Avraham Burg: Israel's new prophet
Avraham Burg was a pillar of the Israeli establishment but his new book is causing a sensation. It argues that his country is an "abused child" which has become a "violent parent". And his solutions are radical, as he explains to Donald Macintyre
Saturday, 1 November 2008
It was not until his last year as a Knesset member that he began to build a reputation as something of an enfant terrible in Israeli intellectual and political life
In shorts, T-shirt and cotton kippa, Avraham Burg is sitting in his sukka, the temporary booth that every observant Jewish family in Israel builds outside their home for the joyous religious holiday of Sukkot, and talking with some disdain about the holocaust "industry".
The sunlight is filtered through the roof of palm leaves, the decorative strings of apples, coloured balls and paper streamers almost motionless on this still October morning. Nearby the autumn desert flowers are blooming and a ladder up against a tree indicates that someone has recently been picking olives. Here in Nataf, the select, upper-middle-class community idyllically set in the Jerusalem Hills where Burg lives with his wife Yael, just 1,000 metres from the border with the West Bank, it's momentarily hard to focus on the sombre subject matter of his latest, explosive book, one which by his own – if anything understated – account "singlehandedly shook the foundations of the Zionist establishment overnight".
It isn't long since Burg was a blue-chip member of that same Zionist establishment. The son of a long-serving government minister, from the time of David Ben-Gurion's government, he has a classic top-drawer Israeli profile. True, he was on the left: after army service as a paratroop officer and graduating from Hebrew University he was a star of the movement against the first Lebanon war – his charisma if anything enhanced by the fact than unlike many of his comrades he was religious. He was injured in the grenade attack by a right-wing fanatic on a Peace Now protest in 1983 which killed another demonstrator, Emil Grunzweig. But he was quickly swept into mainstream public life, becoming first an adviser to the then Prime minister Shimon Peres, then a Knesset member, then Speaker of the Knesset, head of the Jewish agency and the World Zionist Organisation and the almost-victorious candidate for the Labour Party leadership in 2001.
It was not until his last year as a Knesset member that he began to build a reputation as something of an enfant terrible in Israeli intellectual and political life. In 2003 he wrote a widely publicised and much argued-over piece in Israel's mass circulation Yedhiot Ahronot in which he said that Israel had to choose between "racist oppression and democracy" and that "having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centres of Israeli escapism"
But his book The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes – published this week in Britain – caused a much bigger sensation when it came out last year in Israel, at once becoming a best-seller and provoking a furious reaction not only from the right but from many of Burg's former colleagues on the political centre-left. In the book – a compelling mix of polemic, personal memoir, homage to his parents and meditation on Judaism – Burg argues that Israel has been too long imprisoned by its obsessive and cheapening use – or abuse – of the Holocaust as "a theological pillar of Jewish identity".
He argues that the living role played by the Holocaust
– Burg uses the regular Hebrew word Shoah or "catastrophe" for the extermination of six million Jews in the Second World War – in everyday Israeli discourse, has left Israel with a persistent self-image of a "nation of victims"
, in stark variance with its actual present-day power. Instead, the book argues, Israel needs finally to abandon the "Judaism of the ghetto
" for a humanistic, "universal Judaism".
The implication of Burg's analysis, one that perhaps only an Israeli would have dared promote, is that the fostered memory of the Holocaust hovers destructively over every aspect of Israeli political life
– including its relations with the Palestinians since the 1967 Six Day War and the subsequent occupation. "We have pulled the Shoah out of its historical context," he writes, "and turned it into a plea and generator for every deed. All is compared to the Shoah, dwarfed by the Shoah and therefore all is allowed – be it fences , sieges ... curfews, food and water deprivation or unexplained killings. All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave.
For Burg, whose own father Yosef was a German Jew, and for many years leader of Israel's National Religious Party, the "real watershed moment" in this deforming process was the trial and subsequent execution in 1962 of Adolf Eichmann, which Yosef Burg vainly opposed from inside the Cabinet. Instead of Eichmann's death symbolising, as it was meant to do, "the end of the Shoah and the beginning of the post-Shoah period," he says, in reality "the opposite happened... The Shoah discourse had begun." I put it to Burg that for many Israeli holocaust survivors who during the late Forties and Fifties had had to brave the indifference, sometimes even contempt, of those of their fellow citizens who had already left Europe by the time the Shoah began – a painful phenomenon vividly covered in the book itself – the Eichmann trial was actually a liberation, a positive rather than negative, after which Israelis who had not lived through the Holocaust at last began to understand the pain of those who had.
Burg's answer is that recognition and sympathy for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust are indeed essential components of "any kind of progress from the departure point of trauma to the final destination of trust". On the other hand "what I criticise in the Eichmann trial and the entire Shoah industry is the contempt, the cheapening attititude of the public system; everything is Shoah. It legitimises everything, it explains everything, it is used by everybody." Here he cites two everyday examples – the first an interview about the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad given last month by Benjamin [Bibi] Netanyahu, the right-wing former – and possibly soon to be again – Prime Minister: "Ahmadinejad is no doubt a problem," says Burg. "He is an issue in the Western world and for Israel's sense of confidence in particular. So what is Bibi's soundbite? 'It is 38 all over again.' Do me a favour. Did we have such a powerful state in '38? Did we have this onmipotent army in '38? Did we have the most important superpowers siding with us in '38? It's not '38 however you look at it. And even Ahmadinejad, when you compare him with Hitler, you diminish Hitler.
" But because the "Holocaustic language is so common, so well understood," says Burg, the reflex attitude is: "Why not use it?"
Last year, he adds, Jerusalem's gay and lesbian community wanted to have a parade in the city. "Immediately all the gut juices of Jerusalem erupted like a wellspring. Immediately the ultra-orthodox in masses went out on the streets. So the police went out to separate the supporters of the parade from their ultra-orthodox opponents ... so one of the ultra-orthodox shouts at a policeman (who happens to be a Druze [Arab]): 'You are a Nazi. You are worse than the Germans, blah blah blah...' The Shoah was privatised, so to say. All of these people who exploit it, violate the sacred memory of the individual [victims] and the collective.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Burg's paternal origins, Israel's multidimensional relationship with Germany, past and present, looms large in this book. In a notably striking – and for many Israelis highly provocative – passage, Burg points out that Israel actually reached – arguably "too soon" – a "hasty reconciliation" with Germany after the Second World War, before saying:
"We will never forgive the Arabs for they are allegedly just like the Nazis, worse than the Germans. We have displaced our anger and revenge from one people to another, from an old foe to a new adversary, and so we allow ourselves to live comfortably with the heirs of the German enemy – representing convenience, wealth and high quality, while treating the Palestinians as whipping boys to release our aggression, anger and hysteria, of which we have plenty.
Yet Burg believes that Germany remains also "traumatised" by the Holocaust
. "We are both along the same ocean of suffering," he told me. As evidence he points out that so far – and unlike in France, Britain, the US, and Italy – no edition of his book is yet planned in Germany where the publishers warily wait to see what its impact will now be on "world Jewry". In the book Burg, who admires the cultural and artistic milieu of modern Berlin – where he recently ran the marathon (in just under four hours) – argues that in the "day we leave Auschwitz and establish the new state of Israel, we also have to set Germany free
In the meantime, however, one of his most controversial themes is what he himself calls a "both embarrassing and frightening" analogy with Germany's Second Reich
. In drawing attention to the importance of the military – and the lack of "any alternative, civilian school of thought" – in the political life of Israel as in Bismarck's Germany, or of the parallels between the lack of representation of Israeli Arabs in many key tiers of public life and the exclusion of Jews from the officer class of the pre-Hitler German Army, or the impunity with which the extreme right can make racist statements about "the other"
, Burg is emphatically not seeking comparison with the Nazi era, but "of the long incubation period that preceded Nazism and that gave rise to a public mindset that enabled the Nazis to take power".
On the one hand, Burg asserts his strong admiration for "my teacher and mentor" Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who thunderously prophesied almost immediately after the Six Day War – in a passage quoted with warm approval in Burg's book – that the "inclusion of one and half million Arabs within Jewish jurisdiction means undermining the Jewish and human essence of the state
" and that the occupier will be "a state that is not worthy of being and will not be worth to let exist
". Burg reinforces his own comparison with pre-Nazi Germany by referring to Israelis being "locked off" in denial of the ominous stirrings of the extreme right in their midst
. And he does not shrink from a reference, in his discussion of the Holocaust's legacy in Israel, to the "pathological circle of the abused child becoming a violent parent
". On the other hand he parts company with Leibowitz's depiction of the occupying Israeli forces as "Judaeo-Nazis"
, which he also regards as "cheapening the conversation... an act of contempt for the lesson of the Holocaust".
The German comparison nevertheless fuelled the outrage felt about the book by one of Israel's leading journalists and commentators, Ari Shavit. Last year, in an ultra-combative interview with Burg in the newspaper Haaretz that certainly helped to publicise the book but also to demonise its author among his enemies, Shavit, once an ally of Burg in the campaign against the Lebanon war, wrote that he found the book "anti-Israeli, in the deepest sense" and a "one-dimensional and unempathetic attack on the Israeli experience" that unjustly depicted its citizens as "psychic cripples"
. In one of many acerbic exchanges, Shavit took issue with Burg's description of the occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights as an "Israeli Anschluss
". "What do you want me to say about what we're doing there?" Burg retorted. "That it's humanism? The Red Cross?"
The reaction was predictable. Otniel Schneller, a Knesset member in the ruling Kadima Party, said portentously that when Burg dies he should be refused burial in the part of Jerusalem's Mount Herzl National Cemetery allotted to national figures, declaring: "He had better search for a grave in another country." Yossi Klein Halevi, a writer, and professed friend of Burg said: "That interview really destroyed him, or he destroyed himself." True, Burg gave as good as he got in the interview. "I told him, Ari, you are the best insight writer in Israel; the problem is that your insights are lousy," he says now. But what it really exposed was the chasm that, at least for now, separates Burg even from many of his own mainstream centre-left generation in an Israel whose future he believes is increasingly being steered by the ultra-orthodox on the one hand and the religious Zionist settlers in the occupied West Bank on the other
"Now Ari represents Mr Israel," says Burg. "He is the camp fire. He is the virtual tribe. He was a kibbutznik, in the middle of the road, a bit of security, a bit of social conscience and a bit of secularism, a bit European, a bit Middle Eastern. Along comes Avrum [his much used nickname] Burg and tells him: 'Ari it is hollow, your Mr Israel: you abandoned the two links to the past to the hands of your enemies. You surrendered the responsibilities for the rituals and traditions to the hands of the ultra-orthodox who bitterly oppose your modernity; and you abandoned the responsibility for the connection to the place to the hands of messianic eschatological settlers. Both are fundamentalists. One is redemptive. And the other is just religious. [You are neither] but you need them in order to feel you are hooked into your past. Can't you create a different, independent, renewed approach to your past and to your future?'" Burg who frequently states his affinity, as a modern observant Jew, with the liberal B'nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York, well known for a strong commitment to social justice
, continues: "I told him maybe there's a another world out there. What about Jews in the diaspora, those who worked in the past 200 years to renew Judaism, to make it compatible with humanism and universalism which is part of your secular modern attitude? Don't you want to bring that in? And abandon your pathological relations with the ultra-orthodox and ultra-messianic?' Then he says: 'Are you a Zionist?' The ultimate punch! 'Are you a Zionist, Mr Burg?'"
So what is the answer to this undoubtedly relevant question? "For me, Zionism was the scaffolding that enabled the Jewish people to move from the previous exilic reality into sovereign responsibility. The Zionists succeeded two-fold: we have sovereignty and, second, even exile was redeemed and became 'diaspora'. We have the most impressive diaspora, politically, culturally, economically. Never did Jews have so much influence on so many superpowers round the world and we have unbelievable sovereignty, stronger than King David's.
So isn't it about time to remove the scaffolding and see the beauty of the structure? I am a human being. I belong to humanity. My middle name is 'I'm Jewish' and my given name is 'I'm Israeli'. I do not need a fourth definition unless this fourth, artificial definition is a tool to discriminate in Israel against some elements that are not necessarily Jewish, in a very inhuman way."
Shavit was also agitated by Burg's enthusiasm for the European Union, reinforced by his startling assertion that Israel "from my point of view is part of Europe". In particular Shavit highlighted Burg's French second passport (Burg's wife is French-born) and his "far-reaching" and "pre-Zionist" act in voting in last year's French presidential election. (Burg, who told Shavit that he had done so as a Jewish "citizen of the world" explained to me that he had voted for Ségolène Royal in protest at Sarkozy's 2005 condemnation of Paris's mainly Muslim banlieu residents after the 2005 riots as "scum".) Certainly Burg sees the EU as a potential lever for a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the parties cannot, in his view reach without external help and – here Burg is striking out, for an Israeli, in unusual territory – the prospect of belonging to something bigger than this perpetually fought-over land.
Fearing that the days of the conventionally envisaged two-state solution may be "numbered" Burg says both societies have been "abducted" by fundamentalist religious elements who believe in their competing versions of a single state.
"We are abducted by the settlers; they are abducted by Hamas. If Bibi Netanyahu comes back to power and Hamas stays in power there will be an awful clash between our one-state-solution vision and their one-state-solution vision.
None of these religious zealots really expresses the real will of the people and one of the only ways I know how to redeem the people from being hostage is to offer an alternative background."
Europe is a model, he says, because of its success, after centuries of war, in achieving peace and a "kind of biblical process of unification". Much more ambitiously, however, he argues that if the EU were to hold the prospect as it has, however ambivalently, to Turkey, in a decade's time or more, of actually admitting Israel and an infant Palestinian state to membership, this would itself be an irresistible incentive to reach an agreement. Experience suggests that Israel reacts to mere rhetorical demands to give by saying "But we've got gonish" – Burg uses the Yiddish word for nothing – in return. "Nobody buys it. But if you say that at the end of the process Israel will have borders to the East and openness to the West, Israel will say, you know what, that's a deal. The entire Europe for the West Bank? That's not bad." And, he adds, "just imagine what that would do for a Palestinian in the West Bank or in Gaza. His children might get the best education in France or Italy and then come back again. It's free. It's open. The minute you see a process beginning like this the killing will stop or will be reduced. The minute you don't have a vision, you don't have an outlet. Killing is the outlet."
Given Israel's strong tendency to be as suspicious of Europe as it is attached to its alliance with the US, isn't this too much to expect? Burg – who does not even rule out the EU also making similar offers to, say, Lebanon and Syria in return for a full panoply of democratic institutions and universal human rights – accepts that it is a "challenge". But Burg argues that whereas the US expects to "meld the previous identities of its members in an American oneness" the European model creates a "civil political entity" that preserves "all the previous identities of its various members". Which is better for the Jews, he asks? "Is it getting lost into the American melting pot or is it being a stone in the ongoing beautiful mosaic of Europe?"
To be fair, Burg is anything but starry-eyed about the EU's ability to play the much more important role in the Middle East he is clear he wants it to. "The problem is that in the past 60 years too many politicians in Europe owe their tranquillity to being guaranteed by American rifles," he says. "They won't jump in and assume responsibility." The international Quartet, in which the EU is supposed to be an equal partner with the US, is "not functioning".
He is scornful of the EMU inability to persuade the US to join in a determined new policy that would say: "We can't tolerate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East; we can't tolerate fundamentalism here; we cannot tolerate the suffering in Gaza, we cannot tolerate the road blocks, the settlements. But we say stop this and we offer you something in return. That's a new conversation."
The failure to achieve this so far especially rankles because "even with Obama in the White House, America is too far away to hear what's going on here. It doesn't hear the knocks on the door. Europe hears the knocks on the door. Europe sees the shadows passing under the window." For Burg's vision of an EU stretching out to the eastern Mediterranean – in its own interest – has a much bigger goal: dealing with the growing presence of Islam in its midst. Burg says ominously that far-right Europeans such as the late Jörg Haider , Jean Marie Le Pen, or the Swiss anti-immigration politician Christoph Blocher "have a solution. We've tried it a couple of times in the past. Let's do it again. They're nicer. They dress OK. They don't have a funny moustache but at the end of the day they have the formula.
The alternative, he argues, is the long-term development of a democratic, "European Islam". "What happened to Judaism when it encountered Christian democracy? What happened to Christianity that was so violent only a couple of centuries ago when it met and merged with democracy? It was changed. Now imagine in 50, 75, 100 years' time you have a European Islam [in which people are told] we respect you for respecting your roots and origins and traditions and rights. And we would love it if you internalised the value systems of our world as well – equality and liberties and so on. And now imagine this 100 million people, or 50 per cent of them, saying: you know what? This big devil is not so diabolic. All of a sudden from the Noah's Ark of Europe the harbinger sends a message: Islam and democracy can function together. And it's not one individual, it's the masses of European Islam, like European Jewry, like European Christianity."
For Burg this is impressively personal. As a representative of European Jewry that was "kicked out and expelled from Europe because of [its] otherness I have to give my utmost to prevent the late Mr Haider and other fascist semi-racists making the Muslims in Europe the new Jews." Which brings us back to the book. Utopian or not, his alternative vision for Israel, laid out with especial eloquence in the final chapter, is for it to become a beacon of liberty and racial tolerance, its humanistic values drawn on centuries of Jewish existence preceding the Holocaust and "with the acceptance of the other as an equal to be appreciated". Part of this process, he argues, is for Israel to replace the Holocaust as a memory exclusively for Jews and use it instead to become the vanguard of the "struggle against racism and violence against the persecuted" throughout the world. "There are two kinds of people coming out of Auschwitz," he told me. "Those who said never again for the Jews and those like me who say never again for any human beings."
Burg remains what he has always been: a vehement opponent of the post-1967 occupation.
One of the reasons for right-wing fury at the book was its repeated references to the misery it inflicts on the Palestinians
. But he says that while "until recently" he was sure that if that "primary reality" was solved "you solve everything", he now believes that "even the occupation is the outcome of something earlier and this is the mentality of trauma, be it 2,000 years of trauma or the intensifying of it in the six years of the Second World War. In order to solve these traumas I have to address my fears, my ghosts, my genies. And that's what I'm trying to do here." He says he wrote the book partly because "Israel became a very efficient kingdom with no prophecy. You don't have real political thinking here. You have academia living in their ivory towers or politics that has no brain whatever. What I tried to offer is some alternative political thinking."
What has most encouraged him about the book's reception is its impact on younger Israelis, groups of whom he is still invited to address 18 months after its publication. "All those who wanted to kill me are Labour centrists, 50-plus, secular, well-off economically, and they said, 'Well Avraham now that we've made it, you come with your stupid questions. Stop it immediately.' I lost many of my classical supporters in the centre. On the other hand I gained very interesting new ground among the younger generation who understand that something is not working in this kingdom
So would the politician-turned-prophet, who was once the great Prime Ministerial hope of the Israeli left, turn back to politician again? Burg, who at 53 is currently a partner in running a labour-intensive agriculture business, acknowledges there is pressure – "I won't say a lot, but some" – to do so. He is, he says, no longer "obsessed" by the idea as he once was. But "if the situation happens, maybe I'll say yes." What's more important, he insists, is that "if people today ask me, Avrum, why don't you come back to politics, for me it's a huge, encouraging statement that the day will come when my views might be represented in the Knesset, that someone who was only a year ago the national pariah is perceived as an alternative to so many problems here. That's amazing."
'The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes' is published by Palgrave Macmillan. To buy this book at a special price (with free p&p) call 08700 798 897
. is it a wise man, who knows that he is not wise
. it's good to have cynicism but not be cynical
. the more truth you live with, in your life, the stronger you are
. intelligence is merely an attitude to knowledge and learning