Avraham Burg’s latest book details his ideological transformation from Jewish Agency chairman to a crusader against a Jewish state.
(Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine.)
Avraham “Avrum” Burg’s life has the makings of a great memoir.
He is the son of Yosef Burg, a founder of the National Religious Party who served in Israel’s first 11 Knessets and was a minister for 35 years.
The younger Burg chose a different political path, starting in Peace Now and protesting against the First Lebanon War, before joining the Alignment (which later became Labor) in the Knesset in 1988, at age 33.
He became chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization and fought to recover Jewish property lost in the Holocaust.
Then, he was Speaker of the Knesset.
If you see The Coming Days in a bookstore, you may be inclined to believe it is the memoir of someone who spent half of his life in the Israeli public eye, recounting the historic events in which he and his family were involved.
The Coming Days is a memoir of thoughts, not of events. It’s about how Burg went from a religious-Zionist childhood to a mostly mainstream- Left young adulthood and into a radical middle age – though he claims Israel changed more than his opinions did.
The things that happened to him while he made that transformation in his head are sort of an afterthought; few of them seem to interest him, and the reader is left wanting more, especially about his years in the Knesset and Jewish Agency. But Burg sees his political career as an obstacle that required him to be relatively agreeable and prevented him from finding what he thinks is the truth.
As he left the Knesset, he rejected Zionism. He does not think Israel should be a Jewish state, he called on Israelis to obtain foreign citizenship, and he thinks the Law of Return should be canceled and European Jews should stay where they are.
He wrote a book accusing Israel of being obsessed with the Holocaust and following in the Nazis’ fascist and violent ways.
Then, in his latest book, he wrote that he was surprised at how angry Israelis’ reactions were! All of these ideas are enough to infuriate anyone to the right of Hadash, the semi-communist Jewish-Arab party that’s part of the Joint List, which Burg joined in January.
Burg also writes extensively about religion.
He wears a kippa but doesn’t seem to do or believe in anything usually associated with people who wear one, and he has utter contempt for anyone Orthodox, including his late father (though his respect and love for his father somewhat tempers the scorn for everything the man stood for), and for the religious communities in Israel. Essentially, he thinks Judaism is more a culture than anything else, and that most Israelis don’t really understand what Judaism is.
The problem with Burg’s book – and perhaps with Burg himself – isn’t his radical politics or his opposition to organized religion. Hearing or reading someone whose views are outside the mainstream or different from your own isn’t a bad thing; it gets your brain working to defend your views or teaches you something new that can make you change them. No, the problem is Burg’s attitude.
The best word to describe Burg, in his writing and in person, is smug. He thinks he’s better than Israel. He thinks he’s better than Israelis. He thinks he’s better than religious Jews. He thinks he’s better than Diaspora Jews who support Israel, with the exception, perhaps, of the New Israel Fund, on whose leadership he lavishes praise.
Burg thinks he’s cracked the code, he’s found enlightenment, and while he claims to want to help Israel, the entire book reeks of condescension and is patronizing toward anyone who isn’t, essentially, post-Zionist, post-nationalist, postmodern, and post-religion.
One can have ideas for change, even radical ones, without giving the impression that one thinks that any reader who disagrees is a clueless philistine – but that someone is not Burg.
FOR A former Jewish Agency chairman, Burg has little regard or concern for Jewish continuity.
In fact, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last month, he compared people whose definition of Judaism is having a Jewish mother – or any Jewish lineage – to Nazis.
“Seventy years ago, people wanted to kill me because of genetics, and I’m not there. My world is not defined by genetics. The pope is closer to me than the current chief rabbi. Not that close, but I prefer him over Jewish fundamentalists,” he said.
Burg professed in his book and in the interview that he does not care if his children marry fellow Jews or not, as long as they marry good people.
“Jewish values are universal values that I express with my Jewish tools. A Christian expresses them with Christian tools, a Buddhist with Buddhist tools,” he said. “Ethnicity does nothing for me.”
Burg pointed to the section in his book in which he said the only common denominator between Jewish people is that they all disagree, and told the old joke about a Jew stuck on a desert island who built two synagogues, the one he goes to and the one in which he would never set foot.
“There’s no mathematical equation for what it means to be a Jew…. Our understanding of God isn’t the same, our foods aren’t the same, the dress isn’t the same. Moses didn’t go up Mount Sinai in a shtreimel; it was too hot…. What was passed on is text and argument.
“The next generation will make its choices,” he said of continuity. “If [Jewish people from] seven generations back could see us, they would faint. We don’t have an eye for an eye and we don’t stone women for having extramarital relations. That’s the beauty. Every generation makes its own choices.”
As for Israel, Burg said Israelis are trapped in a framework of constricting labels that he wants to break apart.
“Living in Israel, from age zero, everyone is labeled a certain way. Everyone labels everyone. The result of that is that you don’t need to think. If you’re like this, then your attitude is like this. I want people to leave me alone with all of these Israeli characteristics. I want to be in a few places. I want to challenge you, your religion, your nationality, your historical understanding,” he said.
“I cannot live in a label.”
Burg said his book is meant to criticize the dominant institutions in Israel – Ashkenazim and religion – and call to build new ones. Though he admits to not having a solid concept of what the new institutions should be, he says that religiously, they should be less European – “less religious, more traditional” – and civically they should be more European – “freedom, equality, secularization of the public sphere.”
“Whatever is new still has to be part of the West, as far as I’m concerned….The existing institutions have to be replaced, and the only way to do that is with Western freedom,” he said, calling on Israel to adopt the values of Germany and Austria, which are letting in refugees from the Middle East.
When asked whether he’s idealizing Europe in making it his model for Israel, Burg’s response is: “No, but good things are happening there, and we have bad things here and I want to fix them.”
He doesn’t care if Israel is the Jewish state or not, saying “nationality is a 200-year-old concept that I am not committed to.
“This state exists as long as Jews decide to live here. Israel is a democracy that belongs to all its citizens, in which the Jewish people decided to renew its sovereignty. If Jews leave, then it’ll be different….The Israeli nation is the Israeli nation, and within it there is the ethnic Jewish group and the Arab group, but I don’t want an ethnic state.”
As such, part of Burg’s ideal for Israel is to repeal the Law of Return, which he says is good in intention but not in practice, in that it does not reflect the reality for Jews in most of the world, who he says can safely and comfortably live as Jews. He thinks Israel should have a general immigration policy in which anyone who lives in Israel for several years, learns Hebrew, contributes to society and passes a test can stay. Immediate citizenship would be granted only to people facing an immediate anti-Semitic threat.
Burg also seeks to encourage greater coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
“When I was elected to the Knesset in ’88, we lamented that only three to five of Labor’s seats come from Arabs. Jewish-Arab cooperation was natural. We had a shared space. Today, if you’re a politician who works with Arabs, you’re poisoning the well, stabbing the back of the nation. You’re Avrum Burg!” he said.
“If there was a Jewish community in Belgium or New Jersey that was 20 percent of the general population and the attitudes toward them were like Israeli Jews to Arabs, do you know what the ADL or AIPAC or Bibi would say? They’d start a war against New Jersey!” As for how Israel should solve the conflict with the Palestinians, Burg accused people of trying to “solve the problems of 1967 so we don’t have to deal with 1948 – the Nakba and refugees. 1967 was a gift not only for the Right but also for the Left, which doesn’t have to deal with where its kibbutzim were built.”
According to Burg, Zionism ignores that the Palestinians exist – he cited Golda Meir saying there’s no such thing as a Palestinian nation and current politicians saying there’s no partner for peace – and is a unilateral ideology.
“Bilateral is complicated. It requires making space, relinquishing privileges.
Who wants that?… The result is after 150 years of conflict, people always suggest solutions that use the same ingredients that created the problem. A bigger wall, taking away more rights, kicking out more people, building new settlements. We’ve been doing this a long time and haven’t moved forward much. I think we need to think about this space differently,” he stated.
Creating two states would attempt to “fix the injustices of the past by creating new injustices.”
Instead, Burg called for a confederation, in which everyone between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would have equal rights, share the land and eventually build a shared society.
His solution is a long-term one that he says could take a century to be implemented.
“We try to forget [the Palestinians], but we are constantly reminded. We have a split personality as to how we relate to the region, so we don’t know what our policy is. We should just recognize that there are Palestinians and start a joint society. There are models for that in the world,” he said.
Unlike his plan, Israeli politicians propose “shallow solutions” and “simple arrangements,” Burg said.
He thinks he has the answers for Israel’s future, whereas its current politicians are “prisoners of Zion,” meaning of the Zionist mainstream.
Israeli politicians don’t know how to write, he said, and Israelis “prefer politicians who are dumb and don’t think.”
When asked why he still lives in Israel if he seems to have contempt for everyone here and has a French passport that would allow him to go anywhere in the EU, he said, “None of your business” but proceeded to answer anyway.
“That question assumes two things I want to challenge. First of all, I want to challenge the assumption that there is room only for people with one opinion. Second, people don’t understand that I am struggling for this place to be different. I’m presenting an alternative.
“This place is mine as much as it is yours. I have criticism and I am presenting an alternative. The easy way out is for people to tell me to leave. I don’t want to make people’s lives easy,” he said.
“In the end, my opinions will win,” Burg added with total confidence, “whether in my lifetime or later.”