Berrigan, Buber, and the ‘Settler State’

by Seymore Cain

Mr. Cain is a principal editor (religion and philosophy) of the New Encyclopaedia Britannica (Fifteenth Edition).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 26, 1974, pp. 664-668. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Father Berrigan’s address to a largely Arab audience generated controversy: was it or was it not anti-Semitic. The author agrees with some and disagrees with other parts of the speech and offers a survey of the varieties of the Zionist "settler ethos."

Daniel Berrigan’s address on the Arab-Israeli conflict, delivered to the Association of Arab University Graduates last October, was vintage Berrigan. It displayed paradigmatically his superb virtues and his glaring defects: the absolute moral stance, the calling of men and institutions to account before the divine imperatives, the insistence on concrete witness to good and active resistance to evil; but also, alas, the violent rhetoric, the cartoon distortions of concrete human reality, the lurid accusatory statements about those he condemns as sinners. It is nevertheless, with all its faults, an impressive performance, well deserving of serious consideration at this hour. For the situation it deals with still confronts us, and so do the moral and spiritual issues it raises.


Berrigan’s complaint, in short, is that the reestablishment of a Jewish state (a justifiable goal) has come at a tremendous cost in human suffering, armed violence and moral decay; that the course of the new state has been a betrayal of everything the term "Israel" has stood for -- justice, compassion, succoring the humiliated and injured; that a "settler state" was established through the expropriation of the people of the land, followed by an imperialist venture, based on the subjugation and exploitation of the conquered; and that, to add moral insult to physical and spiritual injury, the spokesmen of and for the state claim for it a special virtue and glorious achievement which may not be criticized. Although he also excoriates the Arab states, peoples and leaders in bitter, wounding terms, the whole structure of Berrigan’s presentation is such that Israel (or Zionism) alone is blamed for what has occurred, and the implication is that all that has happened is attributable to an intentional Zionist/Israeli plan, with malice and domination aforethought.

I share Father Berrigan’s repugnance toward those in high intellectual and religious places who apologize for or ignore gross historical evil, and I have insisted that Auschwitz bears a commandment to Jews also not to destroy their fellow human beings, that the necessity for Jewish survival, illuminated and commanded by the Holocaust, cannot justify the principle that it is better to do than to suffer injustice -- that this goes completely counter to the spirit and teaching of the Jewish religio-ethical tradition. On these important matters Father Berrigan and I agree. As to what happened and how it came to happen, and as to what kind of society Israel has been, we disagree.

It should also be noted that much of the worst that Berrigan said against Israeli policies toward the Arabs has already been said, and most eloquently, by prominent Zionists, as prophetic warning or as condemnation after the fact: by Ahad Ha-Am, Moshe Smilansky, Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Ernst Simon, etc., etc. Some of Berrigan’s statements could have been lifted from their words -- for example, from Buber’s somber and anguished 80th birthday address, in 1958, to the American Friends of Ihud (a Palestinian Zionist organization devoted to Jewish-Arab rapprochement). In it he told how the hopes of his youth for a renewed Jewish community in Palestine, living in justice and peace with its Arab neighbors, had been frustrated by the situation caused by the mass immigration of refugees from Nazi Germany, and how his own and Magnes’s reconciling message vis-à-vis the Arabs went unheard. ". . . the majority of the Jewish people preferred to learn from Hitler rather than from us. Hitler showed them that history does not go the way of the spirit but the way of power, and if a people is powerful enough, it can kill with impunity as many millions of another people as it wants to kill. This was the situation that we had to fight."

It would be wrong, however, to leap from a reading of these words to the conclusion that Buber, like Toynbee explicitly and Berrigan implicitly, held that the Jews emulated the Nazis, harboring and executing a plan for the extermination of a people. Buber pointed to an essential tendency, a spiritual stance, developed by the experience of being treated, in fact and not metaphorically, as "human waste" by superior force exercised by malevolent men who intended the Jews’ destruction. And he faced up to the new task created by the necessity to succor and shelter and heal the horribly bruised remnant of European Jewry -- a task that in the historical circumstances could be done only by the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine). After all, Buber too, came to Palestine "from Hitler" as well as "from conviction."


The message of Buber and Magnes and others of their school was that the partition of Palestine (that is, of the portion of it under the British Mandate) and the establishment of a Jewish state against the will of the Arab peoples -- inside and outside Palestine -- could not be achieved except through armed conflict, and that to maintain a state thus engendered would require endless violence and, warfare.

Magnes (an American-born rabbi who was a prime founder and first president of Hebrew University in Jerusalem) sought for a solution in a bi-national state, with parity for both the Jewish and Arab communities, and preferably linked in a federation with other states in the region. This concept was supported vigorously by important labor and left-wing Zionist groups, including the radical Marxist Ha-Shomer Ha-Tzair kibbutz movement, the Ahdut Ha-Avodah socialist party, the Poale Zion Smol (Left Workers of Zion) party, and the Mapam party (which at one time embraced the other groups); and by such significant political figures as Haim Margalit-Kalvarisky (a member of the Zionist Executive), Bert Katznelson (a founder of Ahdut Ha-Avodah and of the Histradut federation of labor), and Henrietta Szold (the first woman member of the Zionist Executive and founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America). Even David Ben-Gurion entertained the bi-nationalist solution for a time, and the same may be said of Chaim Weizmann, the foremost leader of the Zionist movement during the Mandate period. In short, the original and most zealous supporters of bi-nationalism were dedicated Zionist leaders and organization, as much as half a century before it became cant in certain Palestinian Arab liberation groups and among their New Left supporters in this country.

In the end this solution failed of adoption, and partition and the establishment of a Jewish national state followed. The failure has been ascribed variously to the shortsightedness and inflexibility of official Zionist leaders, the social backwardness and xenophobic chauvinism of the Arabs, the deliberate sabotage by the British of all efforts toward Arab- Jewish rapprochement and mutual action, or simply the alleged fact’ that the aims of the two national liberation movements were essentially irreconcilable.

Zionists of the bi-nationalist school generally accepted the fact of the new state and went on from there to work for justice to the Arab minority, a decent solution of the Arab refugee problem, and peaceful relations with the surrounding Arab states. Buber -- who was, in an elevated sense, a pragmatic realist -- worked continually for these aims and insisted that the new "political enterprise" (the State of Israel) was normatively subordinate to the "religious idea" (Zion), and "that as long as such a reality [i.e., the idea of Zion] lives, history should be responsible to it rather than that it should be responsible to history" (preface to Israel and Palestine: The History of an Idea). "I am now no less a Zionist, in this sense of Zion, than I was [at age 20]," he said in his 80th-birthday address. He remained hopeful to the end: "The ways of history are ways of disappointment and bitterness -- ways of the spirit’s being vanquished again and again, yet ending with its victory."


The extreme opposites of the bi-nationalist school, the hard-line protagonists of violence and armed power as the only way to establish and maintain a Zionist settlement in Palestine (or over all of it), held that the Arabs were intransigently opposed to this venture and regarded the immigrating European Jews as racial outsiders, as intruders in their own ancestral living-space, and would harass and murder them and strangle their venture unless they were beaten back by superior fire-power. The protagonist of this view was Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the splinter Revisionist group which he himself called "the most extreme of Zionist parties." That group was vehemently opposed to the moderate, mainline Zionism led by Chaim Weizmann. A brilliant writer and orator, Jabotinsky argued impressively that Palestine on both sides of the Jordan should be made the place of salvation for the wretched Jews of eastern Europe rather than the Jewish "spiritual center" or "model community"’ proclaimed by Ha-Am and Buber. With acute foresight, he told the British Royal Commission on Palestine in 1937: "We are facing an elemental calamity, a kind of social earthquake. . . . We have got to save millions, many millions." He asked for the right to form Jewish self-defense forces against the indigenous inhabitants, claiming this as a "holy duty." He appealed to the British colonial experience, mentioning specifically the Settlers Defense Force in Kenya.

Certainly, this man and the movement he headed would seem to fit Berrigan’s stereotype of the "settler ethos," on the model of the Boer-Bantu or British-Kikuyu stance. To be sure, he was speaking for a people on the eve of extermination and was pointing to a place to which they were connected by millennia-old tradition. Yet he went far beyond other Zionists inspired by the same motives, to a brutally colonialist attitude toward the Palestinian Arabs. The hard fact is that the preponderant majority of Zionist parties and spokesmen abhorred his views and rejected them decisively. He was a heretic, "excommunicated" and "pilloried," in Magnes’s words, by the Zionist establishment -- a consideration which should make him a sympathetic figure for Father Berrigan. Critical Zionist thinkers, however, have maintained that the official Zionist movement in effect adopted Jabotinsky’s views when it decided in 1942 to go all out for a Jewish national state to be established and maintained against all opponents by whatever means were necessary. "He was the prophet of the Jewish state," Magnes declared. "He saw that the only way to get a state was through force." A prophet and realist in his own right, Magnes recognized in Jabotinsky a prophet and realist of the counter spirit.


But there are settlers and settlers, Zionists and Zionists: and there is more than one kind of "settler ethos." All the persons mentioned above as friends of the Arabs and fighters for Arab rights were Zionist settlers, some early, some late, from Smilansky in 1890 to Buber in 1938. Berrigan and his ideological confreres can hardly have such persons in mind when they speak of the "settler ethos"; nor can they mean people like Aaron David Gordon, "the Jewish Tolstoy," for whom settlement and Zionism meant working the land with one’s own hard physical labor, usually with fellow pioneers in a kibbutz. I suppose the key term is "settler state, connoting a political entity established by a non-indigenous group to rule over an indigenous people whom it exploits and oppresses. South Africa is the model. But is this a good likeness for the Zionist venture in Palestine? Is "return" merely a synthetic ideological myth, without rootage in the Jewish religious tradition and historical experience? And what nation, including the Arab nations, is not a settler nation? Berrigan himself cannily distinguishes between the "settler state" and the "long-settled state" -- a distinction that would make the peculiar evil of this settlement lie in its comparative recency.

The famous letter of Buber to Mahatma Gandhi in 1939 gives us some instruction on this cardinal issue -- and some rather plain speaking. Replying to Gandhi’s assertion that "Palestine belongs to the Arabs" and the Jews have no right to settle there, Buber, while granting and upholding the claim of the Arabs, staunchly upholds the prior and also vital claim of the Jews, which goes back some 3,000 years and is based on what they experienced as a divine mission to hallow a particular land and build a good society there. To fulfill that mission and to be an authentic people, they require a "home center’ in the land -- in the actual Concrete soil, not a mere symbol in the heart. Says Buber: "That which is merely an idea and nothing more cannot become holy, but a piece of earth can become holy." For Berrigan, this is idolatry; for Buber, sacramental existence.

Further, Buber asks the sensible question, "By what means did the Arabs attain to the right of ownership in Palestine?" and answers, equally sensibly, "Surely by conquest and, in fact, a conquest followed by settlement. . . . Settlement by force of conquest justifies for you a right of ownership of Palestine; whereas a settlement such as the Jewish one [at the time of writing, by peaceful means] . . . does not justify, in your opinion, any participation in this right of possession." Such logic necessarily justifies possession based on conquest-settlement after a number of generations, and we are reminded that the Jews’ ancestors originally took the land by conquest and settlement too; also that they were forcibly expelled from it.

Palestine became "Arab" during the world-shaking Islamic conquests of the seventh century. Not only did the Arabian Muslims settle and rule the conquered land; they also Arabized and, in many cases, Islamized the indigenous population, both Jewish and Christian. Thus some of the Palestinian Arabs presumably derive from ancient Jewish stock (the late Ben-Gurion sought among them an authentic image of the ancestral Jew).


Of course, Palestine in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries was situated in a socio-historical and ideological context much different from that of the 13th century B.C.E. or the seventh century C.E. The Zionist settlement began at the last possible moment when Europeans, whatever their lineage, could still settle safely in lands not governed by the indigenous inhabitants. And it soon ran into the buzz saw of an emerging and insuppressible Arab nationalism- It is a truism to say that the two movements of national liberation met and clashed in the same land at the same time. Moreover, the Zionist settlement contributed greatly to exacerbating Palestinian Arab nationalism; and dialectically -- through its development of the country and raising of hygienic, economic and cultural levels -- it provided the sinews for a strong indigenous nationalist movement. During the Mandate period the Arabs in the area of Zionist settlement experienced a phenomenal population rise (of births over deaths), and Mandatory Palestine attracted some 100,000 Arab immigrants from adjacent lands.

With some notable exceptions, the Zionist leaders did not take Arab nationalism seriously enough. Relations with Turkey, Britain and, later, the United States seemed most important to them. (Similarly, Israeli leaders today prefer to deal with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan rather than with an independent Palestinian Arab state.) The Zionist leadership did not take the necessary steps in deeds to satisfy the Arabs’ urgent need for national pride and self-government. For them to assume that mere economic and social advance would serve as an adequate surrogate was gross philistinism, unworthy of heirs of the Jewish spirit. And for them to suggest (as some did) that Arab national needs could be taken care of in other lands, in the vast territories held by kindred peoples, was unfeeling as well as presumptuous. The Ihud group understood that the Palestinian Arabs were deeply attached to their land and that they became even more so when they fled from or were pushed out of it.

Buber and Magnes were convinced that, given goodwill, concentrated effort and practical concrete deeds, a just and viable arrangement could be made in which the two national movements would share the same country. My skepticism as to whether there was any real willingness on the Arab side to reach such a modus vivendi has been considerably mitigated by Aharon Cohen’s Israel and the Arab World (1970), which demonstrates that on several occasions, down to World War II, Arab representatives made significant approaches to cooperation. Bi-nationalism was evidently a real possibility. Whether it would have worked reasonably well, whether it would have been marred by bitter conflict or ended in the domination of one people by the other, we cannot know, because it was never tried. The majority of the Zionist leaders did not want to take the chance -- did not want to risk jeopardizing the attainment, at long last, of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It could have happened. It did not happen. We cannot go back. Bi-nationalism is a lost opportunity.

Instead, the Jewish state came into being. It claims the right to exist and survive. In that respect it is like any other state: it plays the usual game of power and diplomacy, using armed violence in a brutal and effective way, telling lies or half-truths and engaging in espionage. But it has also been a model of social progress and political liberty in a region not noted for either (witness the startling novelty of a free Arab press on the West Bank), and has tried to share some of its innovative social institutions with developing countries in Africa and Asia. Where else in the Middle East are even spies, murderers and "traitors" spared capital punishment, public or not? For "fascism" and the other barbarities of which Father Berrigan accuses Israel, one had best look to certain other countries in the region.

Moreover, while it is a state with all the defects, and vices of a nation engaged in a struggle for power and/or survival, Israel has in large part fulfilled the dream of the "spiritual" Zionists and has become a creative and inspiriting center for Jewish culture. In the world of learning, "Israel" signifies Hebrew University. The new nation of Israel has become treasured and treasurable, among Jews and others, for something far beyond national sovereignty, flag, army, propaganda bureau, and all the rest of that claptrap. It has become a world cultural center. And, finally, a Jewish homeland has been built in Palestine, and it is the only one that Jews as a people have.


But what of the price in human suffering -- all the mutual murder, mayhem and destruction? It has been a terrible price, and here I think Magnes was eternally right: in the particular circumstances, the decision to establish a Jewish state was bound to bring armed conflict in a continuing spiral. So the triumph and achievements of the new state are flawed by a primary injustice to the people of the land, willed or not -- an injustice compounded by subsequent military victories. The Jewish people have eaten of the apple, the price of state power, and not for the first time in their long history.

When their consciences are alive (a not unusual state), Israelis may acknowledge that they have a large share of guilt to bear. But others involved in these tragic events share in the burden: the Palestinian Arab elite who, when they did not forsake their people, led them into ruin; the Arab rulers and governments who, counting on an easy victory, ordered their armies into Palestine in 1948; leaders like Nasser, who triggered the disastrous 1967 war (deliberately, it seems now from recently revealed Arab documents), and Sadat, who unleashed the Yom Kippur War (another scheduled quick victory that came a cropper); and, of course, the liberationist warriors who murder unarmed innocents in cold blood and are hailed as heroes in Arab circles. It has been observed that the Jewish treatment of the Palestinian Arab refugees at Gaza and elsewhere has been far more humane and constructive than that given them by Egypt and Jordan. After all, it was King Hussein, not Golda Meir or any other Israeli leader, who ordered the butchery of the Palestinians in Black September.

For the future, I would place my hopes in the return of Israel to something like its pre-1967 borders, the establishment of an independent Palestinian Arab state on the West Bank, some practicable and equitable solution of the original Palestinian refugee problem, close economic and other relations between Israel and Egypt (leading perhaps to people-to-people and cultural exchanges between Israel and the Arab countries), and a strong -- and this time legally foolproof -- guarantee by the UN. of the peace agreements enforced by an adequately armed international police force, with superpower backing, if not participation.

I also hope that there will be a return by Israeli leaders to the old humanistic Zionist ideas and ideals, and away from the hard-line, quasi-colonialist orientations that seem to have shaped Israeli policy in the years between the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. And I hope that Arab leaders will turn to the tremendous task of social and economic development in their countries, and away from the radical rhetoric with which they seem to have intoxicated both themselves and their peoples.

Force is not the way, either ethically or pragmatically. The whole course of Jewish-Arab relations during the past half-century demonstrates as much. Let us hope and pray that the spirit of Buber and Magnes will finally prevail over reliance on the right of the stronger.