Buber vs. Herzl



The Struggle for Israel's Soul
By Yoram Hazony
464 pages. Basic Books. $18.

Anyone familiar with the history of Israel is aware that the country has always been engaged in a struggle to ensure its security. Yet, as Yoram Hazony shows in his The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, it is not only the physical safety of Israel that is at risk. The country’s Zionist and Jewish moorings are loosening. In many aspects of Israeli life—education, the military, the legal system, and politics—the Jewish character of the Israeli state is in danger of being stripped away. Hazony aims to diagnose this spiritual malaise, identify its source, and suggest a method of counteracting its spread.

How did Israel arrive at this state of affairs? Hazony devotes much of his book to this question. He returns to the idea of the Jewish state as envisioned by Theodor Herzl at the end of the nineteenth century. Herzl maintained that the basis for a state is the shared and conscious commitment of a group of individuals to that state. This concept of a state as ideological commitment , rather than simply the physical presence of population in one geographic area, legitimated the idea of Jewish sovereignty even though the Jews were scattered throughout the world. Moreover, Herzl believed that the agents of a state, those who assume the mantle of political leadership, do so as the guardians of the people. Thus, Herzl unabashedly argued that the future Jewish state must first and foremost serve the political interests of the Jewish people. It was clear to him that if the Jewish state did not play this role, the Jews would forever remain powerless and helpless.

Even in Herzl’s lifetime, there were those ostensibly within the Zionist camp who expressed their opposition to such a state, foremost among them the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Once a follower of Herzl, Buber rejected what he considered to be a narrow Jewish particularism. Buber argued vociferously on behalf of a binational state, committed to the needs of its citizens, rather than a state committed to the needs of the Jewish people. Buber and his supporters opposed the creation of a uniquely Jewish state, even as the Labor Zionists, led by David Ben-Gurion, struggled to bring Herzl’s dream to fruition.

With the founding of Israel in 1948, the Labor Zionists seemed to have won the day. But Buber’s supporters continued to wage their intellectual battle against the idea of a Jewish state from within the stronghold of the Hebrew University, where many of them were professors and administrators. The Labor Zionists who remained committed to the ideals of Herzl and Ben-Gurion devoted themselves to Israel’s physical development. This was a noble and necessary effort, Hazony argues. At the same time, however, the Labor Zionists bequeathed to their children an intellectual vacuum. This was filled by academics at the Hebrew University who continued to propound Buber’s arguments. It was their influence, according to Hazony, that brought Israel into the spiritual mire in which it now finds itself.

While Hazony may be right that the seeds of discontent with the idea of a Jewish state were sown by Buber and his disciples, those seeds sprouted forth as the result of political developments that, in the eyes of some, seemed to confirm Buber’s worst fears concerning Israeli particularism and power. But the importance of Hazony’s book does not hinge on the accuracy of the intellectual chain that he describes. What Hazony shows quite convincingly is that the current attack on the idea of a Jewish state parallels the attack advanced by Buber and his allies. The arguments put forward in the 1920s and 1930s in favor of a binational state, based on the embrace of universalism and the affirmation and even glorification of Jewish powerlessness, are not all that different from the beliefs of many contemporary Israeli intellectuals.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Buber and his contemporary counterparts is that the latter are subtler. As Hazony points out, they do not explicitly declare their opposition to Israel as a Jewish state. Rather, they question the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and leave it to their audience to draw the conclusion that the Jewish character of the state is not worth saving. Hazony is correct to be contemptuous of those who present such a distorted historical narrative. While Israel’s leaders have certainly made their share of mistakes, these hardly delegitimize the state itself. Yet Hazony does not sufficiently acknowledge the degree to which Israeli critics who do not fall into the traps of moral reductionism or simplistic generalization provide a valuable service to Israeli society. A society needs gadflies who, however infuriating, will prevent it from becoming complacent. Myths of Israel’s moral perfection are no better than myths of Israel’s moral failure.

Ultimately, the legitimacy of a Jewish state depends on ideas, not on history. And it is here that Hazony’s conclusion becomes critical. There is an urgent need, Hazony argues, to continue the work of Herzl and Ben-Gurion in the realm of ideas, to put forward a coherent vision of what Zionism truly is and what it is not. Only an interpretive framework committed to the right of the Jews to their own state in their own land will prevent gadflies from becoming all-consuming leviathans.


Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.