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The Philosopher & the General: When New Left Guru Herbert Marcuse Met with Israel’s Moshe Dayan and Pressed for Peace

In 1971, during his visit to Israel, Herbert Marcuse participated in a confidential conversation in which the then Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, admitted that Israel established its state in Arab territories.

Bruno Fabricio & Alcebino da Silva May 17

Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of the Israeli occupation of Palestine during his stay in Israel in December 1971 is intriguing and offers a unique perspective on the political complexities of that period. Marcuse (1898-1979), a renowned Jewish philosopher and prominent member of the Frankfurt School, expressed his conclusions in an article published in the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post and translated into Hebrew in Haaretz. Its suggestive title, Israel Is Strong Enough to Give In,” indicates a critical approach to the conflict.

Though the conversation took place more than a half-century ago, its ramifications and analysis are still relevant to understanding tensions in the Middle East.

Upon receiving invitations to give lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during his inaugural visit to Israel, Marcuse undertook the search for a deeper understanding of the intricate political and social dynamics of the Middle East. In this context he participated in significant meetings with several influential personalities. Among the notables he met with were Moshe Sneh, an Israeli politician and commander of the Haganah (the main Zionist paramilitary organization operating for the Yishuv in British Mandate Palestine) whose experience and perspective provided Marcuse with in-depth insight into Israel’s internal politics.

Furthermore, Marcuse had fruitful encounters with Amos Oz, a prominent Israeli writer and intellectual whose works address the tensions and dilemmas of Israeli society. Exchanging ideas with Oz not only enriched the cultural dialogue, but also provided Marcuse with valuable insights into the complexities of Israeli identity.

Another significant meeting was with Eliezer Be’eri, a prominent figure in the Israeli political sphere known for his contributions to the country’s socioeconomic development.

Surprisingly Marcuse further expanded his understanding when he met with Moshe Dayan, who, at the time, served as the Israeli Minister of Defense. Dayan, a key figure in Israel’s military operations, leader on the Jerusalem front during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and later Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 1953 to 1958 during the 1956 Suez Crisis. As Minister of Defense during the Six-Day War in 1967, Dayan became a representative icon of the global struggle of the newly established State of Israel. During the meeting Dayan shared his views on security and geopolitical issues in the region, providing Marcuse with a deeper understanding of the conflictual dynamics shaping the political landscape of the Middle East.

In addition to his interactions on Israeli soil Marcuse engaged in constructive dialogues with Palestinian dignitaries in the West Bank. During his stay, he was invited to visit the home of Palestinian writer and journalist Raymonda Hawa-Tawil, mother of Souha, who would later become wife of Yasser Arafat (leader of the Palestinian Authority, president of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and leader of Fatah and co-holder of the Nobel Peace Prize). Additionally, Marcuse had meetings with notable Palestinians, including the mayor of Nablus, Hamdi Kanaan. Marcuse’s comprehensive approach to his meetings, encompassing both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, reflects his commitment to a holistic understanding of the challenges facing the region at that time.

MARCUSE AND DAYAN

The content of the meeting between Herbert Marcuse and Moshe Dayan — as detailed by Zvi Tauber, professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, in the 2012 article “Herbert Marcuse on the Arab-Israeli Conflict: His Conversation with Moshe Dayan,” and in detail recorded in a protocol recently released by the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archive — highlights Dayan’s remarkable frankness in admitting that Israel established its state in territories historically inhabited by Arab populations. The meetings, which took place at the Ministry of Defense on December 29, 1971, provided Marcuse with the unique opportunity to engage in direct dialogue with the leading Israeli politician of the time.

The meeting, which until then had not been highlighted in analyses of Marcuse’s visit to Israel, was organized by Yehuda Elkana, director of the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University. The conversation was documented in shorthand, but surprisingly it was not publicized at the time, neither by the participants nor in Dayan’s autobiographical records.

The protocol reveals that in addition to Dayan and Marcuse, other participants included Shlomo Gazit, head of the Military Government Department. Dayan was the main speaker, answering Marcuse’s questions in a lecture format. Gazit intervened a few times, while other participants remained silent.

The absence of further mention of this encounter, both in Dayan’s works and in analyses of Marcuse, adds a layer of mystery to its nature and importance. The revelation of the protocol brings to light a hitherto little-known episode, offering valuable insights into Dayan’s outspoken perspective regarding the founding of Israel and its occupation of Arab territories. This discovery also highlights the continued need to explore and understand lesser-known historical events for a comprehensive understanding of the conflict in the Middle East.

‘WE TOOK AN ARAB LAND FROM THEM AND MADE IT JEWISH’

During the historic conversation that took place in 1971, Dayan revisited a critical moment in recent history. Contextualizing the period, it is crucial to remember the events of the Six Day War in 1967, which resulted in significant changes to the geopolitical map of the Middle East. In this conflict, Israel conquered Arab territories from Egypt, Jordan and Syria, including the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights (see map) drastically altering regional dynamics.

Territories occupied by Israel in 1967
United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI)

In a revealing passage Dayan points to a map of the Middle East, emphasizing, “We came here, and (a) we cut off the two parts of the Arab world from each other; and (b) we took from them an Arab land and made it Jewish.”

This explicit admission surprises Marcuse, who observes, “Do you admit that? You are the first Israeli I have met here in the country who admits this.”

Dayan’s response is direct: “Of course I admit it. It’s a fact.”

This crucial revelation challenges the official Zionist narrative of the time, recognizing the founding of the State of Israel on Arab territory. Marcuse, in turn, expresses his concerns about the implications of this foundation — highlighting that the creation of the State of Israel can be seen as an injustice as it was established in a foreign land without adequate consideration of the problems of the local population. It is important to underline that in the 1948 conflict alone around 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their lands.

Furthermore, a series of crucial points about the situation in the Middle East were addressed during the conversation. Expressing a firm stance, Dayan rejected the possibility of withdrawal to the 1967 borders. He emphasized that the country would remain Jewish and that those uprooted would not return to Israel. Dayan stated that Israel captured Jerusalem and took the land but did not annihilate the inhabitants — and that it is understandable that they would want to return.

When Marcuse questioned whether Dayan’s action brought Arab nationalism to the region, Dayan admitted that it had, considering it a fact. However, he believed that such a change of motivation among the Arabs was the key to the solution — not just an argument over borders. Regarding the withdrawal, Dayan stated that they would not withdraw from Sharm el-Sheikh [currently in Egypt] but would be open to discussing a temporary agreement for presence in that region.

Dayan considered the peace initiative to be opportune but asked what he could offer that would not compromise his position. He expressed concern about the possibility of a change in the military balance if a full withdrawal or to the 1967 borders occurred, indicating that it could be more dangerous for Israel.

The conversation also touched on the actions of Egyptian President Nasser in 1967, with Dayan considering Nasser intoxicated by his military capabilities and hopeful of quickly ending the conflict. Regarding the future, Dayan expressed uncertainty regarding then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s ability to destroy Israel, even within 1967 lines.

The crux of this conversation turned out to be Israel’s steadfast refusal to carry out a complete withdrawal, especially from Sinai — a strategically significant region. Dayan based this position on a deep concern for Israel’s national security. His argument highlighted that a total withdrawal could be interpreted by Arab countries as a strategic weakness, potentially encouraging the belief that Israel could be destroyed.

The Minister emphasized that, from the Israeli perspective, acceptance of the country’s existence within its pre-1967 borders was intrinsically linked to the Arabs’ perception of Israel’s invulnerability. As long as the idea that Israel was vulnerable or susceptible to destructive threats persisted, any significant territorial concession would be seen as a strategic weakness by him.

In addition to military issues, a fascinating part of this discussion revolved around the German philosopher’s view on the possibility of a Palestinian state coexisting alongside Israel. Marcuse, known for his critical perspective and his commitment to social justice, advocated the creation of an independent Palestinian state or alternatively a federation that included Israel or Jordan. This proposal for coexistence and sharing of territories sought, according to Marcuse, to meet the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people.

The Israeli Minister expressed skepticism regarding this proposal. His skepticism can be interpreted in light of the complex political and security dynamics that characterized the region at that time.

The contrast between Marcuse’s vision and Dayan’s skeptical stance highlights the fundamental divergences that permeated discussions around the Israel-Palestine conflict. While Marcuse sought solutions that addressed the aspirations of both parties fairly, Dayan — immersed in the region’s political and security realities and Israeli interest — may have perceived practical obstacles that made this proposal difficult to implement.

This divergence of perspectives on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel illustrates the intrinsic complexity of negotiations at the time and highlights how different actors viewed solutions to the Palestinian issue in different and at times conflicting ways. These discussions echo to this day, influencing contemporary debates on the search for lasting peace in the Middle East.

‘I AM A PHILOSOPHER, NOT A POLITICIAN’

The conversation between Marcuse and Dayan highlighted the philosopher’s concerns about an imminent war between Israel and Arab countries. Marcuse, emphasizing his identity as a philosopher, expressed fears about Arab motivation for the conflict. These apprehensions were belittled by Dayan, politician and Minister of Defense, who underestimated the possibility of war.

Marcuse’s statement — “I am a philosopher, not a politician” — made during an interview in the newspaper Haaretz, provides a fundamental context for the analytical approach he adopted to political events. As the story unfolded, the concerns expressed by Marcuse were validated by the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

While Marcuse sought solutions that addressed the aspirations of both parties fairly, Dayan believed any concessions by Israel would be seen as a sign of weakness. 

After this conflict, the scenario of the Israel-Palestine conflict transcended the previous dynamics of impasse between Israel and neighboring Arab countries. Additional complexity has arisen with the active participation of Palestinian groups whose presence and influence have expanded significantly in the international arena. This signaled a notable evolution in the conflict, incorporating new actors and challenges that went beyond previously established boundaries.

Marcuse’s prediction about partial agreements and the fate of Anwar Sadat — who was murdered after the signing of a peace treaty — reveals a tragic irony. Dayan underestimated the complexities of the peace process, while Marcuse insightfully anticipated dynamics that echoed contemporary events. The dialogue not only captured the tensions of the time, but highlighted the philosopher’s wisdom in understanding the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

THE CURRENT GENOCIDE

The philosopher’s prediction about the possibility of a new war, together with the mention of the eventual realization of partial agreements, gains a deep resonance when we consider the context of the current conflict that broke out on Oct. 7 (with an attack by Hamas and the subsequent declaration of war by Israel).

Marcuse, with his insight, anticipated dynamics that, in a certain way, echo in contemporary events. It is noteworthy that now the conflict has lasted 76 years, highlighting the long and persistent nature of tensions in the region.

Israel’s recent actions in the war, such as the new phase involving the invasion of Rafah — the last standing city in Gaza — reinforce the complexity of the situation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues his plan of ethnic extermination against the Palestinian people.

Furthermore, it is essential to consider the broader context of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), which is facing a protracted political crisis characterized by more than 55 years of Israeli military occupation, 15 years of blockade of Gaza, internal Palestinian divisions, increased Israeli settler and soldier violence, and recurring escalations of hostilities between Israeli security forces and Palestinian armed groups.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra reported that Israeli attacks have resulted in the loss of more than 34,000 Palestinian lives since the start of the conflict, with the majority being civilians. At the same time, Israel has killed at least 8,000 Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) soldiers in Gaza. In the West Bank, territory under Israeli occupation, settler violence was already on the rise before the Oct. 7 attack and has intensified since then.

By interweaving Marcuse’s observations with the current moment, we observe a continuity in the complexities underlying the Israel-Palestine conflict. This highlights the need for insightful and comprehensive approaches to address the root causes of conflict and seek solutions that promote peace and stability in the region.

Although the conversation between Marcuse and Dayan took place more than five decades ago, its ramifications and analyses are still relevant to understanding tensions in the Middle East. Marcuse brought a unique perspective as a philosopher, while Dayan represented Israel’s political and strategic vision in that tumultuous time. This exchange of ideas offers valuable insight into political thinking and the complexities of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Bruno Fabricio Alcebino da Silva is a researcher at the Federal University of ABC (São Paulo, Brazil).

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