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Buberian Learning Groups: Existentialist Philosophy as an Ariandne Thread for Education for Peace-A Final Report

by Haim Gordon - 1983

Existentialism holds both a promise and a threat for education. The author draws on philosophical insights to explain why Buberian Learning Groups in Israel, composed of Arabs and Jews, foundered after Israel invaded Lebanon. (Source: ERIC)


One major difficulty in education for peace is that everyone ostentatiously agrees to the final goal-peace. But usually there is a basic misunderstanding of what this goal demands in terms of one’s personal life. Furthermore, in moments of stress the goal is often lost in what seem to be unessential details. This became especially clear to me after

June 6, 1982 , when Israel launched the Peace for Galilee Operation that eventually became the Lebanese war. Much of the mistrust that had diminished between Jews and Arabs who had participated in Buberian Learning Groups* emerged as if from nowhere; vicious arguments erupted, relations became strained, a lack of dialogue prevailed. Political adherences seemed to have vanquished any attempt to relate dialogically. Only now, some months later, am I beginning to realize that what occurred was an outcome of our partially realizing existentialist philosophy in education for peace. In other words, existentialist philosophy holds both a promise and a threat, for education for peace.

The promise is that a person who is willing to learn from existentialist philosophy how to alter his way of life has in his hands an Ariadne thread that can guide him through the labyrinth of social and political hostilities in which man is immersed. The threat stems from the fact that any Ariadne thread is merely a thread; it can tear under stress. It cannot help one face the dangers encountered while traversing the labyrinth; it will not replace personal courage or readiness to act; it may delude one into believing that a remedy is at hand, when all one is grasping is a thread.

The analogy of the thread I learned the hard way. When I initiated the Education for Peace project three years ago, I believed that Buber’s philosophy could guide our activities both within and outside of the project. Today, I admit that I was naive; in many instances it simply did not work. Within the Buberian Learning Groups dialogue did not help us reach those persons who were stubbornly resigned to mistrust. And outside the groups dialogue proved futile in encounters with religious or political fanatics, or mediocre and cowardly bureaucrats, or persons whom Kierkegaard would denote as dreading the good. I learned that existentialist philosophy can indicate where to go next, but it cannot reveal what difficulties you may encounter. It can only hint as to the educational methods you may use to traverse this new terrain. I will clarify all this soon, but first I must say that this is where Riffat Hassan’s enlightening critique of the Education for Peace Project is lacking.2 Riffat, who taught us much during her short visit to Israel, did not grasp, as perhaps we failed to grasp at that point, the difficulty of bringing about a change in history when one starts at the grass-roots level. And working to get Jews and Arabs to trust each other is changing a bit of Israeli and

Mideast history.


It is often held that besides the fact that they discuss human existence and freedom, existentialists share very little common ground. Some analytic philosophers have disparagingly called existentialism a mood and not a philosophy. If SO, one may ask, how can one intertwine the contrasting approaches developed by various existentialists into an Ariadne thread? I believe that these interpretations arise out of a superficial reading of existentialist writings. The truth is that existentialists agree about the theme of their philosophical inquiry; they disagree about the significance of various aspects of that theme. Thus almost all existentialists would adhere to the following excerpt from Nicolas Berdyaev’s autobiography:

Henceforth I was convinced that there is no religion above Truth . . . and the awareness of this supremacy of Truth has put a lasting stamp on my spiritual and intellectual development. This “spiritualism” became the ground and framework of my whole philosophical attitude and probably of my very existence. As I understand it, however, the word spiritualism does not denote any philosophical or mystical, or, indeed, any occult school of thought, but an existential awareness. I came to believe in the primary reality of the spirit at a level which is deeper than, and transcends, the sphere of discursive reasoning, for this latter has a secondary, derivative nature and belongs to the “symbolic” and “reflected” world of externality. I never abandoned this fundamental attitude, not even throughout my Marxist period.3

The existential awareness emphasized by Berdyaev is inherent in existentialist thought and allows one to weave together insights of different existentialists, especially when addressing concrete problems. In my experience with complex educational problems, I have always drawn on the complementing insights of different existentialists. This finding may seem trivial since no existentialist held that his writings encompassed all of reality, but it struck me again and again in my daily attempts to educate for peace. How could it be otherwise? No other philosophical school reaches comparable profundity in discussing aspects of human existence such as mistrust, guilt, dread, anxiety, fear, courage, dialogue, scarcity. Yet these aspects are major components of the difficult relations between Jews and Arabs in the

Mideast and in Israel .

Before turning to two concrete examples of how I wove together the insights of two existentialists to explain problems we encountered, one more citation from Berdyaev should indicate the direction that guided our educational efforts:

I am an existentialist because I believe in the priority of the subject over the object, in the identity of the knowing subject and the existing subject; I am, furthermore, an existentialist because I see the life of man and of the world torn by contraries, which must be faced and maintained in their tension, and which no intellectual system of a closed and complete totality, no immanentism or optimism can resolve. I have always desired that philosophy should not be about something or somebody but should be that very something or somebody, in other words, that it should be the revelation of the original nature and character of the subject itself.4


One of the initial goals of the Education for Peace Project was to create an ongoing dialogue with Egyptian counterparts. We soon found this endeavor nearly impossible to achieve; many Egyptians were polite and friendly, they were helpful and nice; they were not partners in dialogue. According to Buber, persons become partners in dialogue when in a specific conversation each one gives what he can give, without trying to manipulate the other person or the conversation. (In this sense some Platonic dialogues are true dialogues, e.g., Criton, Theaetetus, while in others Socrates is subtly manipulating the conversation, e.g., Gorgias.) When faced with our failure to reach dialogue, some of our participants-both Jews and Arabs-dismissed the Egyptians as antidialogical. Others tried to understand the situation as an outcome of the years of hatred and war. But both the stereotypic and the psychological approach evade the issue. In Berdyaev’s terms, in face of our failure we were tempted to talk about something and not to seek the revelation of theoriginal nature and character of the subject itself.

In my various readings of contemporary Egyptian literature-and I was limited by my being able to read only works translated into Hebrew and English-I perceived that the mistrust we encountered also prevailed in the relations described by Egyptian authors. Buberian dialogue is almost totally lacking in novels by Mahfouz or short stories by Idris or Ibrahim. (In contrast, one often finds such dialogue in novels by Hemingway, Hesse, and other Western writers.) Egyptian society, as described by its foremost authors, is ruthless, fatalistic, distrustful, with very few moments of naive communion. Many persons in this society are trapped in a hopeless situation; they feel superfluous. Sartre would say they are superfluous.

Reading about Egyptian life taught me that we Israelis did not comprehend the specific manner in which Egyptians did indicate a wish for dialogue probably because a person who lives in a democratic society, where criticism and verbal conflict are daily occurrences, is basically unaware of the existential situation of a person in a fatalistic, dictator-ruled police state. In such a state, the structure of what Buber calls interpersonal relations has broken down; the person growing up there sees few trustful relations that he can emulate. Borrowing a term from Michael Polanyi, we might say that his tacit knowledge does not include the possibility of trustful relations. In his encounter with the Other each person senses that the look of a third person is present; like a vampire this look sucks the throbbing vitality out of the encounter. In such a situation a person can only begin trusting the Other with his suffering-since suffering is the passive lot of all-but not with his hopes and dreams, his sins and struggles, in short, not with the activities of his being. Thus, many an Egyptian, when he began to trust a member of our group, confided his sufferings, what he had gone through in his life to reach his current situation; he gave himself as a finished product, not as a person who is still in the process of developing and has the freedom to alter his situation.

Because such an approach often brings the listener to identify with the person explaining himself, there arises a feeling that dialogue is occurring. But such is pseudo-dialogue-the Egyptian is giving everything but his freedom, which he lacks. Only when a person gives of his current unfinished self, and not of his past self, which has been polished by the rational remaking of one’s history-only then is he a partner in dialogue. This occurred very rarely; I recall dialogues with Naguib Mahfouz and with one of his wards.

Combining Buber and Sartre I learned that a person who is constantly faced with the possibility that he will become superfluous evades his current self, with its uncertainties, hopes, and fears. He languishes in habit. He attempts to become his own destiny and thus to overcome his being superfluous; but in the process he is sacrificing his freedom. He thus plays into the hands of the regime, helping it set up a dialectical motor of alienation in his heart. Because he senses that he is superfluous, he fears to participate in dialogue, and his inability to participate in dialogue enhances his awareness of being superfluous. This vicious circle of alienation, this dialectics of anti-dialogue, emerges again and again in Mahfouz’s novels-Miramar5 is a classic example; it is also found in Solzhenitsyn’s writings on contemporary Soviet society.

As I mentioned above, the

Lebanon war broke down the dialogue between Jewish and Arab participants in our Buberian Learning Groups for a few months. While pondering the reasons for this breakdown, I reread Sartre’s discussion of the fused group.6 Without a presentation of Sartre’s detailed analysis, the intuitive meaning is quite clear. Persons become a fused group when they are faced with a common danger and decide to fight that danger; a good example is a combat unit in battle. When Israeli forces invaded Lebanon , the Israeli mass media conveyed the news as if the entire Jewish society were a fused group attacking a common danger. Public opposition to the invasion was indeed sparse and limited. (The feeling of fusion was partially supported by the Masada complex-the whole world hates the Jews-that accompanies many Jews since the Holocaust.) An Arab who believed in dialogue with Jews suddenly sensed that the Jewish person facing him was not the person he had met with yesterday, but a member of a fused group that was attempting to annihilate the PLO. In this specific Jew he was encountering the Other Jew who was killing him as the Other Palestinian.

We Jews did not grasp that we were being viewed as a fused group by the Arabs; we were totally insensitive to the fact that in us the Arabs were encountering the Other Jewish soldier who was shooting it out with them as Palestinians. And this was happening; quite a few Jews were called up for active reserve duty. We Jews continued to speak to Arabs as if being a member of a fused group does not change the basic existential situation. Now we know how wrong we were.

The discussion to this point relies on the insights of Jean Paul Sartre blended with those of Martin Buber. In addition to helping me comprehend developments, blending the insights of different existentialists encouraged me to develop a unique approach in education for peace. I believe that this approach reveals an important contribution of existentialist philosophy to educational practice, and to education for peace in particular.


In a rather roundabout manner I have finally reached the crux of my argument: Existentialist philosophy can lead to self-education, if the reader reads the writings as indicating areas in his way of life that can be changed, that he should strive to change. I will grant that such self-education can occur only after a level of affluence and of intellectual freedom has been achieved. A Bolivian tin miner who is broken by fatigue each night, or an emaciated mother starving in

Cambodia , will have little time or strength for self-education or reading existentialist writings. Perhaps this is the reason Sartre called Existentialism an ideology and not a philosophy.

Existentialist philosophy can lead to self-education along three paths, which often cross or merge. First, the writings can serve as a mirror of one’s personal existence. Second, they can illuminate hidden, adverse aspects of a person’s social reality, and indicate the manner in which he tacitly supports that reality. The third and most difficult path is learning from existentialist philosophy how to change one’s own way of life and one’s social reality. This path may lead to the heights of wisdom or to the fulfillment of a vision. I shall now present an instance of traversing each path, as occurred in our Buberian Learning Groups. In its initial stages learning to read existential writings in a manner that mirrors a person’s own existence may resemble group dynamics or even therapy; a person learns that he is not relating to the Other as a subject, but as an object, and in group and personal discussions is led to examine himself and to see where and how this occurs. The process becomes more difficult and poignant when Buber’s essay “Guilt and Guilt Feelings” is read; participants are told to mirror their own existential guilt, especially in relation to the other national group. The following paragraphs served as the basis of a discussion:

Our subject is the relation of the conscience to existential guilt. Its relation to the trespassing of taboos concerns us here only in so far as a guilty man understands this trespassing more strongly or weakly as real existential guilt which arises out of his being and for which he cannot take responsibility without being responsible to his relationship to his own being.

The vulgar conscience that knows admirably well how to torment and harass, but cannot arrive at the ground and abyss of guilt, is incapable, to be sure, of summoning such responsibility. For this summoning a greater conscience is needed, one that has become wholly personal, one that does not shy away from a glance into the depths and that already in admonishing envisages the way that leads across it. But this in no way means that this personal conscience is reserved for some type of “higher” man. This conscience is possessed by every simple man whogathers himself into himself in order to venture the breakthrough out of the entanglement in guilt. And it is a great, not yet sufficiently recognised, task of education to elevate the conscience from its lower common form to conscience-vision and conscience-courage. For it is innate to the conscience of man that it can elevate itself.7

In the discussion participants were asked to examine instances of vulgar and higher conscience in their own lives. Here are some revealing excerpts:

YAFAH (JEWISH WOMAN): I don’t get the difference between a vulgar conscience and a higher conscience. Can you give me an example?

DAVID (JEWISH GROUP LEADER): Buber indicates quite clearly what the difference is, the vulgar conscience torments and harasses while not bringing us face to face with our guilt. We sort of play around with our guilt. The greater conscience encourages a person to face his guilt directly; and conversely, by facing your guilt directly you can develop a greater conscience. One example is the Jewish-Arab relations in

Israel . For many of us-Jews and Arabs-the state of the relations frequently torments our conscience; but we do not come face to face with what we have been doing, or not doing, in order to change the situation.

YAFAH: You are still not very clear. And you always hit back with the problem of Jewish-Arab relations. I admit that the state of these relations bothers me, at times it even harasses me; but I don’t see where some sort of higher conscience will help me here.

HUSSEIN (ARAB MAN): I agree with Yafah. The only thing I feel about Jewish-Arab relations is that my situation as an Arab living in

Israel is bad; but I don’t feel that my conscience is harassed or that I need a higher conscience.

DAVID: First of all, let me give some literary examples of the difference between a vulgar conscience and a higher conscience. In Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illich,” which we discussed recently, the hero Ivan Illich lives with a vulgar conscience until, on his death bed, at the last moment and as a result of deep suffering, he suddenly recognizes the existence of a higher conscience. In Anna Karenina, Anna and Vronsky live according to a vulgar conscience, while Levin is seeking, naively perhaps, what Buber calls a higher conscience. In Kafka’s The Trial and in Camus’s The Fall we encounter haranguing monologues of the vulgar conscience, while Dostoevsky’s Sonya in Crime and Punishment is guided by a higher conscience.

But the problem is not literature but our own life, your own life. For instance, let us speak of the Jewish-Arab problem, even if it sounds overdone. The vulgar conscience can only tell you, if at all, that the situation is bad and it may harass you that you have not done anything to change it. The higher conscience says that if you do not face up to the fact that your own personal way of life is contributing to the bad situation, then you lack what Buber calls conscience-vision and conscience-courage. In short, you are an accomplice to perpetuating the rotten situation. And what is worse here in Israel is that your unwillingness to see that mistrust and hatred between Jews and Arabs has become a way of life that is ruining you -and it doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew or an Arab-is a way of succumbing to your vulgar conscience. Higher conscience means seeing what I have to change in my life today in order to face the problem directly. And many of us are guilty that we don’t dare face ourselves.

What can be done? Here I must agree with Buber, who indicated that once we accept our own guilt a path opens up. When I saw how much I mistrusted Arabs-I thought them devious and ignorant-I suddenly realized which way I must pursue. Trust, and also some humility, but basically stubborn trust is the only way that leads across our mutual abyss of mistrust and guilt.

HUSSEIN: You know, David, I’m not sure that I know what you mean, but I am beginning to think that I feel what you mean.

DAVID: Please continue.

HUSSEIN: Well, as I said at a recent workshop, I am evading going back to my Arab village up north and am sticking it out here at the university for more years than needed to complete my studies. I then said that I don’t want to go back and to face the unmodern reality of the village. But now what struck me, while you were speaking, was that I really don’t want to face myself as an Arab who is striving to assert a Palestinian identity and also to be part of JewishIsraeli modern society. My not liking the village, my uncomfortableness with older Arabs, is really my refusal to face myself. And then, when I blame Jews or feel uncomfortable with them it is really because I feel uncomfortable with what Buber calls my Otherness as an Arab. I don’t know if I have made myself clear.

Certain sections of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov have helped illuminate our social reality. One of the most important discussions during the second year of the Peace Project centers around the tacit agreement between Ivan Karamazov and Smerdyakov to kill their father. In opening the discussion the leader explains that the treaty between the pseudo-intellectual and the lackey-type person who makes up the masses has become a common phenomenon in our century. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao initiated terrible manifestations of this treaty; less terrible examples are found today in Judaism and in IslamRabbi Kahane and Ayatollah Khomeini. Even Menachem Begin, Yassir Arafat, and Gamal Abdel Nasser often used pseudo-intellectual rhetoric to appeal to the lackey-type person and to gain his support for unethical deeds. The group leader then asks: Why is there a mutual attraction between the Ivans and the Smerdyakovs, and how can we work against the treaty they establish between them? At first the discussion takes place in small groups of three or four; the summary involves the entire group. Here are some excerpts from one such summary.

FATMA (ARAB WOMAN): Our group felt that Ivan was attracted to Smerdyakov because he sensed that Smerdyakov would do what he wished, and Ivan wished his father’s death. Snierdyakov was attracted to Ivan because he sensed that Ivan’s philosophy would help him justify the murder, which was his revenge on society for having him born and raised in degrading circumstances.

DINA (JEWISH WOMAN GROUP LEADER): What you say is commonly accepted and can be found in many commentaries about Dostoevsky. But I think that something essential is missing. That missing link is what is common in the way of life of Ivan and Smerdyakov and leads to their mutual attraction.

FATMA: Maybe it’s the fact that they lie to themselves.

DINA: Yes and no. We all lie to ourselves. It is the specific manner of lying that is unique to both of them and to much of our political and social reality.

MOHAMED (ARAB MAN): They both seem to be talking around thesubject. They seem to be indicating to each other that they want Fyodor Karamazov killed, but they talk about other topics.

DINA: You are right, Mohamed, and I believe that this point has great relevance for our society, for what is going on here and now. There are certain tacit agreements in our society that do not receive expression, but that allow the lackey-type person to do the immoral wishes of the pseudo-intellectual. When speaking with each other these persons evade the major issues and sidetrack to minor issues, but everyone knows what is on the other person’s mind. Decisions are made seemingly without anyone making them; by hinting at what is on one’s mind persons receive confirmation of their views and allow the ax to fall.

Let me give a rather neutral example before I show what this has to say about Jewish-Arab relations. In Israel 53 percent of the population are women; but only about 10 percent of the Knesset (Parliament) members are women. And since Golda Meir no minister has been a woman. Now, nobody decided to limit the number of women in the Knesset. Political parties often seek for a larger percentage of women on their lists of representatives. But somewhere along the decision-making line the door was closed and women remained outside the seats of power.

SIMA (JEWISH WOMAN): Well, what should we do? I know many other places where women in Jewish Society are blocked from power, like there is no major woman bank official.

DINA: Let me continue, Sima, and I’ll get to the point. Remember we are talking about the treaty between the pseudo-intellectual and the lackey-type person. What characterizes their relationship is that while lying to themselves, they allude to their real desires in roundabout language. They do not have the courage to state their desires straightforwardly or to face directly the implications of their desires. Hence they play around with words and insinuations. In short, their treaty is based on their lack of courage to face their desires and to examine them. But such people make decisions that influence our lives. Just to go back to my example, few men would like to be ruled by a Knesset with say 60 percent women; but no politician will dare say this. They let the Other make the decision to bar women from power, seemingly without their knowing about it. And the same holds for the second-class status of the Arabs in Israel. Few Jews would say openly: This is what we want. But through hundreds of hints, through thousands of minor deeds, second-class status for Arabs becomes a fact of life. There is no decision to limit the power of Arabs, but wherever the Arab turns his power is limited; and it is always limited by the Other; the person whom the Arab addresses is merely passing on a decision or implementing it; and the person who is limiting the power merely does what he understands certain hints from above or below intend him to do. Thus the Arab is barred from power by a bond of impotency.

For instance, like in a Kafkaesque novel, an Arab who is denied work as a teacher never knows who made the decision or why the decision was made. Each person will send him to the Other, who will merely explain the workings of the system. If he is stubborn and persistent in his pleas a message may finally come through that for reasons of security to the State he was denied the job. But he can never meet face-to-face with whoever made that decision. But I know how the decision was made: hints and allusions made by the lackey-type bureaucrat were passed on to the pseudo-intellectual at the top; this led to an understanding that was based on a mutual not knowing. And the ax fell.

FATMA: What you say reminds me of how Egyptians relate to Palestinians. I learned this on our trip to Egypt last year and now I understand it. Outwardly they declare that we all are brother Arabs. But the entire bureaucratic machine withholds help from a Palestinian living in Egypt. Nobody decided this. It just happens. . . . I’m beginning to understand that you want us to battle this reality by relating straightforwardly.

DINA: That always helps, but right now we want to see the situation as it is. Such a seeing will help you respond appropriately when the time for specific response arises.

This excerpt was part of a much longer discussion that had less exciting moments and a few digressions. Yet, the writings of Dostoevsky and Kafka have helped many of our participants see the underside of what happens in their society. As one sees this underside of society, this decision making through alienation is essential for the self-education of any person who wishes to bring about a change for the better.

In showing how we encouraged each participant to change his way of life and social reality, I shall bring a rather complex example. Second-year participants read at home Andre Gide’s The Immoralist; in class they received a lecture on Kierkegaard’s description of the aesthetic realm and its dangers for a moral way of life. Some participants had read sections of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. The questions put to the participants were: What is immoral about Michel, the hero of The Immoralist? What can I learn from his behavior about my life here in Israel? The questions were first discussed in small groups. Here are some excerpts from the final discussion:

YAAKOV (JEWISH MAN): Our group felt that Michel was very egocentric. The way he set up his entire way of life was so as to satisfy his personal wishes, whims, and desires. That is the source of his immorality.

DAVID (GROUP LEADER): It is true that Michel is egocentric, but that is just another way of saying that he is immoral; it is an aspect of his being an immoralist. Words like “egocentric,” which merely label the person, do not help us understand existential processes; they even, at times, cloud the perception of the specific process that is described. Thus you still have to explain the process that led to his egocentricism and immoral behavior. Further, you have to explain that immoral behavior. But let me give you a hint: Where and when did the process commence?

YAAKOV: After his sickness.

DAVID: What happened?

YAAKOV: He began to pamper his body.

Sausan (ARAB WOMAN): I would say he fell in love with his body.

DAVID: I think Sausan is right. That is where his immorality begins: in his falling in love with one aspect of his being, in his pampering that aspect and hence in his inability to relate fully to other persons. Even in his love with Marceline, his wife, he was more in love with his own love than with Marceline as a person. She passes through the novel and his life like a shadow, with almost no influence on Michel’s life and development. What can we learn from all this about our life here in Israel? About our own immoralism?

YAAKOV: Well, that we shouldn’t fall in love with one aspect of our being.

DAVID: Don’t sell me back what I just sold you; be concrete. Give me an example.

ILANA (JEWISH WOMAN): I think I know, although our group did not discuss this approach. For instance, the Jewish admiration and love for the Israel Defence Force is becoming a sort of fetish, and it is leading to immoral deeds. But wait, let me be more specific, because I know that is what you will ask me. Well, like Michel who develops a theory about history to justify his falling in love with his body and with his health, we are also developing a new view of history to justify our constant military buildup. Even though there already is peace with Egypt we keep saying that the Arabs really do not want peace, that they are not to be trusted, that military strength is what matters in the world. You know as I am speaking I see that it really fits in with Michel’s development. Yes, even if the army steals a bit from the country, like Michel steals from himself, we tend to overlook it.

DAVID: Great! You know, when the current army chief of staff was chosen, people in the army told me that he would be a good man because he was honest. He would not use his position to exploit the nation, like other generals have been accused of doing. They wanted someone morally respectable representing the country’s succumbing to the immorality you described.

Sussam (ARAB, ASSISTANT GROUP LEADER): I can also give an example from our may of life. Our love for and admiration of honor can lead to immoral deeds, and even animmoral way of life. You all remember the Bedouin member of parliament who was murdered by the sons of a Druze member of parliament, over a matter of honor. Everything that Ilana said about the Jews’ relationship to the Israel Defence Force has its parallel in the Arab relationship to honor.

David: I would like to add a few reflections that tie our discussion to Kierkegaard and to what you can do in your own lives. As Andre Gide shows, Kierkegaard holds, such immoral behavior becomes a way of life with no out: Immoral behavior leads to a justifying rationalization of that behavior in our consciousness, which leads again to new similar behavior. I have that there are only two ways to get out of such vicious circles: One is to out of them and the other is slow self-education while working against general trend. Kierkegaard discusses both possibilities in Either/Or, not may convincingly in my view, but each possibility is there. Examples of a leap are when someone like Sakharov suddenly comes out for peace and against the proliferation of atomic bombs, which he helped develop. He abandons his entire set of former commitments, which he views as immoral, and leaps into an entire new set of commitments that are moral. With self-education it is much more difficult to give an example, because we are dealing here with a process in which each of you must daily demand of himself a change, while also attempting to change the encompassing milieu. When each of you strives to develop trustful and responsible relations with persons of the other nation there is a process of self-education. But the entire process should resemble an ever-receding mountaintop toward which you continually climb.

ILANA: Something here is bothering me. As long as you ask us, you demand specific answers. Now, give me a specific example of self-education.

DAVID: You are right, but there is a problem here, since self-education is a process. Consider a husband who slowly begins to recognize his wife as a separate independent person, and then to accept her as such, and finally to love her as a separate human being; he has probably undergone a long difficult process of self-education. In political and social life the process can be no less painful and difficult. We must work for change even while changing ourselves. Thus, the husband I mentioned, or his wife, or both together, during the process could work together for changing the social status of women.

IlANA: You are still not specific. Give me an example from Jewish-Arab relations, an example that concerns our group.

DAVID: It is interesting that we often do not see or appreciate our own good actions. Quite a few persons sitting here, Jews and Arabs together, have tried to spread our ideas among workers, among youth, in various other settings. They have often failed, and I hope they have learned from such failures. The working for this goal, the developing of educational methods while educating yourselves, is the direction I am indicating.

Such discussions are complemented by personal meetings with participants in which the demands for change and for doing are made more specific.


The Education for Peace Project at Ben Gurion University of the Negev was officially terminated in December 1982. Some graduates and participants established an Education for Peace Society, whose aim is to continue the realization of the project’s goals. I believe that the main theoretical contribution of the project has been in the area of theory development. We have provided a partial and yet well-based answer to the question: How can existentialist philosophy and especially the philosophy of Martin Buber be realized in educational practice, and especially in education for peace? This article is a sketch of that answer. But the project achieved much more. Perhaps the best way of summarizing those achievements is to respond to Riffat Hassan’s excellent critique of our doings. Although I will differ from her on four points, I must admit that I learned much from her thoughts. First, I wish that all the good Riffat attributed to us had been achieved. She writes:

And, finally: What, in my judgment, is the good that has come out of the Education for Peace project? Much good, I believe, has come out of it even though it has not succeeded in a direct manner in fulfilling what was perhaps the initiator’s central aim, namely, to educate for peace. With all its imperfections, the project has provided a setting-perhaps the only one in Israel-where Jews and Arabs can meet as persons and not as stereotypes. It has also taught its members the art of confronting much that is difficult to accept, thus releasing them from the bondage of repression and passive suffering. The project has made its members aware of both the need for and the possibility of acquiring deeper knowledge and wisdom as well as greater maturity and strength of character even within the constraints imposed on them by the larger reality that encompasses them. I believe that each Jew and Arab who has entered the project with commitment has learned from it and has somehow become more fully human as a result of engaging in dialogical encounter with other Jews and Arabs. All of this constitutes a considerable good and all of this I personally value. However, what is for me the highest good that has come out of the Education for Peace project is that it has provided to a few human beings Jews and Arabs-the opportunity to transcend the enmity and alienation of the ages and to be able to love the other despite all that separates them. This seems to me to be the project’s greatest vindication.8

My impression is that we have only partially attained these achievements. As indicated in this article, existentialist philosophy can assist us in our continuous search for ways of achieving the good perceived by Riffat.

Second, after reviewing our notes I agree with Riffat that in the project there was often an undue emphasis on confronting the Other. Even in the above examples the emphasis on confrontation is evident. Of course it would be better if much more love were expressed-but educating a person to love is not that simple. Riffat’s critique brings up other worthy educational challenges sharing of pain, educating for justice. But I must say that none of these challenges can be addressed without the art of confronting, without dialogue. Hence our emphasis on dialogue.

Third, Riffat is wrong that dialogue between unequals is impossible. At least Buber would have said that she is wrong. Dialogue is possible between master and servant, or between husband and wife, despite their different status; the writings of Tolstoy describe many such instances of dialogue. The moment of dialogue, as Buber described it, breaks out of all social conventions and creates a presence in which only I and Thou exist.

And fourth, Riffat is wrong, therefore, in attributing to me a basically inauthentic approach when I teach dialogue, on the one hand, and want Israel to continue to be a Jewish state, on the other hand. I agree that in my previous articles I stated my views incompletely, and could thus have brought about a misunderstanding. I believe in the need and the right of a Jewish state for the Jewish people in Israel; in short, I am a Zionist. I think the Palestinian people should decide for themselves whether they want an independent state in the West Bank or would like a confederation with Jordan. That is not my business. Part of the land of Israel should be theirs and they should make the decision. But after the solution of the Palestinian national problem, those Arabs who decide to remain in Israel should accept the fact that they will be a minority within a Jewish state. Now being a minority does not necessarily mean that one is unequal. The Jews in Norway and the Copts in Egypt are minorities, but hardly unequal. That should be the status of those Arabs who choose to remain in Israel. And just as dialogue can occur between a Copt and a Moslem in Cairo or between a Jew and a Christian in Oslo, it should be able to occur between a Jew and an Arab in Beersheva. And in the earlier quotation Riffat asserts that it has occurred.

Today, I believe, Jews and Arabs together, graduates of the Education for Peace project, should work together to change the unjust relations toward Arabs in Israel. Quite a few are doing so, with many failures and some successes. They are eating gravel, as we say in Hebrew. But, as I review these three years, I can only once again conclude that essentially Martin Buber was right: When you begin with dialogue you are developing in the right direction. His insights provided many Jews and Arabs in the project, who are living in the maze called the Mideast, the first few strands of an Ariadne thread.


1 For explanation of Buberian Learning Groups see Haim Gordon, “Buberian Learning Groups: A Response to the Challenge of Education for Peace in the Mideast,” Teachers College Record 82, no. 2 (Winter 1980): 291-310; and idem and Jan Demarest, “Buberian Learning Groups: The Quest for Responsibility in Education for Peace,” Teachers College Record 84, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 210-25.

2 Riffat Hassan, “Response to ‘Buberian Learning Groups: The Quest for Responsibility in Education for Peace’ by Haim Gordon and Jan Demarest,” Teachers College Record 84, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 226-31.

3 Nicolas Berdyaev, Dream and Reality (New York: Collier Books, 1962) p. 85.

4 Ibid., p. 97.

5 Naguib Mahfouz, Miramar (London: Heineman Education Books, 1978).

6 Jean Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason (London: NLB, 1976), pp. 345-499.

7 Martin Buber, “Guilt and Guilt Feelings,” in his The Knowledge of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 135.

8 Hassan, “Response,” pp. 230-31.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 1, 1983, p. 73-87
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 851, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 11:51:58 AM

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