Martin Buber’s messianic Zionism

There is a Jewish tradition about seventy angels known as “princes” who are set in charge of the seventy nations of the world.Each of these “princes” supervises his own nation, acting as its spokesman before the throne of glory. When their respective nations are embattled, they too become involved against each other. The “princes” are the real victors and the real vanquished; and their wars, victories and defeats, their ascents and descents on the mighty ladder, are what historians characterize by the name of history. Each of them has a purpose and function of his own; and so long as the “prince” does his part, so long as he accomplishes his purpose and fulfills his function, he is entrusted with power. But he is responsible to his Master, and is required to render an accounting to him. Therefore, when he becomes so intoxicated with power as to forget who he is and what his function is, arrogantly assuming himself to be the lord and master—then the hand of his Sovereign falls upon him: falling either in the form of lightning which flings him into the abyss of nothingness, or gradually as a steady rain, which carries him little by little down to the abyss of nothingness.

Martin Buber, On Judaism (1967)

“Palestine belongs to the Arabs”. The words are Mahatma Ghandi’s and they are cited by Martin Buber in a 1939 letter that he wrote to Ghandi in defence of the creation of a Jewish community in Palestine, by which time he was already living in Jerusalem, having left Nazi Germany in 1938.

To read Buber’s letter over 80 years after its composition, and, above all, after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, is to be taken back to a time when perceptions among Jews, and especially Zionist Jews, of what kind of polity the new state should be, in a world of nation-states, were intensely debated. And Buber’s Zionism reminds us of a vision of messianic utopianism, by no means exclusive to Buber, which he believed would set Israel apart from other states, teaching by example a form of non-sovereign, agrarian communalism bound to the land of Palestine, but resonating throughout the world’s nations.

In Buber’s letter to Ghandi, he confronts the sentence quoted above directly in a manner that, for those unfamiliar with it, is surprising, for instead of making a claim for Jewish sovereignty over Palestine, based on scripture or religious law, he affirms that no one people can claim ownership over any land, for “God does not give any one portion of the earth away so that its owner may say, as God does in the Holy Scriptures: “Mine is the land”. Even to the conqueror who has settled on it, the conquered land is, in my opinion, only loaned – and God waits to see what he will make of it.”

The history of nation-states is a history of land conquests and to the extent that the law is dictated by the conqueror, then no justice is to be found under state authority, except that which power dictates. In this sense, Ghandi’s statement that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs” establishes not a right, but testifies instead to an earlier conquest, succeeded and preceded by other conquests, as the Jews had conquered Palestine from the Canaanites.

Buber thus accuses Ghandi of elevating conquest to the foundation of justice, which he does not and cannot accept. And he believes that the people of Israel, in the past and hopefully in the present, exemplify another form of polity, in which its arche, its principle of origin and power, is not earthly sovereignty, but a transcendent universal truth of justice for all.

Now it is said that the Jewish people, too, have a “prince” appointed over them; but there are those who assert that the children of Israel refused to accept the yoke of any angel, rejecting all yokes except that of the kingdom of God. And it is this latter belief alone that is in accord with the fundamental biblical view of the relationship between Israel and the Divinity.

The source of the people of Israel is to be found not in that world of multiplicity where “princes” contend with one another, but rather in the world of the one truth which, indeed, reveals only a hint of its essence to human beings. But even that hint is adequate for man and nation to know that there is one truth above them; and that, furthermore, neither that people nor the “prince” of that people is the possessor of the truth, its sole possessor being the Prince of princes and the Lord of the world.

The typical individual of our times is no longer capable of believing in God, but he finds it impossible to believe even in his own substance—that substance which has neither pediment nor basis—and so he holds fast to his faith in his expanded ego, his nation, as being the highest authority within his reach. And since he has no genuine and vital relation to the truth that is above all the nations, to the truth that requires the nations to realize it, he transforms his nation into an idol, he sets up the personality of his people as God; he makes the “prince,” who is a mere ministering angel, into a god. And since there is no level above that of the nations, since there is no court of appeal on high, the end must be that the nations and their “princes” wage war against each other, using every means they can and without balking at anything until they encompass their own destruction.

Those secret forces, the “princes,” are nowadays nothing more than the various national ideologies, the various state myths used by the leaders and misleaders of the nations in order to fire their egoism with the illusions and deceits of an imaginary idealism. This is the hour when the princes forget who they are and what their function is, and vaunt their arrogance; each of them imagines that he is the supreme master. But the hand of their Master is over them.

But what of us Jews? We talk of the spirit of Israel and assume that we are not like unto all the nations because there is a spirit of Israel. But if the spirit of Israel is no more to us than the synthetic personality of our nation, no more than a fine justification for our collective egotism, no more than our prince transformed into an idol—after we had refused to accept any prince other than the Lord of the universe!—then we are indeed like unto all the nations; and we are drinking together with them from the cup that inebriates.

And when we grow drunk after their fashion, we become weaker than any other nation, and find ourselves entirely defenseless in their hands.

It is only if we do not really become like them, it is only if we refer by the term “spirit” not to ourselves but to the living truth, which is not in our possession, but by which we can be possessed, which is not dependent upon us, but we upon it, and which nonetheless needs us in order to become something that is of the lower realm, something concrete, something “historic”—it is then, and only then, that we have the ground of combat and victory beneath our feet.

But it may be that one of you is secretly asking me the question: “What then is this spirit of Israel of which you are speaking?”

It is the spirit of realization. Realization of what? Realization of the simple truth, that man has been created for a purpose. There is a purpose to creation; there is a purpose to the human race, one we have not made up ourselves, or agreed to among ourselves; we have not decided that henceforward this, that, or the other shall serve as the purpose of our existence. No. The purpose itself revealed its face to us and we have gazed upon it.

Again, this cannot be defined in terms of concepts; yet we can know and express the fact that unity, not division and separation, is the purpose of creation, and that the purpose is not an everlasting struggle to the death between sects or classes or nations. Our purpose is the great up-building of peace. And when the nations are all bound together in one association, to borrow a phrase from our sages, they atone for each other.In other words, the world of humanity is meant to become a single body; but it is as yet nothing more than a heap of limbs, each of which is of the opinion that it constitutes an entire body. Furthermore, the human world is meant to become a single body through the actions of men themselves. We men are charged to perfect our own portion of the universe—the human world. There is one nation that once heard this charge so loudly and clearly that the charge penetrated to the very depths of its soul. That nation accepted the charge, not as an inchoate mass of individuals, but as a nation. As a nation it accepted the truth that calls for its realization by the human nation, the human race as a whole. And that is its spirit, the spirit of Israel.

The charge is not addressed to isolated individuals but to a nation. For only an entire nation, which comprehends peoples of all kinds, can demonstrate a life of unity and peace, of righteousness and justice to the human race, as a sort of example and beginning. A true humanity, that is, a nation composed of many nations, can only commence with a certain definite and true nation. The hearkening nation was charged to become a true nation. Only the realization of this truth in the relations between the various sections of this people, between its sects and classes, is capable of serving as a commencement of an international realization of the truth and of the development of a true fellowship of nations, a nation consisting of nations. Only nations each of which is a true nation living in the light of righteousness and justice are capable of entering into upright relations with one another. The people of Israel was charged to lead the way toward this realization.

From age to age the people of Israel has preserved its heritage, which is this charge. As long as it lived in its own land, it represented the charge to other nations. When it was exiled from its land, it introduced it to the other nations. The people of Israel proclaimed it in that confession to which it was faithful even unto martyrdom, and proclaimed it by its very indestructible existence: the existence of those who guard the heritage. But the Jewish nation did not meet the test. For untold generations the Jews observed the 613 commandments of the Torah; but the charge that is higher than every formulation of individual precepts was not fulfilled. The life of the nation as such never became one of justice. The people did not become a true nation taking the lead in the realization of the ideal. (Martin Buber, On Judaism)

The Jewish people constitute a nation, for Buber, in the same they did for Bernard Lazare, that is, they shared a “a common past, and recent past”, comprised of “common traditions and customs, traditions and customs that have not all equally persisted, for many of them were religious customs and traditions.” But even among these last, “they have left their traces”. And, aside “from these traditions and customs, a literature and a philosophy have been elaborated.”

For Lazare, however, Jewish nationalism did not translate into Zionism, at least not in the sense of a call to return to Palestine.

What does the word “nationalism” mean for a Jew, or rather, what should it mean? It should mean freedom. The Jew who today says: “I am a nationalist” is not saying in a special, precise and clear way that I am a man who wants to reconstitute a Jewish state in Palestine and dreams of re-conquering Jerusalem. He is saying: “I want to be a completely free man, I want to enjoy the sun; I want to have the right to my dignity as a man. I want to escape oppression, escape insults, escape the contempt that they want to bring to bear on me.” At certain moment in history, nationalism is for human groups the manifestation of the spirit of freedom.

Lazare’s federalist anarchism would push him in a very different direction from political Zionism.

Am I then in contradiction with internationalist ideas? Not in the least. How do I make them agree? Simply by not giving words a value and a meaning they don’t have. When socialists combat nationalism they are in reality combating protectionism and national exclusivism. They are combating that patriotic, narrow, and absurd chauvinism that leads people to place themselves one against the other as rivals or adversaries, and who grant each other neither grace nor mercy. This is the egoism of nations; an egoism as odious as that of individuals, and every bit as contemptible. What then does internationalism suppose? It means establishing ties between nations, not of diplomatic friendship, but of human fraternity. To be an internationalist means abolishing the current economic-political constitution of nations, for this constitution only exists for the defending of the private interests of peoples, or rather of their rulers, at the expense of neighboring peoples. Suppressing frontiers does not mean making an amalgamation of all the inhabitants of the globe. Is not one of the familiar concepts of internationalism socialism, and even of revolutionary anarchism, the federative concept, the concept of a fragmented humanity composed of a multitude of cellular organisms? It’s true that ideally this theory says that those cells that will group together will group together by virtue of affinities not caused by any ethnological, religious, or national tradition. But this is of little importance, since it does admit of groups. In any event, we are here only concerned with the present, and the present commands us to seek the most appropriate means of assuring the liberty of man. Currently it is by virtue of traditional principles that men want to league together. For this they invoke identity of origin, their common past, similar ways of envisaging phenomena, beings, and things; a common history, a common philosophy. It is necessary to permit them to come together. (Bernard Lazare, Jewish Nationalism, 1898)

Buber’s “religious” vision of the Jewish people makes such a “political solution” to the “Jewish Question” impossible. And it would be a solution that carries within itself the danger of perpetuating the idolatry of sovereignty, under a different guise (in the same way that Ghandi’s defence of the Arab claims to Palestine does), thereby destroying those same people.

For Buber, there is no exclusively political solution to the problem of the dispersion of the Jewish nation and the threat of its dismemberment, because the Jews are not only bound together by a common history (contra Lazare), but also by a mission, the mission of living justly, in community, before all other nations.

Among the great civilizations of the ancient world there was one in which the action of the religious and normative principle upon all spheres of public life manifested itself with peculiar, unique pregnancy. All others shared, though in varying degrees of development, the basic doctrine of a heavenly-cosmic society to which the earthly, human one corresponds or rather ought to correspond—to which it corresponded once, say in the Golden Age, or will correspond some day, say after the complete victory of light over darkness. In ancient Israel the place of this doctrine was taken by that of the Lord of all being and all coming to be, who, just as He has set the sun in the sky, has set the commandment of truth and justice above the heads of the human race. True, in the other civilizations as well, the normative principle was carried and guaranteed by divine beings who ruled that upper society; but only Israel knew a God who had chosen a human people—just that people—to prepare the created earth as a kingdom for Him by the realization of justice. For Israel, the principle is the norm and the law; for Israel’s God, it is the mobile foundation, symbolized by the Ark with the Tablets, on which He wishes to place His earthly throne. This is why the principle here binds the deity and mankind together in the unparalleled concreteness of the Covenant. And this is also why here, and only here, civilization is mysteriously both affirmed and negated: God wants man’s entire civilization—but not as left to itself but as hallowed to Him, God.

Everywhere there were men who recognized this movement toward the abyss for what it was and tried to halt it; but there was only one civilization in which an elemental protest, concentrating all the spiritual passion of the people, was raised against the invalidation of the principle. It was, naturally enough, that civilization in which, as in no other, the absolute had made a covenant with the entire domain of human existence and refused to abandon any part of that domain to relativity. At no other time or place has the spirit been served in the human world with such militancy, generation after generation, as it was by the prophets of Israel. Here, the men of spirit took it upon themselves to actualize that affirmation and negation of civilization in the reality of the historical hour. Their fight was directed against all those who evaded the great duty, the duty of realizing the divine truth in the fullness of everyday life, by side-stepping into the merely formal, the merely ritual, that is to say, the noncommittal—all those who taught and practiced such evasion and thereby degraded the divine name which they invoked to the status of a carefully guarded fiction. This fight was waged for the wholeness and unity of civilization, which can be whole and united only if it is hallowed to God. The men who demanded from those in power the abolition of social injustice for God’s sake did not know the concept of civilization, but they staked their lives to save civilization. Thereby, the protest against the false emancipation of civilization was registered in such a way that it was bound to act, and did in fact act, as a reminder and warning upon the whole future of mankind … (Martin Buber, On Judaism)

It would be difficult for us to follow Buber along this path, but if these claims are read without the weight of modern concepts of ethnicity and religion, we may begin to see another way of understanding them.

Buber did not see the return to Palestine as a form of colonialism. The Jew would not conquer the Arab, but rather acquire the land legally. The Arab was not to be enslaved to labour for the Jew, for the true Jewish community would work the land, care for it in respect of God’s creation, and share its ways and the fruits of its labour with all neighbouring nations. To the extent that political realism dictated a state form, Buber defended a bi-national state, in which both Jew and Arab would live together in a federated political entity.

But why return to Palestine at all? The answer is, first, that no nation can persist in time and renew itself, without a tie to the land; second, because no people have absolute sovereignty over any land and as long as there is enough land that may be cultivated without taking it from others, then there is no crime; and lastly, because prophecy made Palestine the heart and centre of the Jewish mission, to teach the truth of the unity of humankind before God.

In light of the history of Israel, Buber’s Zionism, however noble, can only appear as tragically idealistic.

Buber was fully aware of the failure of the Jewish people, over the course of their history, in realizing the truth of prophecy. Yet he thought redemption could be found in an “anarchistic” community of kibbutzim, bound justly to each other and to others beyond them.

Yet a fragility haunts his vision: the “privilege” that he accorded to the Jewish nation, as the “teacher” of nations; a privilege that in the sea of nation-states and nationalist oppression could only transform itself into a monster.

If Judaism taught the world justice under God – and we are not here criticising this idea -, we may perhaps read the “event” historically; that the lesson was, paradoxically, well learned; that the truth of Judaism lies in all of our hands (Jewish and Palestinian), to make with it what we wish, to be just or unjust.   

We share below two texts by Martin Buber: his letter to Mahatma Gandhi, already referred to above and the last two chapters of his 1949 book, Paths in Utopia (Chapter 10 and the closing Epilogue).

Jerusalem, February 24, 1939

My dear Mahatma Gandhi,

He who is unhappy lends a deaf ear when idle tongues discuss his fate among themselves. But when a voice that he has long known and honoured, a great voice and an earnest one, pierces the vain clamour and calls him by name, he is all attention. Here is a voice, he thinks, that can but give good counsel and genuine comfort, for he who speaks knows what suffering is; he knows that the sufferer is more in need of comfort than of counsel; and he has both the wisdom to counsel rightly and that simple union of faith and love which alone is the open sesame to true comforting. But what he hears – containing though it does elements of a noble and most praiseworthy conception, such as he expects from this speaker – is yet barren of all application to his peculiar circumstances. These words are in truth not applicable to him at all. They are inspired by most praiseworthy general principles, but the listener is aware that the speaker has cast not a single glance at the situation of him whom he is addressing, that he neither sees him nor knows him and the straits under which he labours. Moreover, intermingled with the counsel and the comfort, a third voice makes itself heard, drowning both the others, the voice of reproach. It is not that the sufferer disdains to accept reproach in this hour from the man he honours. On the contrary, if only there were mingled with the good counsel and the true comfort a word of just reproach, giving to the former a meaning and a reason, he would recognise in the speaker the bearer of a message. But the accusation voiced is another altogether from that which he hears in the storm of events and in the hard beating of his own heart: it is almost the opposite of this. He weighs it and examines it – no, it is not a just one! And the armour of his silence is pierced. The friendly appeal achieves what the enemy`s storming has failed to do; he must answer. He exclaims, “Let the lords of the ice inferno affix my name to a cunningly constructed scarecrow; this is the logical outcome of their own nature and the nature of their relations to me.” But you, the man of goodwill, do you not know that you must see him whom you address, in his place and circumstance, in the throes of his destiny?

Jews are being persecuted, robbed, maltreated, tortured, murdered. And you, Mahatma Gandhi, say that their position in the country where they suffer all this is an exact parallel to the position of Indians in South Africa at the time you inaugurated your famous “Force of Truth” or “Strength of the Soul” (Satyagraha) campaign. There the Indians occupied precisely the same place, and the persecution there also had a religious tinge. There also the constitution denied equality of rights to the white and the black race including the Asiatics; there also the Indians were assigned to ghettos, and the other disqualifications were, at all events, almost of the same type as those of the Jews in Germany. I read and re-read these sentences in your article without being able to understand. Although I know them well, I re-read your South African speeches and writings, and called to mind, with all the attention and imagination at my command, every complaint you made therein, and I did likewise with the accounts of your friends and pupils at that time. But all this did not help me to understand what you say about us. In the first of your speeches with which I am acquainted, that of 1896, you quoted two particular incidents to the accompaniment of hisses from your audience: first, that a band of Europeans had set fire to an Indian village shop, causing some damage; and, second, that another band had thrown burning rockets into an urban shop. If I oppose to this the thousands on thousands of Jewish shops destroyed and burned out, you will perhaps answer that the difference is only one of quantity and that the proceedings were of almost the same type. But, Mahatma, are you not aware of the burning of synagogues and scrolls of the Law? Do you know nothing of all the sacred property of the community – some of it of great antiquity – that has been destroyed in the flames? I am not aware that Boers and Englishmen in South Africa ever injured anything sacred to the Indians. I find only one other concrete complaint quoted in that speech, namely, that three Indian schoolteachers, who were found walking in the streets after 9.00 p.m. contrary to orders, were arrested and only acquitted later on. That is the only incident of the kind you bring forward. Now do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments in the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter? I cannot assume that you know of this; for then this tragi-comic utterance “of almost the same type” could scarcely have crossed your lips. Indians were despised and despicably treated in South Africa. But they were not deprived of rights, they were not outlawed, they were not hostages to a hoped-for change in the behaviour of foreign Powers. And do you think perhaps that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down? Of what significance is it to point to a certain something in common when such differences are overlooked?

It does not seem to me convincing when you base your advice to us to observe satyagraha in Germany on these similarities of circumstance. In the five years I myself spent under the present regime, I observed many instances of genuine satyagraha among the Jews, instances showing a strength of spirit in which there was no question of bartering their rights or of being bowed down, and where neither force nor cunning was used to escape the consequences of their behaviour. Such actions, however, exerted apparently not the slightest influence on their opponents. All honour indeed to those who displayed such strength of soul! But I cannot recognise herein a watchword for the general behaviour of German Jews that might seem suited to exert an influence on the oppressed or on the world. An effective stand in the form of non-violence may be taken against unfeeling human beings in the hope of gradually bringing them to their senses; but a diabolic universal steamroller cannot thus be withstood. There is a certain situation in which no “satyagraha” of the power of the truth can result from the “satyagraha” of the strength of the spirit. The word satyagraha signifies testimony. Testimony without acknowledgment, ineffective, unobserved martyrdom, a martyrdom cast to the winds – that is the fate of innumerable Jews in Germany. God alone accepts their testimony. God “seals” it, as is said in our prayers. But no maximum for suitable behaviour can be deduced from that. Such martyrdom is a deed – but who would venture to demand it?

But your comparison of the position of the Jews in Germany with that of the Indians in South Africa compels me to draw your attention to a yet more essential difference. True, I can well believe that you were aware of this difference, great as it is, when you drew the exact parallel. It is obvious that, when you think back to your time in South Africa, it is a matter of course for you that, then as now, you always had this great Mother India. That fact was and still is so taken for granted that apparently you are entirely unaware of the fundamental differences existing between nations having such a mother (it need not necessarily be such a great mother, it may be a tiny motherkin, but yet a mother, a mother’s bosom and a mother’s heart) and a nation that is orphaned, or to whom one says, in speaking of his country, “This is no more your mother!”

When you were in South Africa, Mahatma, 150,000 Indians lived there. But in India there were far more than 200 million! And this fact nourished the souls of the 150,000, whether they were conscious of it or not; they drew then, as you ask the Jews now, whether they want a double home where they can remain at will? You say to the Jews: If Palestine is their home, they must accustom themselves to the idea of being forced to leave the other parts of the world in which they are settled. Did you also say to the Indians in South Africa that if India is their home, they must accustom themselves to the idea of being compelled to return to India? Or did you tell them that India was not their home? And if – though indeed it is inconceivable that such a thing could come to pass – the hundreds of millions of Indians were to be scattered tomorrow over the face of the earth, and if the day after tomorrow another nation were to establish itself in India and the Jews were to declare that there was yet room for the establishment of a national home for the Indians, thus giving to their diaspora a strong organic concentration and a living centre, should a Jewish Gandhi – assuming there could be such – then answer them, as you answered the Jews, that “this cry for the national home affords a plausible justification for your expulsion”? Or should he teach them, as you teach the Jews, that the India of the Vedic conception is not a geographical tract, but that it is in your hearts? A land about which a sacred book speaks to the sons of the land is never merely in their hearts; a land can never become a mere symbol. It is in the hearts because it is the prophetic image of a promise to mankind. But it would be a vain metaphor if Mount Zion did not actually exist. This land is called “holy”, but this is not the holiness of an idea; it is the holiness of a piece of earth. That which is merely an idea and nothing more cannot become holy, but a piece of earth can become holy just as a mother’s womb can become holy.

Dispersion is bearable. It can even be purposeful if somewhere there is ingathering, a growing home centre, a piece of earth where one is in the midst of an ingathering and not in dispersion and from where the spirit of ingathering may work its way out to all the places of the dispersion. When there is this, there is also a striving, common life, the life of a community that dares to live today because it hopes to live tomorrow. But when this growing centre, this increasing process of ingathering is lacking, dispersion becomes dismemberment. On this criterion, the question of our Jewish destiny in indissolubly bound up with the possibility of ingathering, and this in Palestine.

You ask, “Why should they not, like other nations of the earth, make that country where they are born and where they earn their livelihood their home?” Because their destiny is different from that of all other nations of the earth. It is a destiny that in truth and justice should not be imposed on any nation on earth. For their destiny is dispersion – not the dispersion of a fraction and the preservation of the main substance, as in the case of other nations. It is dispersion without the living heart and center, and every nation has a right to demand the possession of a living heart. It is different, because a hundred adopted homes without one original and natural one render a nation sick and miserable. It is different, because, although the wellbeing and the achievement of the individual may flourish on stepmother soil, the nation as such must languish. And just as you, Mahatma, wish that not only should all Indians be able to live and work, but that also Indian substance, Indian wisdom, and Indian truth should prosper and be fruitful, so do we wish this for the Jews. For you, there is no need to be aware that the Indian substance could not prosper without the Indian’s attachment to the mother soil and without his ingathering there. But we know what is essential. We know it because it is just this that is denied us or was, at least, up to the generation that has just begun to work at the redemption of the mother soil.

But this is not all. Because for us, for the Jews who think as I do, painfully urgent as it is, it is indeed not the decisive factor. You say, Mahatma Gandhi, that a sanction is “sought in the Bible” to support the cry for a national home, which “does not make much appeal to you”. No – this is not so. We do not open the Bible and seek sanction there. The opposite it true: the promises of return, of re-establishment, which have nourished the yearning hope of hundreds of generations, give those of today an elementary stimulus, recognised by few in its full meaning but effective also in the lives of many who do not believe in the message of the Bible. Still, this too is not the determining factor for us who, although we do not see divine revelation in every sentence of Holy Scriptures, yet trust in the spirit that inspired their speakers. What is decisive for us is not the promise of the Land – but the command, whose fulfilment is bound up with the land, with the existence of a free Jewish community in this country. For the Bible tells us – and our inmost knowledge testifies to it – that once, more than three thousand years ago, our entry into this land was in the consciousness of a mission from above to set up a just way of life through the generations of our people, such a way of life as can be realised not by individuals in the sphere of their private existence but only by a nation in the establishment of its society: communal ownership of the land, regularly recurrent levelling of social distinctions, guarantee of the independence of each individual, mutual help, a common Sabbath embracing serf and beast as beings with equal claim, a sabbatical year whereby, letting the soil rest, everybody is admitted to the free enjoyment of its fruits. These are not practical laws thought out by wise men; they are measures that the leaders of the nation, apparently themselves taken by surprise and overpowered, have found to be the set task and condition for taking possession of the land. No other nation has ever been faced at the beginning of its career with such a mission. Here is something that allows of no forgetting, and from which there is no release. At that time, we did not carry out what was imposed upon us. We went into exile with our task unperformed. But the command remained with us, and it has become more urgent than ever. We need our own soil in order to fulfil it. We need the freedom of ordering our own life. No attempt can be made on foreign soil and under foreign statute. The soil and the freedom for fulfilment may not be denied us. We are not covetous, Mahatma; our one desire is that at last we may obey.

Now, you may well ask whether I speak for the Jewish people when I say “we”. I speak only for those who feel themselves entrusted with the mission of fulfilling the command of justice delivered to Israel of the Bible. Were it but a handful – these constitute the pith of the nation, and the future of the people depends on them. For the ancient mission of the nation lives on in them as the cotyledon in the core of the fruit. In this connexion, I must tell you that you are mistaken when you assume that in general the Jews of today believe in God and derive from their faith guidance for their conduct. Jewry of today is in the throes of a serious crisis in the matter of faith. It seems to me that the lack of faith of present-day humanity, its inability truly to believe in God, finds its concentrated expression in this crisis of Jewry. Here, all is darker, more fraught with danger, more fateful than anywhere else in the world. Nor is this crisis resolved here in Palestine; indeed, we recognise its severity here even more than elsewhere among Jews. But at the same time we realise that here alone can it be resolved. There is no solution to be found in the life of isolated and abandoned individuals, although one may hope that the spark of faith will be kindled in their great need. The true solution can issue only from the life of a community that begins to carry out the will of God, often without being aware of doing so, without believing that God exists and this is his will. It may be found in this life of the community if believing people support it who neither direct nor demand, neither urge nor preach, but who share the life, who help, wait, and are ready for the moment when it will be their turn to give the true answer to the inquirer. This is the innermost truth of the Jewish life in the Land; perhaps it may be of significance for the solution of the crisis of faith, not only for Jewry but for all humanity. The contact of this people with this land is not only a matter of sacred ancient history; we sense here a secret still more hidden.

You, Mahatma Gandhi, who know of the connexion between tradition and future, should not associate yourself with those who pass over our cause without understanding or sympathy.

But you say – and I consider it to be the most significant of all the things you tell us – that Palestine belongs to the Arabs and that it is therefore “wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs”.

Here I must add a personal note in order to make clear to you on what premises I desire to consider this matter.

I belong to a group of people who, from the time when Britain conquered Palestine, have not ceased to strive for the achievement of genuine peace between Jew and Arab.

By genuine peace, we inferred and still infer that both peoples should together develop the Land without one imposing his will on the other. In view of the international usages of our generation, this appeared to us to be very difficult but not impossible. We were and still are well aware that in this unusual – even unexampled – case, it is a question of seeking new ways of understanding and cordial agreement between the nations. Here again, we stood and still stand under the sway of a commandment.

We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin, which cannot be pitted one against the other and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just or unjust. We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to honour the claim that is opposed to ours and to endeavour to reconcile both claims. We cannot renounce the Jewish claim; something even higher than the life of our people is bound up with the Land, namely, the work that is their divine mission. But we have been and still are convinced that it must be possible to find some form of agreement between this claim and the other; for we love this land and we believe in its future, and, seeing that such love and such faith are surely present on the other side as well, a union in the common service of the Land must be within the range of the possible. Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found even to what appears to be a tragic contradiction.

In order to carry out a task of such extreme difficulty – and recognising that we have to overcome an internal resistance on the Jewish side, as foolish as it is natural – we are in need of the support of well- meaning persons of all nations, and we had hope of it. But now you come and settle the whole existential dilemma with the simple formula: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs.”

What do you mean by saying that a land belongs to a population? Evidently you do not intend only to describe a state of affairs by your formula, but to declare a certain right. You obviously mean to say that a people, being settled on the land, has such an absolute claim to the possession of this land that whoever settles in it without the permission of this people has committed a robbery. But by what means did the Arabs attain the right of ownership in Palestine? Surely by conquest and, in fact, a conquest by settlement. You therefore admit that, this being so, it constitutes for them an exclusive right of possession; whereas the subsequent conquests of the Mamelukes and the Turks, which were not conquests with a view to settlement, do not constitute such in your opinion, but leave the former conquering nation in rightful ownership. Thus, settlement by force of conquest justifies for you a right of ownership of Palestine, whereas a settlement such as the Jewish one – whose methods, it is true, though not always doing full justice to Arab ways of life, were, even in the most objectionable cases, far removed from those of conquest – do not in your opinion justify any participation in this right of possession. These are the consequences that result from your statement in the form of an axiom that a land belongs to its population. In an epoch of migration of nations, you would first support the right of ownership of the nation that is threatened with dispossession or extermination. But once this was achieved, you would be compelled – not at once, but after the elapse of a suitable number of generations – to admit that the land belongs to the usurper.

Possibly the time is not far removed when – perhaps after a catastrophe whose extent we cannot yet estimate – the representatives of humanity will have to come to some agreement on the re-establishment of relations among peoples, nations and countries, on the colonisation of thinly populated territories as well as on a communal distribution of the necessary raw materials and on a logical intensification of the cultivation of the globe, in order to prevent a new, enormously extended migration of nations which would threaten to destroy mankind. Is then the dogma of “possession,” of the inalienable right of ownership, of the sacred status quo to be held up against the men who dare to save the situation? For surely we are witnesses of how the feeling, penetrating deep into the heart of national life, that this dogma must be opposed is disastrously misused. But do not those representatives of the most powerful States share the guilt of this misuse, who consider every questioning of the dogma as a sacrilege?

And what if it is not the nations who migrate, but one nation? And what if this migrating nation should yearn toward its ancient home, where there is still room for a considerable section of it, enough to form a center side by side with the people to whom the land now “belongs”? And what if this wandering nation, to whom the land once belonged, likewise on the basis of a settlement by force of conquest – and which was once driven out of it by mere force of domination – should now strive to occupy a free part of the land, or a part that might become free without encroaching on the living space of others, in order at last to acquire again for itself a national home – a home where its people could live as a nation? Then you come, Mahatma Gandhi, and help to draw the barriers and to declare, “Hands off! This land does not belong to you!” Instead of helping to establish a genuine peace, giving us what we need without taking from the Arabs what they need, on the basis of a fair adjustment as to what they would really make use of and what might be admitted to satisfy our requirements!

Such an adjustment of the required living space for all is possible if it is brought into line with an all-embracing intensification of the cultivation of the whole soil in Palestine. In the present, helplessly primitive state of fellah agriculture, the amount of land needed to produce nourishment for a family is ever so much larger than it otherwise would be. Is it right to cling to ancient forms of agriculture, which have become meaningless, to neglect the potential productivity of the soil, in order to prevent the immigration of new settlers without prejudice to the old? I repeat: without prejudice. This should be the basis of the agreement for which we are striving.

You are only concerned, Mahatma, with the “right of possession” on the one side; you do not consider the right to a piece of free land on the other side – for those who are hungering for it. But there is another of whom you do not inquire and who in justice, i.e., on the basis of the whole perceptible reality, would have to be asked. This other is the soil itself. Ask the soil what the Arabs have done for her in thirteen hundred years and what we have done for her in fifty! Would her answer not be weighty testimony in a just discussion as to whom this land “belongs”?

It seems to me that God does not give any one portion of the earth away so that its owner may say, as God does in the Holy Scriptures: “Mine is the land”. Even to the conqueror who has settled on it, the conquered land is, in my opinion, only loaned – and God waits to see what he will make of it.

I am told, however, that I should not respect the cultivated soil and despise the desert. I am told that the desert is willing to wait for the work of her children. We who are burdened with civilisation are not recognised by her anymore as her children. I have a veneration of the desert, but I do not believe in her absolute resistance, for I believe in the great marriage between man (adam) and earth (adama). This land recognises us, for it is fruitful through us, and through its fruit-bearing for us it recognises us. Our settlers do not come here as do the colonists from the Occident, with natives to do their work for them; they themselves set their shoulders to the plough, and they spend their strength and their blood to make the land fruitful. But it is not only for ourselves that we desire its fertility. The Jewish peasants have begun to teach their brothers, the Arab peasants, to cultivate the land more intensively. We desire to teach them further; together with them, we want to cultivate the land – to “serve” it, as the Hebrew has it. The more fertile this soil becomes, the more space there will be for us and for them. We have no desire to dispossess them; we want to live with them. We do not want to rule; we want to serve with them.

You once said, Mahatma, that politics enmeshes us nowadays as with serpent’s coils from which there is no escape, however hard one may try. You said you desired, therefore, to wrestle with the serpent. Here is the serpent in the fullness of its power! Jews and Arabs both have a claim to this land, but these claims are in fact reconcilable as long as they are restricted to the measure that life itself allots, and as long as they are limited by the desire for conciliation – that is, if they are translated into the language of the needs of living people for themselves and their children. But instead of this, they are turned through the serpent’s influence into claims of principle and politics, and are represented with all the ruthlessness that politics instills into those who are led by it. Life with all its realities and possibilities disappears, as does the desire for truth and peace; nothing is known and sensed but the political slogan alone. The serpent conquers not only the spirit but also life. Who would wrestle with it?

In the midst of your arguments, Mahatma, there is a fine word which we gratefully accept. We should seek, you say, to convert the heart of the Arab. Well, then – help us to do so! Among us also there are many foolish hearts to convert – hearts that have fallen prey to that nationalist egotism which only admits its own claims. We hope to achieve this ourselves. But for the other task of conversion, we need your help. Instead, your admonition is addressed only to the Jews, because they allow British bayonets to defend them against the bomb throwers. Your attitude to the latter is much more reserved. You say you wish the Arabs had chosen the way of non-violence, but, according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, there is nothing to be said against their behaviour. How is it possible that, in this case, you should give credence – if only in a limited form – to the accepted canons, whereas you have never done so before! You reproach us that, having no army of our own, we consent to the British army preventing an occasional blind murder. But, in view of the accepted canons, you cast a lenient eye on those who carry murder into our ranks every day without even noticing who is hit. Were you to look down on all, Mahatma, on what is done and what is not done on both sides – on the just and the unjust on both sides – would you not admit that we certainly are not least in need of your help?

We began to settle again in the Land thirty-five years before the “shadow of the British gun” was cast upon it. We did not seek this shadow; it appeared and remained here to guard British interests and not ours. We do not want force. But after the resolutions of Delhi, at the beginning of March 1922, you yourself, Mahatma Gandhi, wrote: “Have I not repeatedly said that I would have India become free even by violence rather than that she should remain in bondage?” This was a very important pronouncement on your part; you asserted thereby that non-violence is for you a faith and not a political principle – and that the desire for the freedom of India is even stronger in you than your faith. And for this, I love you. We do not want force. We have not proclaimed, as did Jesus, the son of our people, and as you do, the teaching of non-violence, because we believe that a man must sometimes use force to save himself or even more his children. But from time immemorial we have proclaimed the teaching of justice and peace; we have taught and we have learned that peace is the aim of all the world and that justice is the way to attain it. Thus, we cannot desire to use force. No one who counts himself in the ranks of Israel can desire to use force.

But, you say, our non-violence is that of the helpless and the weak. This is not in accordance with the true state of affairs. You do not know or you do not consider what strength of soul, what satyagraha has been needed for us to restrain ourselves here after years of ceaseless deeds of blind violence perpetrated against us, our wives, and our children, and not to answer with like deeds of blind violence. And on the other hand, you, Mahatma, wrote in 1922: “I see that our non-violence is skin deep…. This non-violence seems to be due merely to our helplessness… Can true voluntary non-violence come out of this seemingly forced non-violence of the weak?” When I read those words at that time, my reverence for you took birth – a reverence so great that even your injustice toward us cannot destroy it.

You say it is a stigma against us that our ancestors crucified Jesus. I do not know whether that actually happened, but I consider it possible. I consider it just as possible as that the Indian people under different circumstances should condemn you to death – if your teachings were more strictly opposed to their own tendencies (“India,” you say, “is by nature nonviolent”). Nations not infrequently swallow up the greatness to which they have given birth. Now, can one assert, without contradiction, that such action constitutes a stigma! I would not deny however, that although I should not have been among the crucifiers of Jesus, I should also not have been among his supporters. For I cannot help withstanding evil when I see that it is about to destroy the good. I am forced to withstand the evil in the world just as the evil within myself. I can only strive not to have to do so by force. I do not want force. But if there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God’s hands.

“India,” you say, “is by nature nonviolent.” It was not always so. The Mahabharata is an epos of warlike, disciplined force. In the greatest of its poems, the Bhagavad Gita, it is told how Arjuna decides on the battlefield that he will not commit the sin of killing his relations who are opposed to him, and he lets fall his bow and arrow. But the god reproaches him, saying that such action is unmanly and shameful; there is nothing better for a knight in arms than a just fight.

Is that the truth? If I am to confess what is truth to me, I must say: There is nothing better for a man than to deal justly – unless it be to love. We should be able even to fight for justice – but to fight lovingly.

I have been very slow in writing this letter to you, Mahatma. I made repeated pauses – sometimes days elapsed between short paragraphs – in order to test my knowledge and my way of thinking. Day and night I took myself to task, searching whether I had not in any one point overstepped the measure of self-preservation allotted and even prescribed by God to a human community, and whether I had not fallen into the grievous error of collective egotism. Friends and my own conscience have helped to keep me straight whenever danger threatened. Weeks have now passed since then, and the time has come, when negotiations are proceeding in the capital of the British Empire on the Jewish-Arab problem – and when, it is said, a decision is to be made.

But the true decision in this matter can come only from within and not from without.

I therefore take the liberty of closing this letter without waiting for the result in London.

Sincerely yours,
Martin Buber

(From the Jewish Virtual Library)

Paths in Utopia


For the last thiree decadees we have felt that we were living in the initial phases of the greatest crisis humanity has ever known. It grows increasingly clear to us that the tremendous happenings of the past years, too, can be understood only as symptoms of this crisis. It is not merely the crisis of one economic and social system being supersseded by another, more or less ready to take its place; rather all systems, old and new, are equally involved in the crisis. What is in question, therefore, is nothing less than man’s whole existence in the world.

Ages ago, far beyond our calculation, this creature “Man” set out on his jouimey; from the point of view of Nature a well-nigh incomprehensible anomaly; from the point of view of the spirit an incarnation hardly less incomprehensible, perhaps unique; from the point of view of both a being whose very essence it was to be threatened with disaster every instant, both from within and without, exposed to deeper and deeper crises. During the ages of his earthly journey man has multiplied what he likes to call his “power over Nature” in increasingly rapid tempo, and he has borne what he likes to call the “creations of his spirit” from triumph to triumph. But at the same time he has felt more and more profoundly, as one crisis succeeded another, how fragile all his glories are; and in moments of clairvoyance he has come to realize that in spite of everything he likes to call “progress” he is not travelling along the high-road at all, but is picking his precarious way along a narrow ledge between two abysses. The graver the crisis becomes the more earnesst and consciously responsible is the knowledge demanded of us; for although what is demanded is a deed, only that deed which is born of knowledge will help to overcome the cirisis. In a time of great crisis it is not enough to look back to the immediate past in order to bring the enigma of the present nearer to solution; we have to bring the stage of the journey we have now reached face to face with its beginnings, so far as we can picture them.

The essential thing among all those things which once helped man to emerge from Nature and, notwithstanding his feebleness as a natural being, to assert himself — more essential even than the making of a “technical” world out of things expressly formed for the purpose — was this: that he banded together with his own kind for protection and hunting, food gathering and work; and did so in such a way that from the very beginning and thereafter to an increasing degree he faced the others as more or less independent entities and communicated with them as such, addressing and being addressed by them in that manner. This creation of a “social” world out of persons at once mutually dependent and independent differed in kind from all similar undertakings on the part of animals, just as the technical work of man differed in kind from all the animals’ works. Apes, too, make use of some stick they happen to have found, as a lever, a digging-tool or a weapon; but that is an affair of chance only: they cannot conceive and produce a tool as an object constituted so and not otherwise and having an existence of its own. And again, many of the insects live in societies built up on a strict division of labour; but it is just this division of labour that governs absolutely their relations with one another; they are all as it were tools; only, their own society is the thing that makes use of them for its “instinctive” purposes; there is no improvisation, no degree, however modest, of mutual independence, no possibility of “free” regard for one another, and thus no person-to-person relationship.

Just as the specific technical creations of man mean the conferring of independence on things, so his specific social creation means the conferring of independence on beings of his own kind. It. is in the light of this specifically human idiosyncrasy that we have to interpret man’s journey with all its ups and downs, and so also the point we have reached on this journey, our great and particular crisis.

In the evolution of mankind hitherto this, then, is the line that predominates: the forming and re-forming of communities on the basis of growing personal independence, their mutual recognition and collaboration on that basis. The two most important steps that the man of early times took on the road to human society can be established with some certainty. The first is that inside the individual clan each individual, through an extremely primitive form of division of labour, was recognized and utilized in his special capacity, so that the clan increasingly took on the character of an ever-renewed association of persons each the vehicle of a different function. The second is that different clans would, under certain conditions, band together in quest of food and for campaigns, and consolidated their mutual help as customs and laws that took firmer and firmer root; so that as once between individuals, so now between communities people discerned and acknowledged differences of nature and function. Wherever genuine human society has since developed it has always been on this same basis of functional autonomy, mutual recognition and mutual responsibility, whether individual or collective. Power-centres of various kinds have split off, organizing and guaranteeing the common order and security of all; but to the political sphere in the stricter sense, the State with its police-system and its bureaucracy, there was always opposed the organic, functionally organized society as such, a great society built up of various societies, the great society in which men lived and worked, competed with one another and helped one another; and in each of the big and little societies composing it, in each of these communes and communities the individual human being, despite all the difficulties and conflicts, felt himself at home as once in the clan, felt himself approved and affirmed in his functional independence and responsibility.

All this changed more and more as the centralistic political principle subordinated the de-centralistic social principle. The crucial thing here was not that the State, particularly in its more or less totalitarian forms, weakened and gradually displaced the free associations, but that the political principle with all its centralistic features percolated into the associations themselves, modifying their structure and their whole inner life, and thus politicized society to an ever-increasing extent. Society’s assimilation in the State was accelerated by the fact that, as a result of modern industrial development and its ordered chaos, involving the struggle of all against all for access to raw materials and for a larger share of the world-market, there grew up, in place of the old struggles between States, struggles between whole societies. The individual society, feeling itself threatened not only by its neighbours’ lust for aggression but also by things in general, knew no way of salvation save in complete submission to the principle of centralized power; and, in the democratic forms of society no less than in its totalitarian forms, it made this its guiding principle.

Everywhere the only thing of importance was the minute organization of power, the unquestioning observance of slogans, the saturation of the whole of society with the real or supposed interests of the State.

Concurrently with this there is an internal development. In the monstrous confusion of modern life, only thinly disguised by the reliable functioning of the economic and State-apparatus, the individual clings desperately to the collectivity. The little society in which he was embedded cannot help him; only the great collectivities, so he thinks, can do that, and he is all too willing to let himself be deprived of personal responsibility: he only wants to obey. And the most valuable of all goods — the life between man and man — gets lost in the process; the autonomous relationships become meaningless, personal relationships wither; and the very spirit of man hires itself out as a functionary. Ther .sOnal human being ceases to be the living member of a social body and becomes a cog in the “collective” machine. Just as his degenerate technology is causing man to lose the feel of good work and proportion, so the degrading social life he leads is causing him to lose the feel of community — just when he is so full of the illusion of living in perfect devotion to his community.

A crisis of this kind cannot be overcome by struggling back to an earlier stage of the journey, but only by trying to master the problems as they are, without minimizing them. There is no going back for us, we have to go through with it. But we shall only get through if we know where we want to We must begin, obviously, with the establishment of a vital peace which will deprive the political principle of its supremacy over the social principle. And this primary objective cannot in its turn be reached by any devices of political organization, but only by the resolute will of all peoples to cultivate the territories and raw materials of our planet and govern its inhabitants, together. At this point, however, we are threatened by a danger greater than all the previous ones: the danger of a gigantic centralization of power covering the whole planet and devouring all free community. Everything depends on not handing the work of planetary management over to the political principle.

Common management is only possible as socialistic management. But if the fatal question for contemporary man is: Can he or can he not decide in favour of, and educate himself up to, a common socialistic economy? then the propriety of the question lies in an inquiry into Socialism itself: what sort of Socialism is it to be, under whose aegis the common economy of man is to come about, if at all?

The ambiguity of the terms we are employing is greater here than anywhere else. People say, for instance, that Socialism is the passing of the control of the means of production out of the hands of the entrepreneurs into the hands of the collectivity; but again, it all depends on what you mean by “collectivity”. If it is what we generally call the “State”, that is to say, an institution in which a virtually unorganized mass allows its affairs to be conducted by “representation”, as they call it, then the chief change in a socialistic society will be this: that the workers will feel themselves represented by the holders of power. But what is representation? Does not the worst defect of modern society lie precisely in everybody letting himself be represented ad libitum? And in a “socialistic” society will there not, on top of this passive political representation, be added a passive economic representation, so that, with everybody letting himself be represented by everybody else, we reach a state of practically unlimited representation and hence, ultimately, the reign of practically unlimited centralist accumulation of power? But the more a human group lets itself be represented in the management of its common affairs, and the more it lets itself be represented from outside, the less communal life there is in it and the more impoverished it becomes as a community. For community — not the primitive sort, but the sort possible and appropriate to modern man — declares itself primarily in the common and active management of what it has in common, and without this it cannot exist.

The primary aspiration of all history is a genuine community of human beings — genuine because it is community all through. A community that failed to base itself on the actual and communal life of big and little groups living and working together, and on their mutual relationships, would be fictitious and counterfeit. Hence everything depends on whether the collectivity into whose hands the control of the means of production passes will facilitate and promote in its very structure and in all its institutions the genuine common life of the various groups composing it — on whether, in fact, these groups themselves become proper foci of the productive process; therefore on whether the masses are so organized in their separate organizations (the various “communities”) as to be as powerful as the common economy of man permits; therefore on whether centralist representation only goes as far as the new order of things absolutely demands. The fatal question does not take the form of a fundamental Either-Or: it is only a question of the right line of demarcation that has to be drawn ever anew — the thousandfold system of demarcation between the spheres which must of necessity be centralized and those which can operate in freedom; between the degree of government and the degree of autonomy; between the law of unity and the claims of community. The unwearying scrutiny of conditions in terms of the claims of community, as something continually exposed to the depredations of centralist power — the custody of the true boundaries, ever changing in accordance with changing historical circumstances: such would be the task of humanity’s spiritual conscience, a Supreme Court unexampled in kind, the right true representation of a living idea. A new incarnation is waiting here for Plato’s “custodians”.

Representation of an idea, I say: not of a rigid principle but of a living form that wants to be shaped in the daily stuff of this earth. Community should not be made into a principle; it, too, should always satisfy a situation rather than an abstraction. The realization of community, like the realization of any idea, cannot occur once and for all time: always it must be the moment’s answer to the moment’s question, and nothing more.

In the interests of its vital meaning, therefore, the idea of community must be guarded against all contamination by sentimentality or emotionalism. Community is never a mere attitude of mind, and if it is feeling it is an inner disposition that is felt. Community is the inner disposition or constitution of a life in common, which knows and embraces in itself hard “calculation”, adverse “chance”, the sudden access of “anxiety”. It is community of tribulation and only because of that community of spirit; community of toil and only because of that community of salvation. Even those communities which call the spirit their master and salvation their Promised Land, the “religious” communities, are community only if they serve their lord and master in the midst of simple, unexalted, unselected reality, a reality not so much chosen by them as sent to them just as it is; they are community only if they prepare the way to the Promised Land through the thickets of this pathless hour. True, it is not “works” that count, but the work of faith does. A community of faith truly exists only when it is a community of work.

The real essence of community is to be found in the fact — manifest or otherwise — that is has a centre. The real beginning of a community is when its members have a common relation to the centre overriding all other relations: the circle is described by the radii, not by the points along its circumference. And the originality of the centre cannot be discerned unless it is discerned as being transpicuous to the light of something divine. All this is true; but the more earthly, the more creaturely, the more attached the centre is, the truer and more transpicuous it will be. This is where the “social” element comes in. Not as something separate, but as the all-pervading realm where man stands the test; and it is here that the truth of the centre is proved. The early Christians were not content with the community that existed alongside or even above the world, and they went into the desert so as to have no more community save with God and no more disturbing world. But it was shown them that God does not wish man to be alone with him; and above the holy impotence of the hermit there rose the Brotherhood. Finally, going beyond St. Benedict, St. Francis entered into alliance with all creatures.

Yet a community need not be “founded”. Wherever historical destiny had brought a group of men together in a common fold, there was room for the growth of a genuine community; and there was no need of an altar to the city deity in the midst when the citizens knew they were united round — and by — the Nameless.

A living togetherness, constantly renewing itself, was already there, and all that needed strengthening was the immediacy of relationships. In the happiest instances common affairs were deliberated and decided not through representatives but in gatherings in the market-place; and the unity that was felt in public permeated all personal contacts. The danger of seclusion might hang over the community, but the communal spirit banished it; for here this spirit flourished as nowhere else and broke windows for itself in the narrow walls, with a large view of people, mankind and the world.

All this, I may be told, has gone irrevocably and for ever. The modern city has no agora and the modern man has no time for negotiations of which his elected representatives can very well relieve him. The pressure of numbers and the forms of organization have destroyed any real togetherness. Work forges other personal links than does leisure, sport again others than politics, the day is cleanly divided and the soul too.

These links are material ones; though we follow our common interests and tendencies together, we have no use for “immediacy”. The collectivity is not a warm, friendly gathering but a great link-up of economic and political forces inimical to the play of romantic fancies, only understandable in terms of quantity, expressing itself in actions and effects — a thing which the individual has to belong to with no intimacies of any kind but all the time conscious of his energetic contribution. Any “unions” that resist the inevitable trend of events must disappear. There is still the family, of course, which, as a domestic community, seems to demand and guarantee a modicum of communal life; but it too will either emerge from the crisis in which it is involved, as an association for a common purpose, or else it will perish.

Faced with this medley of correct premises and absurd conclusions I declare in favour of a rebirth of the commune. A rebirth — not a bringing back. It cannot in fact be brought back, although I sometimes think that every touch of helpful neighbourliness in the apartment-house, every wave of warmer comradeship in the lulls and “knock-offs” that occur even in the most perfectly “rationalized” factory, means an addition to the world’s community-content; and although a rightly constituted village commune sometimes strikes me as being a more real thing than a parliament; but it cannot be brought back. Yet whether a rebirth of the commune will ensue from the “water and spirit” of the social transformation that is imminent — on this, it seems to me, hangs the whole fate of the human race. An organic commonwealth — and only such commonwealths can join together to form a shapely and articulated race of men — will never build itself up out of individuals but only out of small and ever smaller communities: a nation is a community to the degree that it is a community of communities. If the family does not emerge from, the crisis which today has all the appearance of a disintegration, purified and renewed, then the State will be nothing more than a machine stoked with the bodies of generations of men. The community that would be capable of such a renewal exists only as a residue. If I speak of its rebirth I am not thinking of a permanent world-situation but an altered one. By the new communes — they might equally well be called the new Co-operatives — I mean the subjects of a changed economy: the collectives into whose hands the control of the means of production is to pass. Once again, everything depends on whether they will be ready.

Just how much economic and political autonomy — for they will of necessity be economic and political units at once — will have to be conceded to them is a technical question that must be asked and answered over and over again; but asked and answered beyond the technical level, in the knowledge that the internal authority of a community hangs together with its external authority. The relationship between centralism and decentralization is a problem which, as we have seen, cannot be approached in principle, but, like everything to do with the relationship between idea and reality, only with great spiritual tact, with the constant and tireless weighing and measuring of the right proportion between them. Centralization — but only so much as is indispensable in the given conditions of time and place. And if the authorities responsible for the drawing and re-drawing of lines of demarcation keep an alert conscience, the relations between the base and the apex of the power-pyramid will be very different from what they are now, even in States that call themselves Communist, i.e. struggling for community. There will have to be a system of representation, too, in the sort of social pattern I have in mind; but it will not, as now, be composed of the pseudo-representatives of amorphous masses of electors but of representatives well tested in the life and work of the communes. The represented will not, as they are to-day, be bound to their representatives by some windy abstraction, by the mere phraseology of a party-programme, but concretely, through common action and common experience.

The essential thing, however, is that the process of community-building shall run all through the relations of the communes with one another. Only a community of com^ munities merits the title of Commonwealth.

The picture I have hastily sketched will doubtless be laid among the documents of “Utopian Socialism” until the storm turns them up again. Just as I do not believe in Marx’s “gestation” of the new form, so I do not believe either in Bakunin’s virgin-birth from the womb of Revolution. But I do believe in the meeting of idea and fate in the creative hour.


The era of advanced Capitalism has broken down the structure of society. The society which preceded it was composed of different societies; it was complex, and pluralistic in structure. This is what gave it its peculiar social vitality and enabled it to resist the totalitarian tendencies inherent in the pre-revolu-tionary centralistic State, though many elements were very much weakened in their autonomous life. This resistance was broken by the policy of the French Revolution, which was directed against the special rights of all free associations. Thereafter centralism in its new, capitalistic form succeeded where the old had failed: in atomizing society. Exercising control over the machines and, with their help, over the whole society, Capitalism wants to deal only with individuals; and the modern State aids and abets it by progressively dispossessing groups of their autonomy. The militant organizations which the proletariat erected against Capitalism — Trades Unions in the economic sphere and the Party in the political — are unable in the nature of things to counteract this process of dissolution, since they have no access to the life of society itself and its foundations: production and consumption. Even the transfer of capital to the State is powerless to modify the social structure, even when the State establishes a network of compulsory associations, which, having no autonomous life, are unfitted to become the cells of a new socialist society.

From this point of view the heart and soul of the Co-operative Movement is to be found in the trend of a society towards structural renewal, the re-acquisition, in new tectonic forms, of the internal social relationships, the establishment of a new consociatio consociationum. It is (as I have shown) a fundamental error to view this trend as romantic or Utopian merely because in its early stages it had romantic reminiscences and utopian fantasies. At bottom it is thoroughly topical and constructive; that is to say, it aims at changes which, in the given circumstances and with the means at its disposal, are feasible. And, psychplogically speaking, it is based on one of the eternal human needs, even though this need has often been forcibly suppressed or rendered insensible: the need of man to feel his own house as a room in some greater, all-embracing structure in which he is at home, to feel that the other inhabitants of it with whom he lives and works are all acknowledging and confirming his individual existence. An association based on community of views and aspirations alone cannot satisfy this need; the only thing that can do that is an association which makes for communal living. But here the co-operative organization of production or consumption proves, each in its own way, inadequate, because both touch the individual only at a certain point and do not mould his actual life. On account of their merely partial or functional character all such organizations are equally unfitted to act as cells of a new society. Both these partial forms have undergone vigorous development, but the Consumer Co-operatives only in highly bureaucratic forms and the Producer Co-operatives in highly specialized forms: they are less able to embrace the whole life of society to-day than ever. The consciousness of this fact is leading to the synthetic form: the Full Co-operative. By far the most powerful effort in this direction is the Village Commune, where communal living is based on the amalgamation of production and consumption, production being understood not exclusively as agriculture alone but as the organic union of agriculture with industry and with the handicrafts as well.

The repeated attempts that have been made during the last 150 years, both in Europe and America, to found village settlements of this kind, whether communistic or co-operative in the narrower sense, have mostly met with failure.[1] I would apply the word “failure” not merely to those settlements, or attempts at settlements, which after a more or less short-lived existence either disintegrated completely or took on a Capitalist complexion, thus going over to the enemy camp; I would also apply it to those that maintained themselves in isolation. For the real, the truly structural task of the new Village Communes begins with their federation, that is, their union under the same principle that operates in their internal structure. Hardly anywhere has it come to this. Even where, as with the Dukhobors in Canada, a sort of federative union exists, the federation itself continues to be isolated and exerts no attractive and educative influence on society as a whole, with the result that the task never gets beyond its beginnings and, consequently, there can be no talk of success in the socialist sense. It is remarkable that Kropotkin saw in these two elements — isolation of the settlements from one another and isolation from the rest of society — the efficient causes of their failure even as ordinarily understood.

The socialistic task can only be accomplished to the degree that the new Village Commune, combining the various forms of production and uniting production and consumption, exerts a structural influence on the amorphous urban society. The influence will only make itself felt to the full if, and to the extent that, further technological developments facilitate and actually require the decentralization of industry; but even now a pervasive force is latent in the modern communal village, and it may spread to the towns. It must be emphasized again that the tendency we are dealing with is constructive and topical: it would be romantic and Utopian to want to destroy the towns, as once it was romantic and Utopian to want to destroy the machines, but it is constructive and topical to try to transform the town organically in the closest possible alliance with technological developments and to turn it into an aggregate composed of smaller units.

Indeed, many countries to-day show significant beginnings in this respect.

As I see history and the present, there is only one all-out effort to create a Full Co-operative which justifies our speaking of success in the socialistic sense, and that is the Jewish Village Commune in its various forms, as found in Palestine. No doubt it, too, is up against grave problems in the sphere of internal relationships, federation, and influence on society at large, but it alone has proved its vitality in all three spheres. Nowhere else in the history of communal settlements is there this tireless groping for the form of community-life best suited to this particular human group, nowhere else this continual trying and trying again, this going to it and getting down to it, this critical awareness, this sprouting of new branches from the same stem and out of the same formative impulse. And nowhere else is there this alertness to one’s own problems, this constant facing up to them, this tough will to come to terms with them, and this indefatigable struggle — albeit seldom expressed in words — to overcome them. Here, and here alone, do we find in the emergent community organs of self-knowledge whose very sensitiveness has constantly reduced its members to despair — but this is a despair that destroys wishful thinking only to raise up in its stead a greater hope which is no longer emotionalism but sheer work. Thus on the soberest survey and on the soberest reflection one can say that, in this one spot in a world of partial failures, we can recognize a non-failure — and, such as it is, a signal n on-failure.

What are the reasons for this? We could not get to know the peculiar character of this co-operative colonization better than by following up these reasons.

One element in thesse reasons has been repeatedly pointed out: that the Jewish Village Commune in Palestine owes its existence not to a doctrine but to a situation, to the needs, the stress, the demands of the situation. In establishing the “Kvuza” or Village Commune the primary thing was not ideology but work.

This is certainly correct, but with one limitation. True, the p.oint was to solve certain problems of work and construction which the Palestinian reality forced on the settlers, by collaborating; what a loose conglomeration of individuals could not, in the nature of things, hope to overcome, or even try to overcome, things being what they were, the collective could try to do and actually succeeded in doing. But what is called the ““ideology” — I personally prefer the old but untarnished word “Ideal” — was not just something to be added afterwards, that would justify the accomplished facts. In the spirit of the members of the first Palestinian Communes ideal motivesjoined hands with the dictates of the hour; and in the motives there was a curious mixture of memories of the Russian Artel, impressions left over from reading the so-called “utopian” Socialists, and the haJf^unconscious after-effects of the Bible’s teachings about social justice. The important thing is that this ideal motive remaimed loose and pliable in almost every respect.

There were various dreams about the future: people saw before them a new, more comprehensive form of the family, they saw therrnselves as the advance guard of the Workers’ Movement, as the direct instrument for the realization of Socialism, as the prototype of the new society; they had as their goal the creation of a new man and a new world. But nothin g of this ever hardened into a cut-and-dried programme.

These men did not, as everywhere else in the history of cooperative settlements, bring a plan with them, a plan which the concrete situation could only fill out, not modify; the ideal gave an impetus but no dogma, it stimulated but did not dictate.

More important, however, is that, behind the Palestinian situation that set the tasks of work and reconstruction, there was the historical situation of a people visited by a great external crisis and responding to it with a great inner change. Further, this historical situation threw up an elite — the “Chaluzim” or pioneers — drawn from all classes of the people and thus beyond class. The form of life that befitted this elite was the Village Commune, by which I mean not a single note but the whole scale, ranging from the social structure of “mutual aid” to the Commune itself. This form was the best fitted to fulfil the tasks of the central Chaluzim, and at the same time the one in which the social ideal could materially influence the national idea. As the historical conditions have shown, it was impossible for this elite and the form of life it favoured, to becomie static or isolated; all its tasks, everything it did, its whole pioneering spirit made it the centre of attraction and a central influence. The Pioneer spirit (“Chaluziuth”) is, in every part of it, related to the growth of a new and transformed national community; the moment it grew self-sufficient it would have lost its soul. The Village Commune, as the nucleus of the evolving society, had to exert a powerful pull on the people dedicated to this evolution, and it had not merely to educate its friends and associates for genuine communal living, but also to exercise a formative structural effect on the social periphery. The dynamics of history determined the dynamic character of the relations between Village Commune and society.

This character suffered a considerable setback when the tempo of the crisis in the outer world became so rapid, and its symptoms so drastic, that the inner change could not keep pace with them. To the extent that Palestine had been turned from the one and only land of the “Aliyah” — ascent — into a country of immigrants, a quasi-Chaluziuth came into being alongside the genuine Chaluziuth. The pull exerted by the Commune did not abate, but its educative powers were not adapted to the influx of very different human material, and this material sometimes succeeded in influencing the tone of the community. At the same time the Commune’s relations with society at large underwent a change. As the structure of the latter altered, it withdrew more and more from the transforming influence of the focal cells, indeed, it began in its turn to exert an influence on them — not always noticeable at first, but unmistakable to-day — by seizing on certain essential elements in them and assimilating them to itself.

In the life of peoples, and particularly peoples who find themselves in the midst of some historical crisis, it is of crucial importance whether genuine elites (which means elites that do not usurp but are called to their central function) arise, whether these elites remain loyal to their duty to society, establishing a relationship to it rather than to themselves, and finally, whether they have the power to replenish and renew themselves in a manner conformable with their task. The historical destiny of the Jewish settlements in Palestine brought the elite of the Chaluzim to birth, and it found its social nuclear form in the Village Commune.

Another wave of this same destiny has washed up, together with the quasi-Chaluzim, a problem for the real Chaluzim elite. It has caused a problem that was always latent to come to the surface. They have not yet succeeded in mastering it and yet must master it before they can reach the next stage of their task. The inner tension between those who take the whole responsibility for the community on their shoulders and those who somehow evade it, can be resolved only at a very deep level.

The point where the problem emerges is neither the individual’s relationship to the idea nor his relationship to the community nor yet to work; on all these points even the quasi-Chaluzim gird up their loins and do by and large what is expected of them. The point where the problem emerges, where people are apt to slip, is in their relationship to their fellows. By this I do not mean the question, much discussed in its day, of the intimacy that exists in the small and the loss of this intimacy in the big Kvuza; I mean something that has nothing whatever to do with the size of the Commune. It is not a matter of intimacy at all; this appears when it must, and if it is lacking, that’s all there is to it. The question is rather one of openness. A real community need not consist of people who are perpetually together; but it must consist of people who, precisely because they are comrades, have mutual access to one another and are ready for one another. A real community is one which in every point of its being possesses, potentially at least, the whole character of community. The internal questions of a community are thus in reality questions relating to its own genuineness, hence to its inner strength and stability. The men who created the Jewish Communes in Palestine instinctively knew this; but the instinct no longer seems to be as common and alert as it was. Yet it is in this most important field that we find that remorselessly clear-sighted collective self-observation and self-criticism to which I have already drawn attention. But to understand and value it aright we must see it together with the amazingly positive relationship — amounting to a regular faith — which these men have to the inmost being of their Commune. The two things are two sides of the same spiritual world and neither can be understood without the other.

In order to make the causes of the non-failure of these Jewish communal settlements sufficiently vivid, in Palestine, I began with the non-doctrinaire character of their origins. This character also determined their development in all essentials. New forms and new intermediate forms were constantly branching off — in complete freedom. Each one grew out of the particular social and spiritual needs as these came to light — in complete freedom, and each one acquired, even in the initial stages, its own ideology — in complete freedom, each struggling to propagate itself and spread and establish its proper sphere — all in complete freedom. The champions of the various forms each had his say, the pros and cons of each individual form were frankly and fiercely debated — always, however, on the plane which everybody accepted as obvious: the common cause and common task, where each form recognized the relative justice of all the other forms in their special functions. All this is unique in the history of co-operative settlements. What is more: nowhere, as far as I see, in the history of the Socialist movement were men so deeply involved in the process of differentiation and yet so intent on preserving the principle of integration.

The various forms and intermediate forms that arose in this way at different times and in different situations represented different kinds of social structure. The people who built them were generally aware of this as also of the particular social and spiritual needs that actuated them. They were not aware to the same extent that the different forms corresponded to different human types and that just as new forms branched off from the original Kvuza, so new types branched off from the original Chaluz type, each with its special mode of being and each demanding its particular sort of realization. More often than not it was economic and suchlike external factors that led certain people to break away from one form and attach themselves to another. But in the main it happened that each type looked for the social realization of its peculiarities in this particular form and, on the whole, found it there. And not only was each form based on a definite type, it moulded and keeps on moulding this type. It was and is intent on developing it; the constitution, organization and educational system of each form are — no matter how consciously or unconsciously — dedicated to this end. Thus something has been produced which is essentially different from all the social experiments that have ever been made: not a laboratory where everybody works for himself, alone with his problems and plans, but an experimental station where, on common soil, different colonies or “cultures” are tested out according to different methods for a common purpose.

Yet here, too, a problem emerged, no longer within the individual group but in the relation of the groups to one another; nor did it come from without, it came from within — in fact, from the very heart of the principle of freedom.

Even in its first undifferentiated form a tendency towards federation was innate in the Kvuza, to merge the Kvuzoth in some higher social unit; and a very important tendency it was, since it showed that the Kvuza implicitly understood that it was the cell of a newly structured society. With the splitting off and proliferation of the various forms, from the semi-individualistic form which jealously guarded personal independence in its domestic economy, way of life, children’s education, etc., to the pure Communistic form, the single unit was supplanted by a series of units in each of which a definite form of colony and a more or less definite human type constituted itself on a federal basis. The fundamental assumption was that the local groups would combine on the same principle of solidarity and mutual help as reigned within the individual group. But the trend towards a larger unit is far from having atrophied in the process. On the contrary, at least in the Kibbuz or Collectivist Movement, it asserts itself with great force and clarity; it recognizes the federative Kibbuzim — units where the local groups have pooled their various aspirations — as a provisional structure; indeed, a thoughtful leader of their movement calls them a substitute for a Commune of Communes. Apart from the fact, however, that individual forms, especially, for instance, the “Moshavim” or semi-individualistic Labour Settlements — though these do not fall short of any of the other forms in the matter of communal economic control and mutual help — are already too far removed from the basic form to be included in a unitary plan, in the Kibbuz Movement itself subsidiary organizations stand in the way of the trend towards unification which wants to embrace and absorb them. Each has developed its own special character and consolidated it in the unit, and it is natural that each should incline to view unification as an extension of its own influence. But something else has been added that has led to an enormous intensification of this attitude on the part of the single units: political development. Twenty years ago a leader of one of the big units could say emphatically: “We are a community and not a Party.” This has radically changed in the meantime, and the conditions for unification have been aggravated accordingly.

The lamentable fact has emerged that the all-important attitude of neighbourly relationship has not been adequately developed, although not a few cases are on record of a flourishing and rich village giving generous help to a young and poor neighbour which belonged to another unit. In these circumstances the great struggle that has broken out on the question of unification, particularly in the last decade, is the more remarkable. Nobody who is a Socialist at heart can read the great document of this struggle, the Hebrew compilation entitled The Kibbuz and the Kvuza, edited by the late labour leader Berl Kaznelson, without being lost in admiration of the high-minded passion with which these two camps battled with one another for genuine unity. The union will probably not be attained save as the outcome of a situation that makes it absolutely necessary. But that the men of the Jewish Communes have laboured so strenuously with one another and against one another for the emergence of a communitas communitatum, that is to say, for a structurally new society — this will not be forgotten in the history of mankind’s struggle for self-renewal.

I have said that I see in this bold Jewish undertaking a “signal non-failure”. I cannot say: a signal success.

To become that, much has still to be done. Yet it is in this way, in this kind of tempo, with such setbacks, disappointments, and new ventures, that the real changes are accomplished in this our mortal world.

But can one speak of this non-failure as “signal”? I have pointed out the peculiar nature of the premises and conditions that led to it. And what one of its own representatives has said of the Kvuza, that it is a typically Palestinian product, is true of all these forms.

Still, if an experiment conducted under certain conditions has proved successful up to a point, we can set about varying it under other, less favourable, conditions.

There can hardly be any doubt that we must regard the last war as the end of the prelude to a world crisis.

This crisis will probably break out — after a sombre “interlude” that cannot last very long — first among some of the nations of the West, who will be able to restore their shattered economy in appearance only.

They will see themselves faced with the immediate need for radical socialization, above all the expropriation of the land. It will then be of absolutely decisive importance who is the real subject of an economy so transformed, and who is the owner of the social means of production. Is it to be the central authority in a highly centralized State, or the social units of urban and rural workers, living and producing on a communal basis, and their representative bodies? In the latter case the remodelled organs of the State will discharge the functions of adjustment and administration only. On these issues will largely depend the growth of a new society and a new civilization. The essential point is to decide on the fundamentals: a restructuring of society as a League of Leagues, and a reduction of the State to its proper function, which is to maintain unity; or a devouring of an amorphous society by the omnipotent State; Socialist Pluralism or so-called Socialist Unitarianism. The right proportion, tested anew every day according to changing conditions, between group-freedom and collective order; or absolute order imposed indefinitely for the sake of an era of freedom alleged to follow “of its own accord”. So long as Russia has not undergone an essential inner change — and to-day we have no means of knowing when and how that will come to pass — we must designate one of the two poles of Socialism between which our choice lies, by the formidable name of “Moscow”. The other, I would make bold to call “Jerusalem”.


[1] Of course, I am not dealing here with the otherwise successful “socio-economic organizations, used by governmental or semi-governmental agencies to improve rural conditions” (Infield, Co-operative Communities at Work, p. 63).

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