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Avraham Burg: the Prophet-Poet of Judaism

compiled by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry

Avraham "Avrum" Burg is chairman of Molad—The Center for Renewal of Democracy—and formerly Speaker of the Israeli Knesset. He is also an author who writes―sometimes prophetically, often poetically, always humanely―about Judaism, Zionism and Israel.

We are incapable of understanding the suffering of a society, its cry, and the future of an entire nation that has been kidnapped by us.—Avraham Burg, speaking of the Palestinian Nakba ("Catastrophe"), which began in 1948 with the methodic destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the home demolitions that continue to this day

Burg comes from a blue-chip conservative Zionist family: his father was a founder of Mafdal (Israel’s National Religious Party) and a member of David Ben-Gurion's cabinet. Burg gained "almost instant notoriety" in 1982, when he became "the star of a movement" by leading a soldiers’ protest against the first Lebanon War. He was also active in Peace Now, surviving a grenade attack that killed another peace activist. After having been elected to the Knesset (Israel's Parliament) in 1988, Burg's meteoric ascent left him just a few votes short of winning the leadership of the Labor Party in 2001. During his political career, he served as chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, and as Speaker of the Knesset. He was interim President of Israel for twenty days after the resignation of Ezer Weizmann in July, 2000.

Burg came to be seen as the "enfant terrible" of Israeli politics for having described Israel as being Holocaust-obsessed, "perpetually frightened," militaristic, xenophobic, and, like pre-WWII Germany, "vulnerable to an extremist minority."

Excerpts from the article "The Apostate" by David Remnick in The New Yorker:

In “Defeating Hitler,” Burg writes that one of the most dispiriting aspects of Israeli political conversation is the constant reference point of the slaughter of six million Jews in the nineteen-forties. “The most optimistic years in the state of Israel were 1945 to 1948,” he said to me. “The farther we got from the camps and the gas chambers, the more pessimistic we became and the more untrusting we became toward the world. It was a shock to me. Didn’t we, the politicians, feed the public? Didn’t we cheapen the sanctity of the Holocaust by using it about everything? Some people say, ‘Occupation? You call this occupation? This is nothing compared to the absolute evil of the Holocaust!’ And if it is nothing compared to the Holocaust then you can continue. And since nothing, thank God, is comparable to the ultimate trauma it legitimatizes many things.” Burg said that contemporary Israelis “are not at the stage to be sensitive enough to what happens to others and in many ways are too indifferent to the suffering of others. We confiscated, we monopolized, world suffering. We did not allow anybody else to call whatever suffering they have ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide,’ be it Armenians, be it Kosovo, be it Darfur.

Israel needs dramatic decisions, like de Gaulle giving up Algeria.

The longer Israel waits to resolve the Palestinian question, Burg said, the more intractable the problem becomes and the more deeply it scars the psyches of both sides. In towns near Gaza, like Sderot, the political outcry is not for peace talks but for military action. Among some right-wing Israeli politicians, there is open talk of schemes to “transfer” Palestinians to Jordan or other neighboring Arab countries, and this alarms Burg: “You hear the conversation in the Knesset, you hear it in the public, you see the graffiti ‘Arabs out’—like Juden raus ("Jews out"). I don’t care all that much about the right-wing hoodlum who writes the graffiti so much as I do the municipalities that don’t erase it. The seeds of national chauvinism are here and flourishing."

Excerpts from an article published in Yedioth Ahronoth:

The Zionist revolution has always rested on two pillars: a just path and an ethical leadership. Neither of these is operative any longer. The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice.

There is time to change course, but not much. What is needed is a new vision of a just society and the political will to implement it. Diaspora Jews for whom Israel is a central pillar of their identity must pay heed and speak out.

The opposition does not exist, and the coalition ... claims the right to remain silent. In a nation of chatterboxes, everyone has suddenly fallen dumb, because there's nothing left to say.

We live in a thunderously failed reality.

Yes, we have revived the Hebrew language, created a marvellous theatre and a strong national currency. Our Jewish minds are as sharp as ever. We are traded on the Nasdaq. But is this why we created a state? The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or anti-missile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed.

It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their parents' shock, that they do not know.

It is very comfortable to be a Zionist in West Bank settlements such as Beit El and Ofra. The biblical landscape is charming. You can gaze through the geraniums and bougainvilleas and not see the occupation. Travelling on the fast highway that skirts barely a half-mile west of the Palestinian roadblocks, it's hard to comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab who must creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him. One road for the occupier, one road for the occupied. [Israel has created "Jewish only" roads deep inside the Occupied Territories, in violation of international law and human decency. What sort of "democracy" tells completely innocent women and children that they are not "good enough" to drive on the same roads as their genetic superiors?]

This cannot work. Even if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger forever, it won't work. A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself. Note this moment well: Zionism's superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall. Only madmen continue dancing on the top floor while the pillars below are collapsing. [A recent issue of TIME Magazine featured a cover with the Star of David and the caption: "Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace." It seems many Israeli Jews are indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians and to peace, or the lack of it.]

We have grown accustomed to ignoring the suffering of the women at the roadblocks. No wonder we don't hear the cries of the abused woman living next door or the single mother struggling to support her children in dignity. [White plantation owners were once shockingly indifferent to the suffering of the women and children living in their slave hovels. It took the concerted action of multitudes of  abolitionists to wake them from their dreams of "superiority." Can Israel's day of reckoning be far off, if it chooses to ignore the self-evident humanity of Palestinian women and children?]

Israel, 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. They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites, because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated. We could kill a thousand ringleaders a day and nothing will be solved, because the leaders come up from below—from the wells of hatred and anger, from the "infrastructures" of injustice and moral corruption.

If all this were inevitable, divinely ordained and immutable, I would be silent. But things could be different, and so crying out is a moral imperative.

Here is what the prime minister should say to the people: the time for illusions is over. The time for decisions has arrived. We love the entire land of our forefathers and in some other time we would have wanted to live here alone. But that will not happen. The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.

Between the Jordan and the Mediterranean there is no longer a clear Jewish majority. And so, fellow citizens, it is not possible to keep the whole thing without paying a price. We cannot keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East. There cannot be democracy without equal rights for all who live here, Arab as well as Jew. We cannot keep the territories and preserve a Jewish majority in the world's only Jewish state—not by means that are humane and moral and Jewish. [It is ironic that a Jewish state can only be maintained by defying the moral imperatives of compassion and social justice given to the world by the Hebrew prophets, Jesus Christ and the apostles.]

Do you want the greater land of Israel? No problem. Abandon democracy. Let's institute an efficient system of racial separation here, with prison camps and detention villages. [A Jewish state not only requires the abandonment of the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, but also of the equality of all human beings espoused by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, among others.]

Do you want a Jewish majority? No problem. Either put the Arabs on railway cars, buses, camels and donkeys and expel them en masse—or separate ourselves from them absolutely, without tricks and gimmicks. There is no middle path. We must remove all the settlements—all of them—and draw an internationally recognised border between the Jewish national home and the Palestinian national home. The Jewish law of return will apply only within our national home, and their right of return will apply only within the borders of the Palestinian state.

Do you want democracy? No problem. Either abandon the greater land of Israel, to the last settlement and outpost, or give full citizenship and voting rights to everyone, including Arabs. The result, of course, will be that those who did not want a Palestinian state alongside us will have one in our midst, via the ballot box.

The prime minister should present the choices forthrightly: Jewish racism or democracy. Settlements, or hope for both peoples. False visions of barbed wire and suicide bombers, or a recognised international border between two states and a shared capital in Jerusalem.

Why, then, is the opposition so quiet? Perhaps because some would like to join the government at any price, even the price of participating in the sickness. But while they dither, the forces of good lose hope. Anyone who declines to present a clear-cut position—black or white—is collaborating in the decline. It is not a matter of Labour versus Likud or right versus left, but of right versus wrong, acceptable versus unacceptable. The law-abiding versus the lawbreakers. What's needed is not a political replacement for the Sharon government but a vision of hope, an alternative to the destruction of Zionism and its values by the deaf, dumb and callous.

Israel's friends abroad—Jewish and non-Jewish alike, presidents and prime ministers, rabbis and lay people—should choose as well. They must reach out and help Israel to navigate the road map toward our national destiny as a light unto the nations and a society of peace, justice and equality. [All the free world knows that racial injustice is wrong: dead wrong. But a hypocritical consortium of Jewish and Christians fundamentalists still clings to the bizarre, misbegotten idea that "God" somehow favors "the Chosen Few" and therefore the human rights of Palestinians can be safely and conveniently ignored. But there is nothing "safe" about depending on God to destroy one's enemies, and there is no reason to create human enemies for the sake of the God who is either unable or unwilling to speak personally to modern human beings. Why does the Bible command and condone racism, slavery, infanticide, matricide, ethnic cleansing, genocide, intolerance, sexism, homophobia, the murder of girls for the "crime" of being raped, and other litanies of horrors? Obviously, either God is a barbarian or the men who wrote the Bible were. Your guess is as good as mine. But why not give up the pretense of knowing how an all-wise, all-just, all-loving God could produce such a horrific book, and do what we have to do, in order to live together in peace today?]

Excerpts from Burg's book The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes and comments thereon:

While Burg is highly critical of Israel, particularly of its obsessive fixation on the horrors of the Jewish Shoah (Hebrew for "Catastrophe") which it uses to excuse the horrors of the Palestinian Nakba (Arabic for "Catastrophe"), he has written a book about human beings everywhere who may be "haunted by trauma" but who are also "brothers seeking trust." Despite having struggled with trust himself, he now believes in the "good that can and will come."

He began writing his book in a mood of dark pessimism, intending to title it Hitler Won. But as he wrote he began to see the shape of a Phoenix rising from defeat: "Cautious optimism was born from the ashes and smoke." He changed the book's Hebrew title to Defeating Hitler, saying, "We must win ... We will get there."

Burg explains that he made other Jews angry because he had "placed harsh truths and mirrors before the face of Israel." But he does not mean to harm anyone, saying, "If I hurt anyone, I apologize. If the truth hurts, I too suffer." He asks rhetorically if he should "pack away" his new-found optimism, faith and hope and replace them with "classic Jewish paranoia." Of course not!

He writes evocatively and with flashes of good humor, as when he mentions seeing the philosopher Martin Buber pacing up and down the street of his childhood and thinking that "all streets had Martin Bubers of their own."

He grew up in a family that did not shy away from the truth. When the Israeli Air Force bombed Gaza and Lebanon, his mother said she was glad her grandson was not a combat pilot because "Would I want my grandson to drop bombs on innocent people?"

Burg points out that "world superpowers, most of the Christian churches, and a significant part of world citizenry vowed sixty years ago 'never again,' and this time they meant it," therefore Jews are no longer facing a "great menacing enemy" alone. He says, "This is a world that I trust."

But he points out that many Jews still "cling to the tragedy" of the "ever-present" Shoah, which is "more present in our lives than God." Thus a tragedy long over becomes their "justification for everything." The present horrors they inflict on Palestinians then produce a reality that is a self-fulfilling nightmare: they cannot escape the shadow of a catastrophe, but it is a catastrophe of their own creation, the Nakba.

He speaks of the need for Israel to free itself from its "Auschwitz past."

He points out that Israel has the Yad Vashem Shoah museum: a "memorial to all the victims." But only to the Jewish victims. Palestinians are conspicuously absent from the equations of suffering. Jewish mourners are whisked off in luxurious limos to hear the "awe-filled God Full of Mercy prayer for the dead." But of course the victims of the Nakba lie unmentioned in paupers' graves. "Three steps backward and everyone [hops] back in the limos, off to the real business of politics and diplomacy." But of course the politics and diplomacy center around keeping the Palestinian majority from ever returning to claim the land stolen from them, while maintaining the pretense of "democracy" for the sake of an increasingly disbelieving world.

Burg hates the hypocrisy, saying "Israel's security policy, fears and paranoia, and feelings of guilt" are all "products of the Shoah." Elsewhere he and others call it an industry: an industry that uses propaganda-induced guilt to manufacture injustice. The horrors of the Shoah are long over, and who left living had anything to do with its creation? Why not let the victims and the perpetrators rest in peace, and get on with the task of living together in a humane, just peace?

Burg recognizes the alienation Israel's policies create, even with its allies: "Our way of life is combative, against friends and foes alike. One might say that Israel only understands force ... In the end we did what the rest of the world's bullies do: we turned an aberration into a doctrine, and now we understand only the language of force."

The language of democracy is diplomacy. But the language of Hitler, of fascism, is brute force. But brutes always try to justify their brutality, and so we can identify them by their hypocrisy. We can see the hypocrisy when Israel denounces any slights against Jewish professors, while little Palestinian schoolgirls are treated like pariahs by Jewish settlers and the Israeli military. Why has Israel adopted the tactics of the KKK? Why do so many Jews speak with forked tongues, calling Israel a "democracy" and a "Jewish state" in the same breath? How would black Americans (or American Jews) feel if they were forced to pledge allegiance to a "white Christian state"? Should any human being pledge allegiance to a "white Christian state" or an "Aryan superman state" or a "we are the Chosen Few Jewish state"?

Burg relates a story about his father going to bed mumbling "Das ist unmoglich! (This is impossible!)" when he saw evidence of racism in Israel. Once, the Nazis had stamped Jude on his passport, as a racial slur. But if what the Nazis did to him was wrong, how can it be right for Jews to practice racism? Hitler "melted us into one entity." But what have Jews done to Palestinians?

Burg points out that Jews seek win-win scenarios abroad, yet in Israel they seek dominance. Other Jewish writers have pointed out that when Israeli Jews go to other countries they instantly become fervent believers in equality for minorities, but when they re-enter Israel they instantly become believers in the "divine right" of Jews to rule over non-Jews. The hypocrisy is palpable and threatens to alienate Israel from the free world.

Burg recognizes the "schism" between these two incompatible "languages": (1) democracy when Jews live abroad but (2) oligarchy when they live in Israel. Rather than playing fair, Israel engages in blatant hypocrisy then complains that "the entire world is against us." But the free world is mostly just opposing what it opposed in the attitude and tactics of Hitler's Germany. If the free world does what Jews insist, and says "never again" to the domination of the minority by the "Chosen Few," then of course it must oppose the policies of Israel.

He points out that Jews are safest in the United States and least safe in Israel. He attributes this dilemma to Israel's anti-democratic policies and actions, which fuel the "rise in hatred of Jews."

He sees the Shoah as a heavy pillar that "defines modern Jewish identity" and is "to everyone" a "present, tangible experience wherever we go."

He argues strongly against Israel's brutal treatment of Palestinians, saying the "Zionist idea" was a "heroic attempt to establish a model society" based on the principle: "What is hateful for thee, do not do unto thy fellow."

He says, "My hopes are for a new humanism, a rejuvenated Judaism" and that "I strive toward a Jewish people who say 'Never again' not just for us Jews, but for every suffering victim in the world today ..."

He criticizes the fundamentalists on the "Israeli right" who have nothing to offer but "sword and messiah" [making them mirror images of Christian fundamentalists in the United States, who eagerly await the return of Jesus Christ and the bloodbath of Armageddon].

Burg also criticizes the "manipulations of an Israeli lobby that encourages dual loyalties" among American Jews who are caught between American ideals of equality and support of a "Jewish state" that is by definition racist and anti-democratic.

He calls for Israel to leave the “mental prison” of Auschwitz, saying that by finding the solution to the "current Israeli frustration" the Jews "will truly defeat Hitler."

Burg calls Israel's use—or abuse—of the Holocaust "a theological pillar of Jewish identity" which has left Israel with a self-image of a "nation of victims." He says Israel needs to abandon the "Judaism of the ghetto" for a humanistic, "universal Judaism."

He says, "We have pulled the Shoah out of its historical context 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 [therefore] you will not tell us how to behave."

He says Israeli Jews have replaced Nazis with Arabs as the collective enemy: “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.”

He describes Israel's "retreat from independence to the inner depths of exile, its memories and horrors," due to its obsession with the Shoah, "the major generator that feeds the mentalities of confrontation and catastrophic Zionism." Burg maintains that fears of a long-past Holocaust have transformed Israel into a paranoid society in a state of "perpetual hysteria" where "war has become the rule rather than the exception."

Israel reminds Burg of Weimar Germany, and he accuses "Israel and its ways" of contributing to the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism. He says the only hope of Israel is to free itself of the Shoah mentality, and stop emulating the tactics of its worst enemy: Hitler.

Burg says, "... what I criticise in the Eichmann trial and the entire Shoah industry is the contempt, the cheapening attitude of the public system; everything is Shoah. It legitimizes everything, it explains everything, it is used by everybody. Because the "Holocaustic language is so common, so well understood," says Burg, the reflex attitude is: "Why not use it?"

For instance, when 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 privatized, so to say. All of these people who exploit it, violate the sacred memory of the individual [victims] and the collective."

For instance, during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Menachem Begin described Yassar Arafat as a “two-legged beast,” the same term he had used to describe Hitler. Begin said Israel had no choice but to fight because the alternative was Treblinka. He likened the PLO National Charter to Mein Kampf, prompting Amos Oz to point out the danger of recreating Hitler in order to kill him again and again. Benjamin Netanyahu called Hamas a new tzorer (enemy, afflicter, persecutor), a term used to describe Hitler. Burg deplores such obvious attempts to reincarnate “the Nazi spirit into the Arab body.”

According to Burg, Israel has tried to claim exclusive possession of the Holocaust rather than seeing it a universal light; thus Israel has embraced self-imposed isolation and perpetual victimhood.

He discusses the lack of "any alternative, civilian school of thought" in Israel as paralleling Bismarck's Germany. He also mentions the exclusion of Palestinians from Israel's army as being like the exclusion of Jews from the German Army. Burg warns of "the long incubation period that preceded Nazism and that gave rise to a public mindset that enabled the Nazis to take power."

Burg reminds his readers of his "teacher and mentor," Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who prophesied after the Six Day War that the "inclusion of one and a half million Arabs within Jewish jurisdiction means undermining the Jewish and human essence of the state" resulting in "a state that is not worthy of being and will not be worth to let exist."

Burg compares Israel to pre-Nazi Germany in its denial of "ominous stirrings" emanating from the extreme right.

He describes Israel's national development as being like the "pathological circle of the abused child becoming a violent parent".

He describes the West Bank and the Golan Heights as an "Israeli Anschluss."

Burg says both Jews and Muslims have been "abducted" by fundamentalists: "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."

He calls Europe is a "model" because after centuries of war it achieved peace and a "kind of biblical process of unification."

Burg says that while the US melds "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, he asks, for the Jews: "getting lost [in] the American melting pot or ... being a stone in the ongoing beautiful mosaic of Europe?"

He suggests a new conversation: "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."

Burg discusses the 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 internalized 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."

As a Jew who 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 [from] making the Muslims in Europe the new Jews."

Burg demands a humanistic Judaism "with the acceptance of the other as an equal to be appreciated."

He says, "There are two kinds of people coming out of Auschwitz: those who said 'never again' [only] for the Jews and those like me who say 'never again' for [all] human beings."

Let us all say "never again"
to the Shoah and Nakba!

The HyperTexts