by Paul Mendes-Flohr
Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow's share?
William Blake, Another's Sorrow
The Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber (1876-1965) dedicated his life to seeking a way to overcome conflict — interpersonal and intercommunal — by grounding it in its full existential reality. While not denying that conflict is often prompted by substantive political, economic and social disputes, Buber held that the adversarial approach to dealing with conflict can only lead to a deepening of the enmity. The adversarial posture one ordinarily assumes in a conflict, Buber taught, must be replaced by what he called dialogue. The latter was a term he borrowed from literature, and introduced into philosophical, theological, and political discourse. With Buber the term dialogue ceased merely to designate a form of rhetoric and a literary genre, but became a mode of interpersonal and intercommunal encounter (refracting for him the Presence of God) in which the most ultimate questions of human existence might possibly attain their solution.
The Meaning of Dialogue
In this essay I should like to explore briefly Buber's concept of dialogue as the matrix of a narratology — or narrative strategy — promoting Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Dialogue, Buber would argue, allows for the crystallization of a radically new mode of discourse by which Jew and Palestinian will each tell their respective tales - relating their history, with all its woes and hopes, as it relates to this land — while acknowledging and compassionately confirming the tale of the other.
Appropriately I will commence my exploration of Buber's vision with a tale: A young man in emotional distress once wrote Buber, requesting his counsel. In his reply, Buber urged the young man to write down his autobiography, to tell his story candidly and without any embellishments of self-analysis. The young man complied. Buber was pleased with the account, and duly praised its author for his "frankness and gift of self-expression." But he also noted that the young man seemed to lack "the power of seeing others instead of (merely) feeling their relationship (to himself)." In telling his tale, he saw others only as they impinge upon his life, never taking into account their own story. "True narration," Buber explained, "means coherent events between fully perceptible persons. Of course, I had asked you to tell me about yourself, and so you were not obliged to do more than that ... (but your tale) will be a real tale only if we learn to know the actors (who enter your life), and even to know their eyes and the seeing of those eyes and even how those eyes were seeing you. For his tale to be genuine, Buber thus suggested, the young man must include the other's tale.
Dialogue entails the acknowledgement that the other who confronts us, who "encroaches" upon our life, also has a tale, a story perhaps no less compelling, certainly no less real, than one's own, to tell. Buber pointedly called this aspect of dialogue "inclusion" or the extension of one's experience of one's own concrete existence to include the experience of the other with whom one shares a given space or event; as such, "without forfeiting the felt reality of one's own life, at the same time, one lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other."
The Reality of the Other
Preserving the integrity of one's own experience - one's own tale and history - "inclusion" thus transcends mere sympathy or empathy, the identification with the feelings of the other. For it implies, as Buber told the young man, "the seeing of (the other's) eyes and even how those eyes (see) you," while never ceasing to claim the existential reality of one's own vision.
Inclusion of the other requires what Buber called "imagining the real," the "making present" to and in oneself the reality — the tale — of the other:
"Imagining" the real means that I imagine to myself what the other man is at this moment wishing, feeling, perceiving, thinking, and not as a detached content but in his very reality, that is, as a living process in this man ... At such a moment something can come into being which cannot be built up in any other way.
Imagining the reality of the other, his or her tale becomes part of our own.
We have reached "the narrow ridge" upon which the life of dialogue unfolds.
Buber employed the image of the narrow ridge for in reaching out to the other we might readily stumble and confuse dialogue with self-denial for the sake of the other. But genuine dialogue, Buber insisted, does not lead to the negation of one's self, to a gratuitous self-abnegation and rejection of one's own story. On the contrary, in dialogue two distinct human beings encounter one another, both jealously seeking to affirm the reality of their existence and tale. They meet, however, not as subject and object, as I and an it. They rather meet as two subjects, as two discrete persons whose lives happen to intersect, and touch each other in often painful, hurtful ways. Conflict is, alas, real. Dialogue is meant neither to deny the clash of claims and interests, nor to ignore their concrete reality. Our individuated being perforce often divides us, and occasional collision is inevitable. But it was Buber's profound conviction that the possibility of a judicious accommodation of the differences that divide us is enhanced when the parties of a conflict meet as two subjects, each acknowledging, feeling and confirming the experience and tale of the other.
The Danger Of Political Autism
Our own tale — our saga of trials and tribulations, passions and aspirations ¬can never be complete, truly real, unless it includes the other's whose life touches our own. This is true, Buber taught, for the relations between peoples as it is for interpersonal relations. One important difference, however, is that in the life of a nation, guided by a collective identity, the tendency to regard its own tale — its own history — as preeminent is seemingly greater than in interpersonal relations. The average individual recognizes the moral limits of egoism; the well-adjusted individual modulates the pursuit of self-interest by a consideration of others and their needs. In contrast to the acceptable behavior of individuals, nations often adopt the ethics of what Buber called sacro egoismo, or the pursuit of one's nation's interests as a sacred task, and thus see an egoism on behalf of one's own nation as normally self-evident and indisputably justified. Hence, whereas individuals would often feel a twinge of conscience, a certain uneasiness, about unmitigated self-absorption and egoism, nations often permit themselves, in the name of national interests, an unabashed egoism and preoccupation with their own history. But, Buber warned, a nation's self-possessed enclosure in its own tale invariably leads to a political autism, albeit often veiled in the alleged sobriety of Realpolitik, a view of the world that allows "each side (of a conflict) to assume a monopoly of sunlight and plunge its adversary into night, (demanding) that you decide between night and day."
Absorbed in their own story - the history of their own woes and fate ¬nations tend to view their adversaries as a mere impedimenta, as alien intruders into their life-space, as hostile interlopers bereft of their own history and a tale of their own. But to ignore the story and thus the existential reality of the nations whose fate interlaces with that of one's own nation, in Buber's judgment, is not only a moral scandal but also political idiocy. The tale of one's adversaries must be acknowledged not only because of its patent moral claim, but also as the point of departure of a political realism, "a greater realism" - "a more comprehending, penetrating realism" than that which supposedly guides the votaries of sacra egoismo and Realpolitik. Rather than the self-righteous realism, unapologetically based on the ethic of self-interest and a prudent mistrust of the other, we require "a greater realism, a realism of a greater reality".
Palestine as a Land of Two Peoples
It is political wisdom for nations, Buber contended, to extend their conception of justice to include the interests and concern of the other; for justice can never be just the victory of one's own cause, the righting of the wrongs done to one's own nation. Justice must also include the compassionate acknowledgement of one's adversary's history, their tale of woe, grievance and hope.
Hence, with respect to its conflict with the Palestinians, Buber held, political wisdom would oblige the Jewish people to acknowledge that the country of its ancient patrimony is a land of two peoples, a land in which two peoples, each with their own tale and existential reality, are destined to dwell and share. That the land of Israel - Palestine - is a land of two peoples is an irrefragable moral and political fact. It of course may not be a convenient fact, or an easy one to accept. Neither people, Jewish or Palestinian Arab, inspired as they are by their own history and deep attachment to the land, allows itself to "see" the land with the "eyes" of the other. But for the sake of "truth and peace," Buber insisted, each must acknowledge the reality and historical attachment of the other to the land, and "include" one another's tale within its own. Arabs must come to appreciate the religious and historical bond of the Jewish people to the land; they must realize that to deny the Jews' "love of Zion" is tantamount to a negation of the soul of Jewish existence. And the Jews must affirm the abiding love the Arab inhabitants have for the land they call Palestine, its landscape and vegetation, and that from its soil springs forth their memories, rich folklore and culture. To deny this fact would be to negate the innermost being of the Palestinian Arabs. Such denial would be especially ironic since the Jews themselves have so often been denied the integrity of their own identity and cultural sentiments. The irony is only intensified when one recalls that at the heart of Zionism is a proud assertion of the right of the Jewish people to its own identity — the right to tell their own tale, with all its particular attachments and sentiments. These attachments and sentiments are not to be compared and measured.
A Letter To Gandhi
As Buber noted in a letter to the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi in 1938, it is not a question of pitting one claim against the other, judging one valid and the other not:
We consider it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and of different origin, which cannot be pitted one against the other and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just or unjust. We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and honor the claim which is opposed to ours and endeavor to reconcile both claims. We cannot renounce the Jewish claim ... But we have been and still are convinced that it must be possible to find some form of agreement between this claim and the other; for we love this land and, we believe in its future; and, seeing that such love and such faith are surely present also on the other side, a union in the common service of the Land must be within the range of the possible. Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found even to what appears to be a tragic contradiction.
The tragic contradiction can perhaps be overcome by one people prevailing over the other; but a just solution to the conflict making for genuine reconciliation and peace requires bonds of trust forged by the mutual honoring of each other's claim, a trust grounded in the "inclusion" of the tale of the other into one's cognitive and moral universe. By accepting this challenge, Buber affirmed, Israel would also honor the prophetic heritage of Judaism, which in the words of the psalmist enjoins God's people "to seek peace, and pursue it" (Psalm 34:15).
For Buber, a Zionist since early manhood this commandment bore directly upon the challenge to Zionism posed by the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs. Should the Zionist movement persist in adhering to principles of Realpolitik and sacro egoismo - despite the fact that they guide virtually all peoples in their conflicts with others - it will betray the spiritual vocation of Israel:
If we were only one nation among others, we should have long ago perished from the earth. Paradoxically we exist only because we are to be serious about the unity of God and His undivided, absolute sovereignty. If we give up God, He will give us up. And we do give Him up when we profess Him in the synagogue and deny Him when we come to a discussion, when we do His commands in our personal life, and set up other norms for the life of the group to which we belong. What is wrong for the individual cannot be right for the community; for if it were, then God, the God of Sinai, would no longer be the Lord of peoples, but only of individuals. If we are really Jews, we believe that God gives His commands to human beings to observe throughout their whole life, and that whether or not life has meaning depends on the fulfillment of those commands.
Dialogue — which comes to replace the adversarial posture we generally assume to solve intercommunal conflicts — was thus for Buber both a political and religious imperative. The pursuit of peace between Jew and Palestinian Arab in this troubled land we both love is both a supreme political and religious task.