It is Time to Invite Buber to the Peace Talks

Pete F. Spalding

If you know aught that might be preferable
to these maxims, let me hear it; if not,
I beg of you, make of use of these.
Horace, The Epistles


With the peace talks now stalled on a narrow ridge between success and failure, with the wild dogs of hate running amok in the Middle East, there is no better time to resurrect the wisdom of Martin Buber, the father of the Philosophy of Dialogue.

Martin Buber (1878-1965), the distinguished Jewish philosopher and theologian can serve as an articulate guide on the path to a lasting peace. The moment has arrived to put Buber's Philosophy of Dialogue into praxis on the world stage.

Martin Buber-who with his flowing white beard and piercing eyes so looked the wise philosopher-is best known as the author of I and Thou, which contains the essence of his Philosophy of Dialogue. He is less well known as an articulate voice for reconciliation and accommodation. No Jewish thinker has felt more passionately about the moral necessity for reconciliation between Jew and Arab than Martin Buber. Buber's wisdom, combined with a new daring on the part of the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, can serve to guide the Middle East towards that ever-elusive meeting of history and morality. Martin Buber cannot make the peace, but his discernment can serve as a beacon on the way to the peace. The time has arrived require the peacemakers to sit silently and meditate on the vision of Martin Buber, as expressed in his writings on Palestinian and Israeli reconciliation, samples of which are offered below.

Buber cried out for accommodation between Jew and Arab as early as 1920, eighteen years before he and his wife Paula settled permanently in Palestine. At that time Buber wrote:

We must abstain from all foreign policy except for those steps and actions which are necessary for the achievement of a lasting and amicable agreement with the Arabs in all aspects of public life, indeed, only those steps which would bring about and sustain an all embracing and fraternal solidarity with the Arabs are worthy. [1]

The Prime Minister speaks Arabic and is a keen student of Arab culture. This should serve him well in obtaining that elusive 'lasting and amicable agreement' envisioned by Buber, who often decried the lack of cultural understanding between the two protagonists in the Middle East. Barak and Arafat in the past have both articulated the need for new departures. Buber eloquently echoed this when he wrote in 1929:

I do not know of any political activity more harmful than regarding ones ally or opponent as if he were cast in a fixed mold. When we consider him 'like that,' we fall victim to the irrationality of his existence, only when we pay attention to the fact that human nature is much the same the world over will we be able to come to reality. Unfortunately, we have not settled Palestine together with the Arabs, but 'along side' them. [2]

Buber never ceased emphasizing that it takes moral daring, not power, to make peace. He wrote:

The truly daring are not those who dream of conquest and subjugation, but rather those who look to the future, when two nations will together, in brotherhood, make the Near East flourish. [3]

Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat have both shown daring in the battles of the past. Both will now be called to show a like daring in forging a lasting peace-a peace Prime Minister Barak has termed 'a peace of the brave.' Fortunately, history has shown us that individuals who have experienced war most closely desire peace most fervently. It is not too late to rescue the peace from the jaws of war.

Speaking in 1962, Buber said:

The main thing is knowing what the moment demands. In other words, we must replace the way of tactics, which is the short-term approach, with the way of strategy, which is thinking for the long term. Real defense consists of seeing far ahead, of taking the long view. We must work for long-term results, the decisive word must be dictated not by political tactics but by political strategy. [3]

Both Jew and Arab, as peoples of the Diaspora, are mindful of the heavy meaning and consequences of "taking the long view." This requires seeing beyond Palestinian statehood and beyond resolution of the status of Jerusalem, to the time when a permanent peace and brings economic prosperity in the region. Both Barak and Arafat realize that the path to resolution of the tensions and the terror that have pervaded the Middle East requires a new mindset. A mindset in which questions posed by Buber in 1944 bear repeating in 2000.

Buber wrote in 1944:

Is it really necessary that the lives of two nations living together in one place depend on the solely political concepts of majority and minority? Has not the time come to try to put the concept in different terms? And isn't it possible that this particular location and our particular situation may be just the circumstances in which to begin trying? True, it is very difficult, very, very difficult; it demands tremendous daring, and in order to accomplish it courageous and independent thinking is required, capable of formulating a new means to achieve new goals. But whoever knows our situation thoroughly, knows that we have no other choice; only here, if anywhere lies the true path--all other paths are deceptive. [4]

Nowhere was Buber's view more articulately posed than in his speech to the Twelfth Zionist Congress in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia in 1921:

Our national desire to renew the life of the people of Israel in their ancient homeland however is not aimed against any other people. As we enter the sphere of world history once more, and become once more the standard bearers of our own fate, the Jewish people, who have constituted a persecuted minority in all the countries of the world for two thousand years, reject with abhorrence the methods of nationalistic domination, under which they themselves have so long suffered. We do not aspire to return to the land of Israel with which we have inseparable historical and spiritual ties in order to suppress another people or to dominate them. [5]

Buber saw a vision of a "new and glorious encounter."

The goal of establishing an enduring solidarity of true common interests which in the end must overcome all the conflicts to which the present mad hour has given birth...only then will both peoples meet in a new and glorious historical encounter. [6]

In the aftermath of the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1945 by the Irgun, Buber wrote words that pertain today:

To win a truly great life for the people of Israel, a great peace is necessary. Not a fictitious peace, the dwarfish peace that is not more than an intermission, but a true peace with neighboring peoples, which alone can render possible a common development of this portion of the earth as a vanguard of the awakening of the Near East. [7]

Both Barak and Arafat must carry forth a vision that dare not be less than Buber's vision of a glorious, historical encounter between two great peoples. In the context of what Buber said in a speech at Carneige Hall in 1952, at the conclusion of his lecture tour of the United States, both leaders will have to make themselves painful exceptions:

He who makes himself an exception is suspected or ridiculed by both sides. Each side has assumed a monopoly of the sunlight and has plunged its antagonist into the night, each side demands that you decide between day and night. [8]

Buber once wrote:

It is as an old champion of difficult causes of humanity that I address myself to you with the fervent hope that my appeal will find an echo. [9]

  1. 1918 Essay entitled "Toward the Decision" quoted in A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs; Paul R. Mendes-Flohr ed. (New York: Oxford University Press 1983 ) p.41
  2. 1929: From a speech entitled "The National Home and National Policy in Palestine" quoted in Paul Mendes Flohr p 91 above
  3. 1949: Unpublished speech entitled "Should the Ichud Accept the Decree of History?" quoted in Paul Mendes-Flohr p 249 above.
  4. 1962: Speech entitled "We must Grant the Arabs Truly Equal Rights" quoted in Paul Mendes Flohr above p 298
  5. 1944: Article entitled "A Majority or Many? A Postscript to a Speech" quoted in Paul Mendes-Flohr above p.167
  6. 1921: Speech entitled "A Proposed Resolution to the Arab Question" quoted in Paul Mendes-Flohr above p.61 ibid.
  7. 1945: Essay entitled "Our Reply" quoted in Paul Mendes Flohr above p. 178
  8. 1952: Speech at Carnegie Hall entitled "Hope for this Hour, quoted in Pointing the Way by Martin Buber (New York: Harper &Row 1963) p 221
  9. 1960: Letter to the President of Rumania quoted in Encounter on the Narrow Ridge A Life of Martin Buber Maurice Friedman (New York: Paragon House 1993) p 415

© Pete F. Spalding 2000

Peter F. Spalding is a retired senior Foreign Service Officer. He has Master's Degrees in International Relations and Theology.


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