September 11, 2005 is the fourth anniversary of a tragic event that changed our nation’s history forever. Anniversaries like this are natural occasions to ask ourselves what we have learned during the interval, what we did right or wrong, and what we can do better in the future. Somehow this anniversary leads me to a book I recently read. It is Martin Buber’s A Land of Two Peoples with a commentary and a new preface by Paul Mendes-Flohr. Paul Mendes-Flohr is the world’s leading authority on Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. I was privileged to meet him a few years ago and was struck by the immense knowledge of this man, as well as his deep human understanding. His commentary is invaluable in reading these talks and essays of Martin Buber stretching from 1918 to Buber’s death in 1965.
From the first of these writings to the last, Buber has one great thesis: both Jews and Arabs have a legitimate claim to this one land. Buber called for an appreciation of the Arab population and challenged Jews coming to Palestine to learn Arabic, to appreciate their Arab neighbors, and to enter deeply into their culture. He pleaded with his fellow Jews not to act like imperialisitc colonizers, not to be Euro-centric in their prejudices and attitudes. Buber felt that the only viable future was a shared world based on economic and cultural cooperation between Jews and Arabs. In other words, it was important for the Arabs to see the Jewish settlers, not only as friendly neighbors, but as people who could work with them so that both people could reap economic and cultural benefits from the exchange. Buber’s goal was one nation in which there would be shared representation by Arabs and Jews.
Buber’s voice was often ignored and more frequently silenced by those who felt that his program was too idealistic, too unrealistic. His opponents felt that the Arabs were backward and ignorant, not to be trusted, not worthy to be treated as equals. And it was that approach, of course, that has led to the current impasse in the Middle East. After serving up the sop of the Gaza Strip, Israel is now ready to retreat into a fortress existence for the foreseeable future. Current research indicates that by and large Israeli Jews and Arabs still do not know each other, seldom speak the other’s language, rarely show a sense of what Buber called “feeling the other side”.
If Buber had been listened to, perhaps he could have been the Gandhi or the Martin Luther King of the Middle East. Perhaps we would be experiencing a strong nation today in which Arabs and Jews lived as brothers and sisters. But this was not the course the Zionist movement chose and only the future will reveal what course to peace is still possible. It must be an interesting experience for young Israelis to read the material in this book and to reflect on what “might have been”.
This is the bridge I see to our own situation. From the beginning, we did almost everything wrong. Declaring a “war” on terrorism set the stage for a confrontation, a conflict of civilizations. The door to dialogue was closed from the very beginning. Although President Bush was advised to stop using the “crusader” language he first used on Sept. 12th, he has never ceased to be a crusader. American policy has consistently proceeded from a tribal consciousness of good guys and bad guys, black hats and white hats, a coalition of the good and an axis of evil. And four years later, we are so much worse off than we were. We have made enemies faster than we can kill them. We are responsible for the death of untold thousands of Iraquis, as well as some two thousand Americans, not to mention all those on both sides who face the rest of their lives physically maimed or psychologically damaged. What an extraordinary loss in a totally unnecessary war, an unjust war, an obscene war, an imperialistic war, a war with no foreseeable end in sight.
When Israelis read the prescient words of Buber, they realize that they can’t go back in time and undo what has been done. And we too cannot go back and listen to the sage advice given to us by our allies: Germany, France, and Russia. Not to mention a host of other voices both in our country and outside our country begging us not to invade Iraq and pleading with us to begin to seek the roots of this terrorism by the patient work of dialogue and understanding.
For the Israelis, it has been forty years now since Buber’s voice was last heard live. For us it has been only four years since wiser voices urged us to a different course. It would certainly take a miracle for the Israelis to experience teshuva, repentence, as they reflect on the error of beieving that they were “a people without a land finding a land without a people.” Buber’s words of 1921 are a blast on the shofar calling Israel to teshuvah today: “We do not aspire to return to the Land of Israel with which we have inseparable historical and spiritual ties in order to suppress another people or to dominate them”. (p. 61) And the words of wise people all over our globe begging us to seek a path of dialogue rather than the crusader path of conquest still call Americans to repentence today. It is still possible for us to change our course. It must begin with Buber’s challenge to “feel the other side”. We must understand how so many Muslims and Muslim countries feel after so many years in which their national interests were set aside by the totally one-sided goals of our self-interest translated into foreign policy. Sensitively and wisely we must build paths to communication, mutual respect, mutual understanding, dialogue, and peace. It’s important that we act now, after four years of ignorance and insensitivity, and do not condemn ourselves to look back at forty years of tragic errors.
By Ron Miller – Sept 7, 2005