The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


From Martin Buber to Michael Oren

What does Martin Buber have in common with Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States?

In response to the Obama administration’s objection to settlements, Mr. Oren is reported to have said: “Settlements are not the issue.” “The issue is the recognition of the mutual legitimacy of these two peoples, the legitimate claim to these two states [the Jewish state and the projected Arab state].”

Underlying the words I have emphasized is a mode of thought that has long influenced the mentality of Israel’s political and intellectual elites: historical or cultural relativism. I discuss the pernicious influence of relativism in my book Israel and the Malaise of Democracy, written shortly after the Israel-PLO Agreement of September 1993. Here are some key passages:

“Because it cannot transcend [cultural relativism], the government [of Israel] is psychologically incapable of asserting the preeminence of Jewish [over Arab] rights to Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. Note the subtle influence of relativism [and subjectivism] in this statement of Dr. Eliahu Ben-Elissar, [once] Likud chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs committee: ‘In our eyes we have a right to this land’ (The Jerusalem Post, June 5, 1992, p. 5a, emphasis added).

“We see in Ben-Elissar the shallowness of the Likud’s political Zionism…. Notwithstanding its accomplishments, the shallowness of political Zionism may be largely attributed to the influence of European philosophy, especially of Marxism, on the founders of modern Israel…. By adopting a Marxist mode of thought they harbored a doctrine that is in fundamental tension with nationalism—any nationalism [including Zionism!] …. But this is not all.

“European education profoundly influenced the founders and faculties of Israel’s academic institutions. Historical or cultural relativism has ever flourished in Israel’s secular universities. Martin Buber put it quite simply: ‘There is no scale of values for the [world-historical] function of peoples. One cannot be ranked above another.’ It is in this light that we are to understand why this Hebrew University professor and his colleague, Dr. Judah Magnes (the university’s first president), favored a bi-national Arab-Jewish state in the land of Israel. In testimony before the Anglo-American Inquiry Commission in 1947, Buber and Magnes declared in a joint statement:

We do not favor Palestine as a Jewish country or Palestine as an Arab country, but a bi-national Palestine as the common country of two peoples…. Palestine is not just an Arab land like any other Arab land, or just a Jewish land. For one thing, it is a Holy Land for three monotheistic religious, of which two—Judaism and Christianity—had their origin here, while the third, Islam, regards Jerusalem as next in holiness to Mecca and Medina.

“Notice that Buber and Magnes purvey each of these three claims to the Holy Land as self-justifying. Such is their cultural relativism or neutrality that they do not consider the possibility that the Jewish claim might be more valid than that of Christianity or of Islam. They surely knew that in the past 2,500 years, none of the peoples or nations that conquered or occupied the Land of Israel … ever established a national dominion or functional capital in this strange land.

“Moreover, surely scholars of their repute knew that Jerusalem is not even mentioned in the Koran. Juxtaposing this revealing truth with the paramount significance of Jerusalem in Judaism, and given their own admission that ‘Islam regards Jerusalem as next in holiness to Mecca and Medina,’ one would think that Buber and Magnes would assert the priority of the Jewish claim over that of Islam and Christianity. Besides, until the Balfour Declaration and the Jewish restoration of Palestine, no national claim had ever been made to the land by any national group other than the Jews.

“Buber and Magnes admit that ‘The very idea of Palestine as a modern entity is the result of Jewish activity.’ They also knew that it was precisely this ‘Jewish activity’ that had attracted many Arabs to Palestine and whose presence in the land was recent compared to that of the Jews. Yet they conclude by saying: ‘We regard the historical rights of the Jews and the natural rights of the Arabs [based on their presence and labor on the land] as … of equal validity …’

“Clearly the Torah view of the issue was utterly discarded, for like all secular Zionists, neither of these men regarded Israel, by virtue of the Bible, as the truth-bearing nation…. [Hence] Buber’s statement that one nation cannot be ranked above another. Evident here is the attitude of a morally neutral spectator, which is exactly the posture of the German school of historical relativism.”

Historical relativism is quite evident in historian Michael Oren. In his book Six Days of War, he writes: “My purpose is not to prove the justness of one party or another in the war, or to assign culpability for starting it.”

This subtle cultural relativism underlies his statement regarding the issue of settlements: “The issue is the recognition of the mutual legitimacy of these two peoples, the legitimate claim to these two states.” These words could have been uttered by Martin Buber more than sixty years ago. In one respect, they anticipate Benjamin Netanyahu’s adoption of the “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!