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Recalling the radical Zionist vision of Martin Buber

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

UPDATE: "Martin Buber’s Theopolitics” won the Association for Jewish Studies’ Jordan Schnitzer Book Award for 2019 in the category of Philosophy and Jewish Thought.

LAWRENCE — Samuel Hayim Brody likens the 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber to Martin Luther King Jr. in that people today revere certain aspects of his life’s work while ignoring the more radical parts.

With his new book, “Martin Buber’s Theopolitics” (2018, Indiana University Press), the University of Kansas assistant professor of Jewish studies said he is engaged in “a kind of recovery project” to remind people of the politics, extrapolated from religious doctrine and bordering on anarchism, that Buber advocated before and after the establishment of modern Israel.

While Buber is best known today for the books “I and Thou,” which lays out his philosophy emphasizing honest dialogue between people, and “Tales of the Hasidim,” about the mystical ultra-orthodox movement, he also advocated for egalitarianism within Israel and for Jews and Arabs to share the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.

A broad reconsideration of Buber’s ideas might even lead to their adoption and break the yearslong deadlock in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Brody said.

“It’s been pretty much frozen in place for the last 15 years. Something has to break the deadlock,” Brody said. “And the two things I can imagine that would break the deadlock are a movement from the fascist right or some new movement from the left.”

Buber was definitely a man of the religious left, Brody said. He believed in the kingship of God and, as a corollary, that no human should be a king, or even have much more power or wealth than another human. And he extended these ideas into the Zionist project of which he was an important part of in the early 20th century. Buber’s ideal was a loose confederation of kibbutzim, or collective settlements, Brody said.

Buber, like his peers Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, was an advocate of the notion that the wandering Jewish people should return from exile and reconstitute their polity in their historic homeland. But unlike them and most Zionists, Brody said, Buber favored a binational state that encompassed and honored both Jewish and Arab ethnicities. He drew this notion from his understanding of the precepts of the Hebrew Bible.

Brody said he began to study Buber’s writings while at the University of Chicago, studying under Paul Mendes-Flohr, who edited a collection of Buber’s writings on Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine called “A Land of Two Peoples.” This was during the time of the Second Intifada, or uprising, when Palestinian terror attacks inside Israel regularly alternated with Israeli military incursions into the Palestinian territories.

“I was especially interested in the idea that he seemed correct about a lot of things, even though he lost,” Brody said. “His point of view was not adopted by the majority of Zionists or Israelis. But he predicted that if things didn’t go his way, this conflict would continue, and it would defeat the higher purposes of Zionism as he saw them. If the conflict were the main feature of life and the thing people were always thinking about, then the higher goals of Judaism wouldn’t even be addressed, and Judaism itself would become a kind of victim of the conflict.”

Brody said Buber would be profoundly disappointed in today’s Israel, both because it is increasingly capitalistic and less socialistic than in its early days, and because Jewish ethnonationalism seems ascendant.

“I think Buber has been received into the American Jewish canon in a certain way, especially because of his thinking about dialogue and Hasidism,” Brody said. “But there is this other aspect to Buber that we don’t talk about as much, and that’s this theopolitical side and his belief in binationalism in Israel/Palestine, and I think that should come back into the agenda.”

Brody said the book “feels really relevant to me” in 2018.

“In one sense, it’s a narrow book about Martin Buber. But in another sense, it’s a very broadly relevant book because it is about all these things. It’s about religion and politics. It’s about communism and Zionism. It’s about Arabs and Jews. It’s about different interpretations of what it means for God to give a land to a people.

“There is a lot out there on Buber, but there is not a lot on his politics and not a lot on his Bible writing. And I thought those two were connected. I thought if I treat those together, I can make a contribution to Buber scholarship and can do that while speaking to a broader audience on all these other issues that people find interesting.”

Photo: By Joop van Bilsen/Anefo, courtesy Dutch National Archives
AMSTERDAM — Martin Buber, arriving at Schiphol Airport in 1963 to receive the Erasmus Prize.

Jewish Studies Program statement in solidarity with protests against police brutality

Beloved community,

As an academic program in the University of Kansas, we stand in solidarity with Black Americans -- including Black Jewish people -- and everyone hurting after the senseless, brutal murder of George Floyd and all people targeted by systemic racism and injustice in our country. We continue to be committed to our core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This morning, the Association for Jewish Studies sent out an email reminding us that as scholars of Jewish Studies, we are keenly aware of the devastating impact of discrimination and violence against minority groups. Dr. Cécile Accilien, the Chair of the KU Department of African and African-American studies, shared with us the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The Jewish Studies academic community is rich and diverse – it includes scholars and students who are Jewish and non-Jewish, scholars and students of all ethnic and racial backgrounds and from multiple denominations and creeds, people who are immigrants (like myself) and those who are American-born. The Bible commands: צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף tzedek tzedek tirdof, which translates into English as “Only justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). In this well-cited verse, the Hebrew word tzedek, or justice, repeats twice. There can be many explanations of the repetition – textual interpretation in all its many forms is a beloved pursuit for many of us. Today, I am going to give you my own interpretation -- though I am sure that it already exists somewhere in the treasury of Jewish exegesis. One tzedek, or justice, you must pursue for yourself and for people like you; that is, perhaps, the justice that is easiest to understand, because we keenly feel injustices committed against ourselves and people like us. The other tzedek is the justice you must pursue for the sake of people who are not like you. It is often a harder lesson, but a necessary one. The justice, or tzedek, which we pursue thus also becomes a gift of chesed, of lovingkindness that enriches all of us.


In solidarity,

Dr. Renee Perelmutter,

Director of the Jewish Studies Program

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