Buber, Hammarskjold, the United Nations—and Shattered Dreams: Blog by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

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The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965) was among the most influential thinkers of his time. His writings had a powerful impact on the Swedish diplomat, Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961), who served as the second Secretary General of the United Nations, from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in September 1961.

These two remarkable men met at the United Nations not long after Buber had given a guest lecture at Princeton University in 1958. Hammarskjold had written to tell Buber “how strongly I have responded to what you write about our age of distrust.”

Buber described his meeting with the Secretary General of the U.N. where both men shared a deep concern about the future of humanity. Will the nations of the world actually unite in mutual respect and understanding? Or will they sink into a quagmire of antagonisms, political infighting…and ultimately, the possible destruction of humanity through catastrophic wars?

Buber noted: “We were both pained in the same way by the pseudo-speaking of representatives of states and groups of states who, permeated by a fundamental reciprocal mistrust, talked past one another out the windows. We both hoped, we both believed that….faithful representatives of the people, faithful to their mission, would enter into a genuine dialogue, a genuine dealing with one another out of which would emerge in all clarity the fact that the common interests of the peoples were stronger still than those which kept them in opposition to one another.” (A Believing Humanism: Gleanings by Martin Buber,” Simon and Schuster, New York, 1969, pp. 57-59)

It was this dream that linked Buber and Hammarskjold—a dream that diplomats would focus on the needs of humanity as a whole, and not simply hew to their own self-serving agendas. Indeed, this was the founding dream of the United Nations: to be an organization that would bring together the nations of the world to work in common cause for the greater good of humanity.

In January 1959, Hammarskjold visited Buber in Jerusalem. Again, their conversation focused on the failure of world diplomacy to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual cooperation. There were some steps forward, to be sure; but by and large, the harmony of the nations had not come to pass. “Pseudo-speaking” and “fundamental reciprocal mistrust” continued unabated. The representatives continued to “talk past one another out the windows.”

Hammarskjold believed that Buber’s teachings on the importance of dialogue needed as wide a following as possible. He himself began working on a Swedish translation of Buber’s famous book, I and Thou. After Hammarskjold was killed in a plane accident, Buber was informed that the Secretary General of the U. N. was working on the Swedish translation of I and Thou on the plane. His last thoughts were about dialogue, mutual understanding, sympathetic interrelationships among human beings.

Hammarskjold died in 1961. Buber died in 1965. Did their dreams for the United Nations also die with them?

When we think of the work of the United Nations today—so many years after the meetings of Hammarskjold and Buber—we must admit some positive developments. The U.N. has fostered international cooperation in various areas.

But has the United Nations become a beacon of hope for genuine human dialogue? Do the diplomats work harmoniously for the good of humanity? It would appear that instead of being a bastion of human idealism, the United Nations has become a political battleground where the fires of hatred and bigotry burn brightly.

We justly lament the viciously unfair treatment of Israel at the U.N. We justly deplore the anti-Americanism that festers within the United Nations.  But these ugly manifestations of anti-Israel and anti-American venom are symptoms of the real problem: the real problem is that the United Nations has become a central agency for hatred, political maneuvering, and international discord. It has not lived up to the ideals of its founders; it has betrayed the dreams of Buber and Hammarskjold; it has become a symbol of so much that is wrong in our world.

It is probably too late to change the ugly and hateful spirit that pervades the United Nations. Preaching to the nations on the importance of dialogue and mutual respect will most likely fall on deaf ears.

But unless a powerful jolt of realism—and idealism—can be injected into the United Nations, humanity will continue its march into self-destruction.

Positive change in the way the U.N. operates is imperative. If it cannot or will not change, why should it be maintained? Why should we support the charade of a world body that pretends to stand for peace and mutual understanding…when in fact it is the world’s most visible bastion of international strife and hatred?