What Kind of Zionist was Martin Buber?

Zionists have never all stood for the same thing. The movement is fractured, the cracks made of conflicting ideas about religion and nationalism. The disunity can be witnessed everywhere from the op-ed pages of newspapers to the Israeli Knesset itself. The same kinds of ideological conflicts raged on in the early twentieth century, around the time modern Zionism was born. For Martin Buber, a central figure of Zionism during that period, religion needed to be the basis of nationalism, even if the religion was not necessarily an organized one. Buber believed that Israel was not sustainable as a mere political entity, but would need to be unique to survive, and what gave the country its uniqueness was its religious Jewish community.

Buber was born in Vienna in 1878 and died in 1965. He came from a family of halakha-observing Jews, but broke with the tradition to study secular philosophy. In this way, he resembled Ahad Ha’am. Unlike Ahad Ha’am, though, Buber did not become completely secularized, but he did disassociate himself from organized religion and criticized halakha throughout his life. He also didn’t ask Jews to put aside their religion to prioritize a Jewish national identity – Buber thought that religious observance by everyone was precisely what comprised Jewish national identity. But both Buber and Ahad Ha’am shared an idea for a structure for a Jewish state. They believed in a Zionist ideal where Israel would be the fulcrum of Jewish culture as well as a binational state where Arabs and Jews shared equal rights. That ideal was the basis for Brit Shalom, a political group founded in 1925 that Buber joined. The group was small until the end – its membership never exceeded a hundred at any single time – but it was still influential. Among its other supporters were Arthur Ruppin, Gershom Scholem, Hans Kohn, Hugo Bergmann, and Albert Einstein.

Buber’s ascent into the Zionist movement was quick. In 1898, while at the University of Vienna, he founded a Jewish student organization on campus and, the same year, a Zionist organization Leipzig. Upon graduating, he worked for a few months as an editor of Die Welt, the official Zionist newspaper, but by 1902 developed enough political differences from Theodore Herzl to leave it. After a couple of years of political activity, Buber turned to scholarship on Hasidism and dialogism and worked in a publishing house. He edited the journal Der Jude from 1916 to 1924 and published the work he’s best known for, I and Thou, in 1923. Also in the 1920s, he published a German translation of the Old Testament with Franz Rosenzweig. In 1938, after a fifteen-year stint as a scholar in Frankfurt, he fled the Nazi regime until the “last possible moment” and went to Palestine, working at Hebrew University until his retirement.

Buber was a famously prolific writer, editor, and translator on a variety of subjects, but Arthur Hertzberg collected three of his writings in The Zionist Idea to illustrate his thoughts on Zionism. The first, “The Jew in the World,” an address delivered in 1934, discusses how Jews as people and as a nation relate to everyone else. “Hebrew Humanism,” published in 1942, attempts to assert the importance of religion in the national Jewish identity. The third piece Hertzberg includes is an extract from an open letter to Mahatma Gandhi published in 1939, which optimistically discusses peace prospects between Arabs and Jews living in then-Palestine. Buber’s reasons for a Zionist state were similar to that of others: that the Jews have been shunted from country to country and needed a home of their own. However, he was thinking a few steps ahead. Creating a political entity to house Jews was one thing, but perhaps a unique people needed a unique home

The concept of “the Jew in the world” began, according to Buber, with the collapse of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. The Romans laid waste to the Jews and effectively made the country no longer a Jewish one. The Jewish homeland had ended. Buber argues that galut is more than just exile from the Jewish homeland, though. Galut is the tacit knowledge between Jews and other countries that any peace or alliance is temporary and exists as long as it remains convenient for the host country. As he wrote, “Every alliance in [Jewish] history contains an invisible terminating clause; every union with other civilizations is informed with a secret divisive force.” Jews became insecure because they had no home and because they were a historical aberration – no other nation had ever been in a situation resembling theirs. This insecure Jewish population goes from civilization to civilization chasing security, and the unclassifiable Jewish nation strives to be classified. Because the Jewish nation is impossible to classify relative to other nations, Buber describes antisemitism as “a kind of fear of ghosts,” a fear of something that is homeless and not entirely understood.

Because the Jews are a unique nation, their state must also be unique. Buber defends this idea on both Biblical and political grounds, but he seems to care mostly about the Biblical. According to the prophets, he said, Israel cannot exist as a solely political structure. It can only persist “if it insists on its vocation of uniqueness.” Israel must realize the covenant between the Jewish people and G-d if it wants to last. The country, as the kingdom of G-d, makes it unique, and that uniqueness gives it security. On a political level, Buber sees the Jewish people living in Zion as the first real attempt to make a gemeinschaft, a community, function on the scale of a gesellschaft, a society. In Zion, the Jewish people would all share a sense of belonging, of home, and they would all have a connection to G-d.

For Buber the essence of Judaism is not commandments but the Jewish people’s unique encounter with G-d, which is magnificently documented in the Bible. The message of the Jewish people is neither monotheism nor any other sort of theology but the discovery that one can speak to G-d.

The utopian Zionist vision involves a society where everyone interacts with each other with the knowledge that they and everyone else can talk to G-d. It’s not a system of living based on halakhic law, but on the immediacy of G-d Himself in everyday life.

According to Buber, Jewish Nationalism recognizes Israel as merely a nation like all other nations. The idea works to assert Israel as independent, but it’s empty. What the Jews need instead is Hebrew Humanism, which recognizes Israel as both a nation and a religious community. Without religion, Zionism is just another national liberation movement. Simply having religion isn’t enough, though – Hebrew Humanism demands that Judaism becomes a way of living and a way of thinking. “The men in the Bible are sinners like ourselves, but there is one sin they do not commit, our archsin: They do not dare confine G-d to a circumscribed space or division of life, to ‘religion.’” Religion can’t be compartmentalized and separated from everything else, it’s a way of life. The Torah tells the Jewish people what is right and what is wrong, what is truth and what is false. Knowing these things gives direction and, with a common direction, the ability to preserve a community, according to Buber.

Every nation believes that they are a chosen people, a nation unlike other nations, Buber said. Buber said that whether or not one thinks a nation is unique is irrelevant – Jewry is set apart from all other nations because it actually has a unique role in history unlike that of any other nation. Furthermore, the Jewish doctrine of uniqueness is different from that of other nations. For other nations, it was a wish – the Nazis bragged that “The German essence will make the whole world well.”For Jews, the future existence of the people depended on the nation’s uniqueness. And being a chosen, unique people is inextricably tied into being G-d’s people, according to Buber. “We shall not, of course, be able to boast of possessing the Book if we betray its demand for righteousness.”

In 1939, Gandhi remarked that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English. It is wrong and inhuman to impose Jews on the Arabs … Why should they not, like other peoples on earth, make that country home where they are born and earn their livelihood?” Buber penned an open letter to Gandhi saying that he hoped for a peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, setting up his stance as a proponent of binationalism later on. He framed the letter with saying that he belongs “to a group of people,” implying that his views are shared by others. Buber was certain that peace between Jews and Arabs would be unusual and unprecedented, but not impossible. He also believes that no objective judgment can be made over which side is just – both Arabs and Jews have claims that must be reconciled. Already, among the people, Buber noticed that there were hints of peace. Arab farmers came to learn the innovations that Jewish farmers brought to the field.

Works Referenced:

Farsakh, Leila. “Time for a bi-national state.” Le Monde diplomatique March 2007. Magazine.

Hertzberg, Arthur. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader. Ed. Arthur Hertzberg. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1959. Book.

Lagueur, Walter. A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel. New York: Random House, 2009. Book.

Margalit, Avishai. “Prophets With Honor.” The New York Review of Books 4 November 1993. Magazine.

Reuter. “Gandhi and the Jews: Attack on Herr Hitler.” The Straits Times 20 January 1939: 11. Newspaper.

Zank, Michael. Martin Buber (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 2007. Website. 7 May 2014.



Journalist at INSIDER and Business Insider. I’ve published work at GQ, the New Republic, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and Pipe Dream. jacobshamsian.com

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Jacob Shamsian

Jacob Shamsian


Journalist at INSIDER and Business Insider. I’ve published work at GQ, the New Republic, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and Pipe Dream. jacobshamsian.com