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.”