Martin Buber's Open Letter
to Gandhi Regarding Palestine
(February 24, 1939)
The following is excerpted from an open letter the Jewish
philosopher Martin Buber wrote
in response to criticisms of the Jews in Palestine.
You, Mahatma Gandhi, who know of the connection
between tradition and future, should not associate yourself with those
who pass over our cause without understanding or sympathy.
But you say — and I consider it to be the most
significant of all the things you tell us — that Palestine belongs
to the Arabs and that it is therefore "wrong and inhuman to
impose the Jews on the Arabs."
Here I must add a personal note in order to make
clear to you on what premises I desire to consider your thesis.
I belong to a group of people who from the time
Britain conquered Palestine have not ceased to strive for the
concluding of a genuine peace between Jew and Arab.
By a genuine peace we inferred and still infer that
both peoples together should develop the land without the one imposing
its will on the other. In view of the international usages of our
generation, this appeared to us to be very difficult but not
impossible. We were and still are well aware that in this unusual —
yes, unprecedented — case it is a question of seeking new ways of
understanding and cordial agreement between the nations. Here again we
stood and still stand under the sway of a commandment.
We considered it a fundamental point that in this
case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a
different nature and a different origin which cannot objectively be
pitted against one another and between which no objective decision can
be made as to which is just, which unjust. We considered and still
consider it our duty to understand and to honor the claim which is
opposed to ours and to endeavor to reconcile both claims. We could not
and cannot renounce the Jewish claim; something even higher than the
life of our people is bound up with this land, namely its work, its
divine mission. But we have been and still are convinced that it must
be possible to find some compromise between this claim and the other,
for we love this land and we believe in its future; since such love
and such faith are surely present on the other side as well, a union
in the common service of the land must be within the range of
possibility. Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found
even to what appears to be a tragic opposition.
In order to carry out a task of such extreme
difficulty-in the recognition of which we have had to overcome an
internal resistance on the Jewish side too, as foolish as it is
natural-we have been in need of the support of well-meaning persons of
all nations, and have hoped to receive it. But now you come and settle
the whole existential dilemma with the simple formula: "Palestine
belongs to the Arabs."
What do you mean by saying a land belongs to a
population? Evidently you do not intend only to describe a state of
affairs by your formula, but to declare a certain right. You obviously
mean to say that a people, being settled on the land, has so absolute
a claim to that land that whoever settles on it without the permission
of this people has committed a robbery. But by what means did the
Arabs attain the right of ownership in Palestine? Surely by conquest,
and in fact a conquest with intent to settle. You therefore admit that
as a result their settlement gives them exclusive right of possession;
whereas the subsequent conquests of the Mamelukes
and the Turks, which were conquests with a view to domination, not to
settlement, do not constitute such a right in your opinion, but leave
the earlier conquerors in rightful ownership. Thus settlement by
conquest justifies for you, a right of ownership of Palestine; whereas
a settlement such as the Jewish — the methods of which, it is true,
though not always doing full justice to Arab ways of life, were even
in the most objectionable cases far removed from those of conquest —
does not justify in your opinion any participation in this right of
possession. These are the consequences which result from your
axiomatic statement that a land belongs to its population. In an epoch
when nations are migrating you would first support the right of
ownership of the nation that is threatened with dispossession or
extermination; but were this once achieved, you would be compelled,
not at once, but after a suitable number of generations had elapsed,
to admit that the land "belongs" to the usurper. . . .
It seems to me that God does not give any one portion of the
earth away, so that the owner may say as God says in the Bible: "For
all the earth is Mine" (Exodus
19:5). The conquered land is, in my opinion, only lent even to the
conqueror who has settled on it-and God waits to see what he will make
I am told, however, I should not respect the
cultivated soil and despise the desert. I am told, the desert is
willing to wait for the work of her children: she no longer recognizes
us, burdened with civilization, as her children. The desert inspires
me with awe; but I do not believe in her absolute resistance, for I
believe in the great marriage between man (adam) and earth (adamah).
This land recognizes us, for it is fruitful through us: and
precisely because it bears fruit for us, it recognizes us. Our
settlers do not come here as do the colonists from the Occident to
have natives do their work for them; they themselves set their
shoulders to the plow and they spend their strength and their blood to
make the land fruitful. But it is not only for ourselves that we
desire its fertility. The Jewish farmers have begun to teach their
brothers, the Arab farmers, to cultivate the land more intensively; we
desire to teach them further: together with them we want to cultivate
the land — to "serve" it, as the Hebrew has it. The more
fertile this soil becomes, the more space there will be for us and for
them. We have no desire to dispossess them: we want to live with them.
We do not want to dominate them: we want to serve with them. . . .
Source: Hertzberg, Arthur. The
Zionist Idea. PA: Jewish Publications Society, 1997, pp.