Forty years ago last week, the Jewish thinker Martin Buber died in Jerusalem. Though he was widely respected as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Israeli politicians and state officials were mostly absent from his funeral. In contrast, a delegation of Arab students came to offer flowers.

“I do not know of any political activity more harmful than regarding one’s ally or opponent as if he were cast in a fixed mold,” Buber wrote in 1929. “When we consider him ‘like that,’ we fall victim to the irrationality of his existence. Only when we pay attention to the fact that human nature is much the same the world over, will we be able to come to reality. Unfortunately, we have not settled Palestine together with the Arabs, but ‘alongside’ them.”

At the end of his life, the 88-year-old Buber, with his flowing white beard, may have been respected in Israel for his philosophical views. However, as soon as it came to implementing these in everyday life, his ideas were flatly rejected by the powers that be. Unfortunately, Israel is in that sense hardly an anomaly. More often than not in history, political powerbrokers and those trumpeting war have silenced words of wisdom.

Born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1878, Buber spent most of his childhood with his grandparents in the Ukraine, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Europe’s pre-nation-state multiethnic wonder. Young Buber learned five languages and went on to study art, philosophy and religion in Vienna, Leipzig and Berlin.

In 1898, he became a member of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which was established shortly after the publication of Theodore Herzl’s “The Jewish State,” the book that first called for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. With an eye on anti-Semitism in Europe, Buber supported that ideal, but always stressed that Israel should be created in cooperation with the Arabs, not against their will. Indeed, it was no surprise, then, that in 1904 Buber withdrew from the WZO and plunged into the study of Jewish religion and philosophy. Having published dozens of books and essays on a variety of subjects, including “Chinese Ghost and Love Stories,” his main work and the one for which he is best remembered, “I and Thou,” appeared in 1923.

After the so-called masters of distrust – Nietzsche, Freud and Marx – destroyed the rationalist dream, in which man and the tool of reason can create a perfect world, Buber, within the early 20th century phenomenology movement, revitalized Western philosophy by reintroducing the concept of “the other.” Inspired by Jewish mysticism, Buber argued that the relation between man and the world was twofold: I-It or I-Thou. In the first, the other, which can be a thing or person, is treated as an object, as a means to a goal; while in the second, the other is treated as a goal in itself. The difference between the two is determined solely by the attitude of the I, or the subject. Does he or she, like a scientist, take the world as a clear, well-defined ticking clock? Or is he or she, like an artist or mystic, prepared to look and listen, before defining, and thereby to a certain extent killing, the world with words?

“Thou” is what most people would refer to as the spirit or essence of life. According to Buber it manifests itself in God, people and nature. That’s why Buber has much in common with eastern schools of thought, in India, China or Japan, as well as with each of the more spiritual varieties of the world’s three great religions. The value of I and Thou was recognized immediately and Buber was appointed professor of Jewish religion and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. He held this position until 1933, when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party came to power. After that, Buber was banned from lecturing, and in 1938 he left for Israel, where he became professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Despite his encounter with the Nazi regime, Buber stayed true to his beliefs and became a leading critic of the young Israeli state. He became a member of the Ichud party, which argued in favor of a bi-national state – in other words a single state for both Jews and Arabs. As Dan Leon, an editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics, and Culture, wrote: “Buber had been a Zionist since 1888, but as far back as 1918, he rejected what he called the concept of “a Jewish state with cannons, flags and military decorations.”

Like his Indian counterpart Mohandas Gandhi, with whom he corresponded, Buber had always feared that the spirit of militarism and violence would be stronger than man himself. “The battles will cease,” he wrote in 1949, at the end of the first Arab-Israeli war; “But will suspicions cease? Will there be an end to vengeance? Won’t we be compelled, and I mean really compelled, to maintain a posture of vigilance forever, without being able to breathe? Won’t this unceasing effort occupy the most talented members of our society?”

Seeing his doubts vindicated and his views fulfilled, Buber would no doubt weep bitter tears today, were he to see the current state of affairs existing between Israelis and Palestinians. While Buber once called for mutual understanding and cooperation between the two peoples, Israel, with the tacit consent of the international community, is building a giant wall between itself and the other – an “other” that has been firmly dehumanized and typecast in the fixed mold of the terrorist.

There was something prophetic in Buber’s writings: Israel indeed seems to have embraced a posture of unending vigilance, one that is slowly suffocating it.

June 24, 2005