After the assault on Gaza

Leonard Schwartz

Posted Mar 27, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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After the assault on Gaza

by Leonard Schwartz

OLYMPIA, WA – Perhaps the greatest moral philosopher to arise from European Jewish culture was the Austrian-born Martin Buber, later a citizen of Israel. Buber was a Zionist. His seminal theological text I And Thou remains relevant today, a powerful work in its devotion to encounter, to the recognition of the Stranger, to dialogue. Buber’s political writings – over a 44 year period – are also very instructive. In a 1929 piece “The National Home and The National Riots in Palestine”, delivered as a speech in Berlin two months after the Palestine Riots resulted in the deaths of over 125 Jews, Buber wrote:

Every responsible relationship between an individual and his fellow begins through the power of genuine imagination, as if we were the residents of Palestine and the others were the immigrants who were coming into the country in increasing numbers, year by year, taking it away from us. How would we react to events? Only if we know this will it be possible to minimize the injustice we must do in order to survive and to live the life which we are not only entitled but obliged to live, since we live for the eternal mission, which has been imbedded within us since our creation.

The passage is suggestive of Buber’s “I-Thou” conception in that it calls for one group to imagine itself in the position of the other. At the same time, it is very clear in this passage that Buber, as a Zionist, does not shrink from describing Jewish emigration to the Holy Land in 1929 as an eschatological and moral calling, a historical coming-to-pass in the name of which injustices may have to be committed.

With this quote in mind, it becomes doubly instructive, in view of the contemporary situation, to remind ourselves of a text Buber wrote in 1947, “The Bi-National Approach to Zionism”. In this extraordinary essay Buber offers the following:

We describe our program as that of a bi-national state—that is, we aim at a social structure based on the reality of two peoples living together. The foundations of this structure cannot be the traditional ones of majority and minority, but must be different. We do not mean just any bi-national state, but this particular one, with its particular conditions, i.e. a bi-national state which embodies in its basic principle a Magna Charta Reservationum, the indispensable postulate of the rescue of the Jewish people. This is what we need and not a “Jewish State”.

What a prescient statement to have made in 1947! Although Buber’s was not the vision of Zionism that triumphed in 1948, we can on its basis assert there was no consensus within Zionism itself in 1947 that a Jewish majority state was a necessary outcome for Zionism and speculate about how a nation in which Buber’s view had triumphed might have instead functioned.

What is incontestable is that Buber, a Zionist, calls for a bi-national state. Only this guarantees Jewish survival and justice for the indigenous Arab population of Palestine. As we watch the two ultra-nationalisms of the current moment battle it out with more than 1350 Gazans and 13 Israeli dead in the aftermath of the fighting, allegations of war crimes and deaths multiplying, isn’t it possible we should take up again Buber’s call for a single bi-national state? I ask this in the spirit of questioning oneself first, an imperative of self-critique that has been a principle of Jewish survival for millennia. If ultra-nationalisms depend on one another to justify their own deadliness, then it is also true that Buber knew that in Palestine/Israel only bi-nationalism could prevent these events. If such violence as we have seen in Gaza is necessary to preserve the Jewish State as we know it, then Israel’s actions in and of themselves have proven that only Buber’s vision of a bi-national state can save all parties.

The German-language Jewish poet Paul Celan, the great poet of the Holocaust and a fervent admirer of Buber’s, wrote of the “Breathturn”, that figure in which one breathes in air and breathes out language. Celan spoke of “Breathturn” on his return to Germany in the late 40s, where it could be said he was literally breathing in the molecules of his incinerated people and breathing out poetry, an act fraught with responsibility to the very air he was surviving on and transforming.

The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish died on 9 August 2008, a little more than four and a half months before the latest tragedy of his people, the attack on Gaza. Both Celan and Darwish’s writings bear a similar kind of existential urgency, a related kind of presence in air. Darwish’s poems, given his importance to his people and his translatability into other languages, breathe witness to the catastrophe of a particular history.

In “The Death of the Phoenix” Darwish wrote:

In the hymns that we sing, there’s a
In the flute that shelters us
In the fire that we feed
a green phoenix
In its elegy I couldn’t tell
my ashes from your dust

So Darwish affirms the intermingling of our very molecules, even as elsewhere in the poem he can evoke two figures like Achilles and Priam briefly taking pause from the carnage to admire one another’s nobility. For those who read Darwish’s poems, language is breath, in the sense rooted in the etymology of the word “spirit”. “Phoenix” is a green oasis in burned out times. In its elegy I can’t at first tell my ashes from your dust. But then I must: 1350 Palestinian and 13 Israeli dead—these are numbers that should horrify us if one believes, as we do, that every individual matters. In the names of the poets, let us once again keep in mind Buber’s very precise call to our imaginations.


* Leonard Schwartz is professor of Literary Arts at The Evergreen State College. His most recent collection of poetry is A Message Back And Other Furors (Chax Press). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service, 26 March 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.