Understanding Israel’s Dehumanizing Palestinians by Rereading Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Israel’s bombing and incursion into Gaza raise the question of proportionality. In addition to numerous war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, the fundamental of proportionality is being egregiously violated. Understood that 1400 Israelis were killed on October 7 and over 200 were taken hostage. But in terms of proportionality, does that justify the collective punishment of killing over 10,000 Palestinians, withholding basic food, electricity, medical supplies, and fuel for 2.3 million people, forcing displacement, and destroying a significant portion of Gaza and its infrastructure? I will attempt to answer this question with a brief look at two eminent Jewish philosophers which may give an insight into Israel’s underlying attitude towards Palestinians and disproportional actions.

The notion of proportionality dates to Hammurabi Code’s famous dictum: “An eye for an eye” in 1750 BC. It is also found in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus 21:23-27. Note that an eye for an eye doesn’t mean an eye, a leg, an arm, or a head for an eye, or killing an entire family and its neighbors for an eye. An eye for an eye respects proportionality, even if it calls for vengeance. An eye for an eye, however primitive and non-forgiving, is proportional.

The concept of proportionality is also fundamental in current international law. Specifically, Article 8 (2) (b) (iv) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

prohibits intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the non-human environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.

(The disproportionate use of force by Israel was confirmed by The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently in typical diplomatic language. “We have serious concerns that these are disproportionate attacks that could amount to war crimes,” it posted on social media.)

Beyond the legal question of proportionality, war crimes or crimes against humanity lies the underlying attitude of the Israeli government towards Palestinians that is reflected in the October 9 statement by Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant: “We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.”

Two prominent Jewish philosophers are worth citing in respect to the Minister’s statement and the government’s actions. Without going into an exegesis of texts which I have done previously,[i] a brief look at Martin Buber’s and Emmanuel Levinas’ understandings of social relationships clarifies the current Israeli government’s attitude and actions.

Both Buber and Levinas were concerned with social relationships. In their writings, they emphasized that interpersonal relationships are the basis of all ethics and intersubjectivity. While many of their writings are highly abstract, they do have relevance for the underlying Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians and the current excessive violence.

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a Jewish Austrian/Israeli philosopher known for his dialogical writings about the distinction between I-Thou and I-It. Buber began from a foundational relationship of I-Thou, the “co-constituting” of all beings. He then moved from this prenatal, all-encompassing relation of everyone to others to describe how there is then a fundamental split from the I-Thou relationship to the establishment of a separate I, and eventually to the separateness of an I-It relation built on the separation of subject and object. What began as everyone’s all-inclusive relationship to others, for Buber, could become a relationship more formal and distant.

The very possibility of a separation between an intimate relationship (I-Thou) and a more objective relationship (I-It) is central. For if we project Buber’s thoughts into the current political situation, it is obvious that for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government Israel is in an I-It relationship with Palestinians. There is no universal or even minimally neighborly semitic I-Thou relationship possible.

While Buber’s political position of binationalism was different from Israel’s founders’ desire for a uniquely Jewish state, his separation of I-It from I-Thou can be interpreted as denying the possibility of treating Palestinians in an open, direct, humane manner. To call Palestinians “human animals,” as the defense minister did, is only possible in an I-It relationship.

The possibility of the separation of I-Thou from I-It was the exact criticism of Buber by Emmanuel Levinas, a French/Jewish philosopher of the 20th century. Levinas believed in an all-encompassing relationship to the Other, a universal I-Thou that excluded the possibility of I-It. For Levinas, we are all intimately intertwined with others in a generalized, universal Other.

Here the story is more personal and directly related to Levinas’ understanding of the Other and Palestinians. I was invited to lecture at Hebrew University several years ago. I began by citing Levinas and his well-known philosophy of the importance of Otherness as “a social communion considered as the primary act of being.” And it is because of this original communal relationship, according to Levinas, that we are responsible for others. “Responsibility for the other, this way of answering without a prior commitment, is human fraternity itself, and it is prior to freedom,” he wrote. “Responsibility for the other” and “humanity fraternity” are Levinas’ major philosophical contributions.

After citing Levinas and his all-encompassing “human fraternity” and “responsibility for the other,” I asked the audience of professors and students how this philosophy played out in terms of Israel’s relationship to Palestinians. I made specific reference to an extremely controversial radio interview[ii] Levinas gave in 1982, two weeks after the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon, by Christian militiamen acting under the protection of the Israeli Defense Force.

In the interview, Levinas was asked: “Emmanuel Levinas, you are the philosopher of the ‘other.’…for the Israeli, isn’t the ‘other’ above all the Palestinian?”

Levinas replied: “The other is the neighbor, who is not necessarily kin, but who can be…. But if your neighbor attacks another neighbor or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can find an enemy, or at least then we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust. There are people who are wrong.” (italics added)

After referring to these quotes, I asked the audience why, according to Levinas, Palestinians were outside the “other,” recalling that Robert Bernasconi, professor of philosophy at Penn State University, had criticized Levinas’s belief that “the Palestinian is not as such the Other of the Jew.”

There was a great silence in the room. No one directly answered my question. Eventually, I was told I didn’t understand the implications of Levinas’ non-recognition of Palestinians as members of his all-encompassing Other. I didn’t understand the context, I was admonished. To the Hebrew University audience, I was obviously pro-Palestinian, hence anti-Israel and antisemitic. The professors and students all accepted Levinas’ rejection of Palestinians as part of any all-encompassing Other. I didn’t agree.

The Israeli Defense Minister’s description of the Hamas terrorists as “human animals” and the disproportional Israeli reaction to October 7 are part of decades of an asymmetrical relationship between Israel and Palestinians. There can be no talk of a one-state solution, an eventual federation or even a two-state solution until there is an Israeli recognition of Palestinians as equals and worthy of being treated proportionally in a symmetrical, humane relationship based on mutual dignity. Until Palestinians become part of the I-Thou in Buber’s terms and are included in the Other in Levinas’ there will be no peace.


[i] For a more detailed analysis see Daniel Warner; “Levinas, Buber and the Concept of Otherness in International Relations: A Reply to David Campbell.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies. 1996. Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 111-128.

[ii] A detailed description of the interview and conflicting interpretations can be found at: Oona Eisenstadt and Claire Elise Kintz: “The Faceless Palestinian: A History of an Error.” Telos 174(Spring 2016): pp. 9-32.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.