for Brith Shalom’s proposal. Although he believed there was “room for a joint national policy, because both they and we love this country and seek its future welfare,” he recommended a temporary halt to resolutions and political decrees, so that Jews can “at every moment, let everyday reality show [the Arabs] what our true intentions are.”

The Sixteenth Zionist Congress in Zurich in 1929 expanded the powers of the Jewish Agency governing Zionist endeavors in Palestine. As Buber had warned, this provoked widespread Arab rioting. In a talk before the Berlin chapter of Brith Shalom, Buber asked his audience to momentarily put aside their grief at the tragic deaths of over 100 Jews during the riots, to imagine that they “were the residents of Palestine, and the others were the immigrants who were coming into the country in increasing numbers, year by year, taking it away from us.”

Although Buber celebrated the flourishing kibbutz movement as a promising new communitarian form, he pointed out that Jewish settlers had done too much on their own and missed too many opportunities to create partnerships and alliances with Arabs. Uncertain how much time was left to change course, he concluded with restrained optimism that, “the way is still open for reaching a settlement ‘together with.’”

World War II and the Ichud

During his last five years in Germany, Buber worked relentlessly and under increasing Nazi duress to organize Jewish schools and help train teachers for the thousands of Jewish children who were left stranded when the Nuremberg Laws banned them from German public schools. Nevertheless, by 1938, it became clear to him that life for Jews was no longer possible in Germany, and at the age of sixty Buber accepted a job at Hebrew University and left for Palestine with his family.

In 1939, after the flood of European refugees to Palestine provoked several long and intense Arab revolts, Britain issued a white paper that set a limit on Jewish immigration and forecast the establishment of an independent Arab-majority state in Palestine within ten years. To Zionists, this sounded like a death knell to the promised national home, and they responded by encouraging massive illegal immigration. A Jewish underground military organization called the Irgun also sponsored acts of terrorism against both Arabs and the British government in Palestine.

Buber was barely settled in Jerusalem when he responded to the terrorism in both English and Hebrew newspapers. Just as redemption is not achievable through sin, he argued that bombs and other capricious violence would be “death to our movement and catastrophe to our people.” Although not a pacifist in principle, Buber wrote that, “The ploughshare must remain our only weapon, the ploughshare without fear.”

Buber continued to actively seek Arab-Jewish cooperation and understanding throughout the war years. In 1939, he became an early member of the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement and Cooperation. In the early 1940s, Buber and Henrietta Szold, the founder of Haddassah, along with other members of Brith Shalom, began to meet for discussion in each other’s homes. The group met with David Ben-Gurion after he proposed a trip to America to generate support for a Jewish state in 1942.

When news of the death camps and massacres of European Jewry became known in the Yishuv in 1944, Buber struggled to understand his “common humanity” with those who had systematically “killed millions of my people” with unprecedented “organized cruelty.” On a deeper level, he would ask: “How is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddenness too deep. One can still ‘believe’ in the God who allowed those things to happen. But can one still speak to Him? Can one still hear His word?”

In Palestine, the extermination of European Jews was being used to campaign for a Jewish majority, although this campaign had no effect on either Britain’s immigration quota or the rescue effort. Watching the tragedy unfold, Buber saw the “eclipse of God.” All one can do is “to help men of today stand fast,” he wrote, “with their soul in readiness, until the dawn breaks and a path becomes visible where none suspected it.”

In 1946, the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement and Cooperation signed an agreement with “Falastin-al Jedida” (the New Palestine), an Arab organization headed by Fauzi Darwish el-Husseini. The agreement endorsed a bi-national Palestine and the right of Jewish immigration “in accordance with the absorptive capacity of the country.” Yet Arab nationalists tragically assassinated Fauzi two weeks later, and the Jews and Arabs involved in the agreement process apparently considered it too dangerous to try again.

When a range of Zionist groups joined Ben-Gurion to demand the creation of a Jewish state with an eventual Jewish majority, the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement and Cooperation, under a new name, Ichud, or Unity, issued a comprehensive counterproposal. The Ichud called for Jewish-Arab social, economic, cultural, and political cooperation; a bi-national government; and participation in a larger Near Eastern Federation. Members of Hadassah in the United States responded with anger towards Henrietta Szold. Buber, Szold, and other Ichud members were assaulted with stink bombs and denounced in the press.

In the wake of the Holocaust, the international community was eager for a solution to the problem of displaced Jews. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations decided by a two-thirds vote for the partition of Palestine, and in May 1948, disregarding mounting pressure from the Western powers to delay the establishment of statehood, Ben-Gurion inaugurated the State of Israel. Hours later, Egyptian war planes bombed Tel Aviv and the armies of five Arab states joined Palestinians in an uncoordinated and ultimately unsuccessful, but bloody, effort to eliminate the new Jewish state.

For Buber, statehood, as it had come about, was a defeat for true Zionism. Predicting that it would take generations to extinguish Arab mistrust of both the Zionists and the British, Buber wrote in a deeply personal vein: “Fifty years ago when I joined the Zionist movement for the sake of the rebirth of Israel, I did so with a whole heart. Today my heart is torn.”

Although Buber was internationally revered as a learned and deeply thoughtful spiritual teacher, to many Israeli Jews he became a pariah with a distasteful message. Nevertheless, for his remaining years, he fought against the expropriation of Arab lands and argued for  granting equal rights to Israeli Arabs. His belief that peace remained achievable only through cooperation between Jews and Arabs remained unshaken.

These days, after nearly seventy years of hostilities between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors, even the notion of a two-state solution evokes more widespread pessimism than optimism, while a bi-national state seems sheer folly to many. Yet there are Jews and Palestinians for whom Buber’s vision of living “together with” remains a beacon.  Despite the many obstacles, this remains the only way forward for both peoples.


This article relies heavily on Paul R. Mendes-Flohr’s expertly edited and richly annotated collection of Martin Buber’s letters, articles, essays, and speeches on the relationship between Jews and Arabs, A Land of Two Peoples (reissued by the University of Chicago Press, 2008).


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