Dedicated to the memory of Pierre Vidal-Naquet

The contribution of Hamas and Hezbollah–irresponsibly said by Tel Aviv and Washington to be inspired and masterminded by Tehran and Damascus, even Al Qaeda–to the latest Israeli-Palestinian crisis is neither excused nor minimized by nevertheless insisting that it is deeply rooted in the history of Zionism. And one may ask, then, whether the barbarous assaults on Gaza and Lebanon have not revealed the bankruptcy of nearly sixty years of Israeli policy.

To the extent there is an axis of anti-Zionist, allegedly anti-Semitic holy warriors, Israel’s leaders bear a heavy responsibility. Since the founding of the state in 1948, they have fomented the rise of Palestinian extremism and its international supporters by pursuing a unilateralist course, by impeding good-faith negotiations and by failing to encourage moderate Palestinians. The political-military caste, trusting inordinately in the sword and under the aegis of an imperial superpower, began, precipitated or all but invited five cross-border wars and has waged its internal war against the Palestinian resistance with a brutal indifference to innocent civilians. With Goliath-like hubris and a self-righteousness nourished by the Holocaust complex, Israel’s governors and, by and large, its Jewish citizenry are unmindful or dismissive of anyone questioning some of the central premises of the Zionist-Israeli project and policy. Yet these were once challenged by a loyal opposition of public intellectuals within the fold.

Judging by his political writings, Martin Buber, standing on the shoulders of Ahad Ha’am, the guiding spirit of cultural and ethical Zionism, was perhaps the most probing and eloquent voice in this cluster of foresighted critics who included, among others, Yitzhak Epstein, Judah Magnes and Ernst Simon. Prominent in Germany before the war as a scholar of Hasidism, philosopher, Zionist and social activist, Buber had already penned his seminal exploration of the Other, I and Thou, before moving to Jerusalem in 1938. Were he still alive, Buber would most likely contend that there is no understanding the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio and its worldwide repercussions without exploring the vexed “Arab Question” in the unfolding and consummation of Zionism. For him the question concerned, in essence, “the relationship between Jewish settlement and Arab life, or, as it may be termed, the intranational [intraterritorial] basis of Jewish settlement.”

Buber was not alone in criticizing the movement’s elders for their then-benign but stubborn neglect of this problem, and he was convinced it would become the “touchstone” of the Zionist mission. He deplored the early settlers’ “basic error”: By not “gain[ing] the confidence of the local Arabs in political and economic matters…they gave cause to be regarded as aliens, as outsiders” uninterested in “achieving mutual trust.” Buber also took to task Zionism’s political leadership for “paying tribute to traditional colonial policy” and being “guided by international considerations” without attention to intranational affairs. The Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine before the establishment of Israel) became only more “isolated from the organic context of the Middle East, into whose awakening it [needed to] be integrated.”

As early as February 1918 Buber demurred when Zionist maximalists advocated “creating a majority [of Jews] in…[Palestine] by all means and as quickly as possible.” He warned that unless “we succeed in establishing an authoritative [Zionist] opposition, the soul of the movement will be corrupted, maybe forever.”

This was the germ of the idea that informed the foundation of Brit Shalom (Alliance for Peace) in 1925, renewed by Ihud (Union) in 1942. The members and fellow travelers of these two societies of dissidents formed an influential but politically powerless opposition focused on the Arab Question and emerged as the racked conscience first of Zionism and then of Israel. By virtue of being severely marginalized, these faithful critics were unable to inspire and encourage their Palestinian and Arab counterparts, who were as weak and beleaguered as they themselves.

At the creation of the Jewish state, Buber reflected on the ideas and role of those public intellectuals who, “equally free from the megalomania of the leaders and the giddiness of the masses, discerned the approaching catastrophe.” He claimed that this “spiritual elite…not merely uttered warnings but tried to point to a path to be followed, if catastrophe were to be averted.” Their program for “a binational state” had as its aim “a social structure based on the reality of two peoples living together.” Supported by the left-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, among others, they advanced their scheme as an alternative to the more or less ethnically pure Judenstaat envisaged by Theodor Herzl.

“Any [Jewish] national state in the vast and hostile [Mideast] surroundings would be the equivalent of suicide,” the critics cautioned, since “an unstable international basis could never make up for the missing intranational one.” Only an “agreement between the two nations [in Palestine] could lead to Jewish-Arab cooperation in the revival of the Middle East, with the Jewish partner concentrated in a strong settlement in Palestine.”

In October 1948, in the midst of the first Arab-Israeli war, Buber challenged the belief that since Israel had been attacked it was “engaged in a war of defense.” Instead he asked, “Who attacked us?” The aggressors, he answered, were “those who felt they had been attacked by us, namely by our peaceful conquest” under an imperial umbrella, and who “accused us of being robbers.” The Zionists’ defense that Palestine had been theirs “two thousand years ago” he found less than rigorous: “Do we genuinely expect this reason to be accepted [by the Arabs] without argument; and would we accept it were we in their place?” He also recoiled at efforts to swathe the Zionist construction in religion, whose instrumentalization he reproved, as did Sigmund Freud.

Short of a major change of policy on the Arab Question, Buber was convinced that any future peace would be “a stunted peace, no more than [a state of] non-belligerency liable to turn into war at any moment.” Israel would be “compelled to maintain a posture of vigilance forever,” at the enormous cost of “occupying the most talented members of our society.” In January 1949, when Israel was winning the war, he cited Nehemiah–“Everyone with one of his hands engaged in the work, and with the other held his weapon”–and lamented that while so employed, “you can build a wall, but not an attractive house, let alone a temple.” A wall has been duly built.

In their time the radical critics were Cassandras, prophets contemptuously written off by the political mainstream as “defeatists” and “quislings.” But along with Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, who were among their many soulmates and supporters in the diaspora, they remained true to their ideal.

What does it say about our own historical moment that while the Middle East is afire, so few Jewish intellectuals have the courage and integrity to defy the “megalomania of the leaders and the giddiness of the masses”? Today’s crisis demands not only prosaic criticism but self-criticism and an alternative vision. Herzl’s dream of building a “state like any other” for the Jews has been fulfilled, but only up to a point. Buber aside, Herzl never imagined that Israel would hold another state or would-be state hostage because three of its soldiers were captured along borders it routinely violates itself; would inflict ten wounds for every one received; would willfully transgress the laws of war and human rights; would systematically disregard United Nations resolutions; would forge one of the world’s mightiest armies, inclusive of a formidable nuclear arsenal; would encroach on occupied land with a fortified ghetto wall; would eagerly serve as an imperial superpower’s front-line ally in the so-called civilized world’s global war against Islamist extremism that this tiny state itself helps to foster–all the while posing as blameless and pure of crime.

Surely no closer to god than most other states and the Palestinians, Israel will eventually have to take upon itself a major share of the responsibility for the ever more explosive Middle East if it is to become truly a state like any other, with internationally recognized borders and assured of a peace that is more than a fragile and recurrently interrupted absence of war.