Martin Buber's Paths in Utopia. The Kibbutz: an experiment that didn't fail?

IssueMarch - June 2002
Feature by Uri Davis

It is important to note at the outset that my own intellectual and moral development was profoundly influenced by Martin Buber's writings. Buber's article “What is to be done” in Pointing the Way represents a milestone in the process of my ideological radicalisation. (Uri Davis, Crossing the border)

This, then, is a personal account of a critical Buber disciple. Buber did not live to witness the 1967 war and the cruelty and the violence of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. But he did witness the 1948 war and the mass “ethnic cleansing” of the indigenous Palestinian-Arab people and the subsequent razing to the ground iof more than 400 villages and neighbourhoods by the Israeli army under the cover of the hostilities.

Selling out

Like Buber, one of my father's relatives (Leon Roth), was a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the time. He also witnessed the atrocities committed against the Palestinian Arabs in the name of the “Jewish State”. Unlike his colleague Buber, however, he resigned his post and returned to Britain.

Buber, on the other hand, sold out. In 1963 he had this to say: “I have accepted as mine the state of Israel, the form of the new Jewish community that has arisen from the war. I have nothing in common with those Jews who imagine that they may contest the factual shape which Jewish independence has taken.” (Martin Buber, “Israel and the Command of the Spirit”, Israel and the World, p257.) According to Edward Said, prior to 1948 the Buber family were tenants of the Saids in Jerusalem. They paid their rent for their house in the wealthy mixed Arab-Jewish Talbiyya Quarter to Edward Said's father. Sometime towards 1948, a tenant-landlord dispute erupted between Mr Said and Professor Buber, and the case was taken for adjudication before the British Mandate court. Buber lost the case and had to leave the premises.

At the door, after returning the keys to Edward Said's father, Buber turned round and said: “Mr Said, you just wait. I will be back.”

Buber: comeback kid

The war that began with the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948 ended in 1949 with the expulsion of approximately 75 per cent of the indigenous Palestinian Arab populations from some 400 Arab localities that came under the control of the Israeli army.

In the armistice agreements between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Jerusalem was partitioned and Talbiyya was ceded to Israel. In consequence, the Said family were classified under Israeli law as “absentees”, their rights to their properties in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel were nullified and vested with the Israeli Custodian for Absentees' Property.

Immediately after the war Buber was as good as his word. He returned to take residence in the Saids' house in Talbiyya, now as tenant of the Custodian. He lived there for the rest of his life. (Uri Davis, op cit, p54.)

Against the backdrop of the continuing Israeli denial of the rights of the 1948 Palestine refugees to return, and the occupation since 1967 of the West Bank and teh Gaza Strip, Martin Buber's “Epilogue” in Paths in Utopia makes for an almost surreal reading.

Jewish Village Commune

Buber's support for the co-operative movement in general, as an important socialist advance, was well placed. What is highly questionable, however, is his assertion that “there is only one all-out effort to create a Full Co-operative which justifies our speaking of success in the socialistic sense, and that is the Jewish Village Commune in its various forms as founded in Palestine” (Paths in Utopia, p141). This is because Buber simply lies in his account of the co-operative enterprise he refers to as a “signal non-failure”, namely, the Zionist co-operative movement in Palestine and subsequently in Israel. The better-known formations of this co-operative enterprise are the Jewish village communes known as the Kibbutz (collective) and Moshav (small-holding co-operative) settlement federation and the more recent development of leafy middle-class suburban localities known as “Community” settlements.

The uniqueness of this Zionist co-operative venture is not, as Buber alleged, in that “it alone has proved its vitality in all three spheres” of “internal relationships, federation and influence on society at large” (ibid), or that in establishing the Jewish village commune “the primary thing was not ideology but work” (Paths, p142). Nor is the uniqueness of the venture represented in its ability to constantly “branch off” into new forms and new intermediate forms (Paths, p145). Rather, the unique feature of the Zionist co-operative enterprise was and remains: a) its utility as a strategic colonial instrument directed to alienate the indigenous Palestinian Arab population from their lands, and b), its racism-membership in these co-operative village communities was (and remains) only open to Jews.

Buber's Paths in Utopia was completed in 1945. The Hebrew edition was published in 1946, the English edition four years later in 1949. Fifty odd years on, the Kibbutz, Buber's “signal non-failure” co-operative venture, is privatising as fast as it can. Very little is left of its mutual aid co-operative structures, except for the Admission Committee, whose primary function is to screen candidates for Kibbutz membership and ascertain that they are not Arab (and preferably also not gay, lesbian, single parents, elderly, physically and/or mentally challenged etc).

Co-ops and the apartheid state

It is clear to me that the Zionist co-operative movement in Palestine has been a primary driving force in the development and consolidation of Israeli apartheid; playing a role similar to that played by the Dutch Reform Church in the development and consolidation of South African apartheid. In recent decades the falsehood of Buber's assessment of the Zionist co-operative venture in Palestine became progressively transparent.

The Kibbutz collective dining room has now become a paying cafeteria and, under privatisation, sections of the Kibbutz membership (eg the elderly) have been pauperised to the extent that some are not able to afford to pay for a full meal. There have been reports in the Israeli Hebrew press of elderly Kibbutz members covering their meat portion with a heap of rice in order to save money at the till. A “signal non-failure”, as Buber would have it.

Victimised, colonised, ghettoised

I live in an Arab city called Sakhnin in central Galilee, northern Israel. Under the British Mandate (1922- 1948) the Palestinian Arab people of Sakhnin owned and had access to some 70,000 dunums (17,500 acres) of land. In 1948 the State of Israel was established and today the municipal jurisdiction of Sakhnin is less than 10,000 dunums. The balance of some 60,000 dunums has been confiscated by the various authorities of the State of Israel for exclusively Jewish settlement, including Zionist co-operative settlement, development and cultivation. After I awake in my flat in Sakhnin, brush my teeth, shave, comb my balding scalp, dress and go out to the veranda to greet my neighbours, I see my city of Sakhnin surrounded by a circle of rather lovely leafy rural suburban communal co-operative residential localities, Buber's “new forms and new intermediate forms” of Zionist co-operative village communities. These include Hararit, Yahad, Avtalion, Yodfat, Raqefet, Atzmon, Yuvalim, Eshar, Eshbal and more, mostly perched on the mountain tops around the city and incorporated in the Regional Council of Misgav.

The Misgav Regional Council controls some 185,000 dunums incorporating six Palestinian Arab settlements, classified in Misgav's literature as “Bedouin”, and 28 Jews-only communal settlements around Sakhnin and beyond. The total population of Misgav Regional Council is less than 15,000 (approximately 12 dunums -three acres-per person). Sakhnin City Council municipal jurisdiction is today some 10,000 dunums. Its total popula-tion is about 22,000 (approximately 0.5 dunum-0.125 acres-per person).

As I see it, Sakhnin has been victimised by Buber's “signal non-failure”, internally colonised by the “Full Co-operative” of the “Jewish Village Commune” and ghettoised by “new forms and new intermediate forms” of the Zionist co-operative movement.