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Letters/Martin Buber

You do not currently have access to this article. Download all figures. 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.


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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.

PHILOSOPHY - Heidegger

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. 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.


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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. 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.

(February 24, 1939)

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.

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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. 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.

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?


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  7. 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?

    This land does not belong to you! 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. But there is another of whom you do not inquire and who in justice, i.

    The Letters of Martin Buber by Martin Buber | Penguin Random House Canada

    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! 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.

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    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. The more fertile this soil becomes, the more space there will be for us and for them. Buber is responsible for bringing Hasidism to the attention of young German intellectuals who previously had scorned it as the product of ignorant eastern European Jewish peasants.

    Buber also wrote about utopian socialism, education, Zionism, and respect for the Palestinian Arabs, and, with Franz Rosenzweig, he translated the Bible. He was appointed to a professorship at the University of Frankfurt in , but, when the Nazis came to power, he received an appointment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

    Buber died in