Herbert Marcuse in Israel

Image: Valentin Zaslavski


Marcuse recognized the injustice committed against the indigenous Arab population during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948

The current escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, marked by the intensification of attacks and genocide perpetrated by Israel, raises an urgency to revisit the reflections of the philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), member of the Frankfurt School. In a historical context that dates back to past decades, the complex relationship between these two “nations” is fundamental to understanding the origins and future perspectives of this conflict.

Herbert Marcuse, a German Marxist who faced exile in the United States due to the Nazi regime, built his views on Israel and Zionism based on a political sensibility forged in the oppression he, as a Jew, experienced during the dark period of the Holocaust. Herbert Marcuse's relationship with Israel was, therefore, permeated by an “emotional” and “personal” dimension, shaped by the scars of the past.

By considering the founding of the State of Israel as a condition for the peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Herbert Marcuse recognized the injustices inherent in the creation of the Jewish State. His perspective, expressed in the 1960s and 1970s, echoed the dilemma between the historical illegitimacy of Israel's founding and the pragmatic need to guarantee Jewish security in the face of a hostile world.

The interview given by Marcuse to the newspaper The Jerusalem Post in January 1972, preserved in Marcuse Archive of Frankfurt, provides a window into the depth of your reflections. Translated into Arabic, the interview provoked an intense debate, evidenced in the words of the then mayor of Nablus (1963-1969) [current West Bank], Hamdi T. Kanaan: “As far as I am concerned, I see in you the first Jewish personality who practically admits the great injustice committed against Arab-Palestinians with the creation of Israel and which, at the same time, fully and logically understands the present and future circumstances in which Israel exists and will exist in this region.”

The 1960s witnessed the Six-Day War, an event that triggered a reassertion of Israel's military and political power in the region. Herbert Marcuse, aware of this dynamic, insisted that freedom should be disseminated without adopting imperialist forms. In his words, “Only a free Arab world can coexist with a free Israel.” This vision, anchored in the experience of oppression under Nazism, reflected Herbert Marcuse's search for peaceful coexistence between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries (MARCUSE, 1977).

The philosopher proposed the creation of a Palestinian national state alongside Israel, considering it an essential step towards coexistence. However, fifty years after his reflections, the implementation of this solution remains elusive. Subsequent history is marked by intermittent conflicts, frustrated negotiations and a persistent absence of lasting peace.

The 2020s, specifically the year 2023, emerged as a turning point in this historical context. The Israeli genocide, which began in October, reignited the flames of a conflict that seemed not to yield to previous attempts at resolution. Israel's military superiority, mentioned by Herbert Marcuse as a factor that would require additional responsibility in the search for coexistence, now manifests itself in an even more pronounced way.

The story serves as an intricate narrative of tensions, aspirations, and challenges. Herbert Marcuse's dream for a “socialist federation of Middle Eastern states,” where Israelis and Palestinians would coexist in equality, remains a distant vision. However, his vision remains a current call to fight for security and freedom in a region marked by historical volatility. According to the philosopher, the coexistence of the two populations cannot happen if one of these two “nations” is suppressed by the other (LAUDANI & JANSEN, 2004).

Given the current scenario, it is imperative that the historical perspective is incorporated into the critical analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Understanding the roots, developments, and failures over time is essential to guide future resolution attempts. Herbert Marcuse's reflections, anchored in his own historical experience, offer a moral compass amid the complexity of this decades-old conflict. The asymmetries between Israel and Palestine, in terms of military, political and economic power, are accentuated in this context, emphasizing the need for approaches that consider historical justice and present inequalities.

Marcuse's premonition

The year 1971 represented a milestone in the life of Herbert Marcuse, when he, invited to give lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, visited Israel for the first time. This event allowed him to directly confront the complexity of the Palestinian issue, dialoguing with the local population, both Arab and Israeli. The resulting interview, published in The Jerusalem Post on January 2, 1972, adds an important layer to Herbert Marcuse's reflections.

In this interview, Herbert Marcuse recognized the injustice committed against the indigenous Arab population during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. He highlights that the founding of the Jewish State implied the transfer, partly forced, of the Palestinian population. Furthermore, the Arab population that remained in Israel found itself relegated to the economic and social status of second-class citizens, despite formally recognized rights.

Herbert Marcuse's analysis, based on a historical perspective, highlights that the origins of the State of Israel do not fundamentally differ from the creation of other States in history, involving conquest, occupation and discrimination. Even the approval of the United Nations (UN), although it actually ratified the conquest, did not change the essence of the situation, since the political act that resulted in the creation of Israel was supported by the great powers of the time.

The philosopher addressed the precariousness of the military solution and the need for a peace treaty with the United Arab Republic [Egypt] as a preliminary condition. He proposed a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Sinai and the Gaza Strip, with the creation of a demilitarized zone under UN protection. Herbert Marcuse believed that the stronger power, represented by Israel, could make important concessions to achieve peace.

Jerusalem, with its deep religious charge, was identified by Herbert Marcuse as a possible obstacle to peace. He suggested the internationalization of the city, once reunified, as an alternative. The theorist also saw the need for a “fair solution to the refugee problem”, in accordance with UN resolutions.

Herbert Marcuse addressed two possibilities for dealing with the refugee problem: the return to Israel of those who wish to return, limited by the transformation of Arab lands into Jewish lands; and the creation of a national Palestinian state alongside Israel, decided through a UN-supervised plebiscite.

The central question, according to Herbert Marcuse, was whether Israel, in its configuration at the time and with its present politics, could achieve its objective of existing as a progressive society with peaceful relations with its neighbors. The philosopher argued that the annexation of land, whatever the form, would be a negative response, transforming Israel into a military fortress, becoming a hostile environment.

In short, Herbert Marcuse's vision, shaped by historical experience and his visit to Israel in 1971, highlights the need to recognize the injustices of the past, negotiate fundamental peace treaties, and seek genuine coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. His words, although spoken decades ago, resonate powerfully in contemporary times, offering valuable guidance for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bruno Fabricio Alcebino da Silva He is majoring in International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC).


Laudani, R., & Jansen, P. E. (2004, April 1). Marcuse, Zionism and the Jews. Le Monde Diplomatique Brazil. Available in: https://diplomatique.org.br/marcuse-o-sionismo-e-os-judeus/

Le Monde Diplomatique. (2004, March). Une premonitoire pensée: Marcuse, Israël et les Juifs. The Diplomatic World, P. 27. Available at: https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2004/03/MARCUSE/11079

MARCUSE, Herbert. Das Ende der Utopie (1967), Frankfurt a. M., Neue Kritik, 1980.

MARCUSE, Herbert. Only a Free Arab World Can Co-exist with a Free Israel, introduction to the Hebrew edition of “L?Chayim, vol. IV, no. 2, 1977.

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