Berkeley Buber and Ben-Gurion mull over Mideast

What would David Ben-Gurion or Martin Buber say about the Mideast morass?

While neither the prime minister nor the philosopher are around to solve the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis, two Berkeley religious leaders summoned their spirits last week for insights.

Kehilla Community Synagogue's longtime Rabbi Burt Jacobson and David Day Cooper, the congregation's current spiritual leader, improvised a mock debate between Buber and Israel's first prime minister at the progressive Berkeley congregation's religious school.

The religious leaders occasionally lapsed out of character to deliver their own perspectives. Jacobson, speaking as himself, contended that if Zionist leaders had heeded Buber's calls for a "binational" state instead of insisting on a Jewish state alone, the polarization that now exists between the Jews and the Arabs would have been avoided. According to Buber's vision, he said, Jewish and Arab governments would have shared power over the land of Israel with a joint police force and army.

"Things could have been much better if Mr. Gurion had listened to me, if we would have dealt with the Palestinian refugees," said Jacobson, posing as Buber. "But he brushed me aside. Now we're in a very bad situation."

But Cooper said Ben-Gurion's main concern in 1948 was making a state for the Jewish people, and he assumed that the Arab population would come to realize the benefits of that, including a higher standard of living.

"The idea of two governments controlling one territory seemed silly to me," said Cooper, acting as Ben-Gurion. "It wasn't being done anywhere else."

Buber, said Jacobson, agreed with Ben-Gurion that Jews needed their own homeland, but he favored a state based on Jewish ethics and morality, not just on politics. After all, he said, the Jewish people made a covenant with God that dictated how they should treat non-Jews as well as each other.

"If the Jewish state is going to survive, it has to survive by doing justice, righteousness and compassion," said Jacobson as Buber. "Otherwise we're behaving like animals…surviving by going to war all of the time."

Asked about the role of Jewish values in a Jewish state, the acting Ben-Gurion said Jewish survival was paramount.

"If there are no Jews left, there will be no Jews to carry on Jewish values," he said. "The most important thing is Israel's security and ability to persist."

Although Buber has been dead for 40 years, Jacobson imagined what the philosopher's reaction would be to Israel's treatment of the Palestinian refugees in the territories: "I feel bad that my political cause of Zionism has been unfair, unjust and has not fostered peace," he said. "We've done things that were done to us during the diaspora. We've done inhumane things."

Outside of the debate, Jacobson said the recent wave of suicide bombings against Israel and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States have forced him to rethink his position on the Middle East.

Since November, the rabbi has been working with the synagogue's Middle East political action subcommittee on a peacemaking document based on Buber's approach of open dialogue and compromise. Jacobson said he hopes the document, which will be put to a referendum by the congregation's 400 families, will serve as an alternative to the polarization that exists between the secular left and Zionist right.

"Buber, who was called a utopian, turned out not to be such a utopian but was in fact a realist," said Jacobson. "Our initiative is to revive Buber's vision."