One on One: Utopian or contrarian?

Avraham Burg on why he thinks "we must rise from Holocaust's ashes."

Avraham Burg 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avraham Burg 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"Don't take this personally," Avraham ("Avrum") Burg says, with a mischievous glint in his eye and slight smirk on his face. "But what you just asked constitutes demagoguery." I do not retort that such a response to any question - let alone one about the phenomenon of draft-dodging - might be indicative of projection on his part (particularly since Burg, 53, not only served as an officer in a combat unit, but has six children who followed suit). Instead, I suggest that our interview might be awfully boring if I were to fawn over his every word. "No," he laughs - something he does frequently and heartily throughout our nearly two-hour exchange. "That would be simply wonderful." Perhaps. But, judging by his characteristically controversial positions in general, and those spelled out in his latest book in particular, the former Peace Now activist, Knesset member, Jewish Agency chairman and Knesset Speaker is clearly anything but interested in currying favor - neither with his adversaries, nor even, it seems, with his allies. "I love polemics and debate," he asserts, pointing to his regular get-togethers with his close friend, world-famous Israeli author David Grossman - for the purpose of duking it out intellectually and philosophically. The apple, in other words, hasn't fallen far from the talmudic tree - though Burg insists that his parents "were a million miles ahead of me. Not always able to express it, not always practicing it accordingly, but their raison d'etre was very pluralistic, humanistic and open. They were born into a reality in which they saw other world orders. My father used to say: 'I'm 400 percent a human being: 100% Ostjude [a Jew of Russian or Polish-Russian descent who grew up in Germany], 100% yekke [German Jew], 100% renaissance man and 100% Israeli.' He always changed the components, but he was never 25% of one thing or another. He was always 100% out of 400%. I, on the other hand, was born into only one reality." It's a reality that Burg - who lives in the community of Nataf, on the outskirts of Jerusalem - has spent the better part of his life battling, both within the system and after resigning from public life in 2004. Because of his particular political pedigree as the son of the renowned Josef Burg - the longest-serving cabinet minister in the country's history, and chairman of the National Religious Party - Avrum has always been viewed with as much amazement as suspicion. Referring to him as a "post-Zionist" at best and an "anti-Zionist" at worst (attributing suicide-bombings to Israeli occupation will do that), the mainstream public and media, particularly in recent years, have wondered: What in the world would his father have said? Well, Burg answers this question, both here and in the foreword to The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise from Its Ashes, the English version of his 2007 book, to be released by Palgrave Macmillan in November. "The only fundamental disagreement he and I had was not about the West Bank," Burg recounts lovingly. "He thought it was lunacy, as I did. He was too weak to oppose the Young Turks of his party, who took over in the '70s and '80s. The only thing that divided us was the issue of the separation of church and state. My father believed, until his very last breath, that the State of Israel was our redemption. It had a kind of messianic dimension to it. About all the rest of it, he and I were in the same place, peace-wise and everything." Ditto with regard to his children. "We argue about style and tactics, but not about substance," he says. Reading your book, I was struck by the seeming similarity between your worldview and John Lennon's "Imagine." Isn't there something a bit naive in taking a universalist - as opposed to particularist - position in relation to the Jewish state? John Lennon is on too high of a level for me. [He laughs, and begins singing the song.] So, as much as I loved him, let's bring the discussion down a notch. Naive, you ask? Yes, it is. Indeed, in many dimensions of my life, I'm a utopian. After having spent so many years in politics - the industry of cynicism - where everything is practical, tachles, bottom line - I now say, "Slow down." There is something deeper in being a human being. There is something deeper in being a Jew. And there is something deeper in being an Israeli. Therefore, I am trying to reintroduce a kind of vision, a kind of utopia, a kind of prophecy. This is actually the reason I ejected myself from politics, in spite of being high up and moving higher. I left, because I had the feeling that Israel had become a very efficient kingdom with no prophecy. Being a Jew with no prophecy in the Jewish collective is wrong. And prophecy has something to do with naivete. Isn't it possible that the ailments you describe are a result of Israel's very young age? And perhaps the "bottom-line" mentality is more an issue of "sabra style" than content? Israel is a fantastic phenomenon. On the one hand, we have all the maladies of old age and on the other, we have all the maladies of adolescence. We are both young and old, and haven't yet managed to make the best synthesis. As for style, I think it represents something else. One of the keys to understanding how the Jews survived throughout the ages is that we simply screwed the system. The system never trusted us and, in return, we never trusted it - never fully merged into it. We always survived by going around it somehow. Today, even when the system is ours, we still try to circumvent it. We have not yet fully internalized that it is ours. When it's not yours, everything is here and now. When it's yours, you need to understand that if you cause damage today, somebody - maybe you, maybe your offspring - is going to pay for it tomorrow. A lack of such understanding is at the root of the bottom-line mentality, as it is at the root of the sense that everything is temporary. And the sense that everything is temporary means not feeling that one has to fight for the betterment of the system, nor suffer consequences for its deterioration. Then, when things don't go well, many people say, "Well, so we'll go somewhere else." This is why we are seeing fewer and fewer people struggling for the state and society, and more and more people deserting it. First of all, you say that we haven't yet internalized that the state is ours. Given that the state is only 60 - and not that many years have passed since the end of World War II - why do you think it's about time we put the Holocaust behind us? Secondly, why does it matter to you if people leave this country? Judging by your writing, in which you explain why we are all part of a broader human race, why do you care whether Jews live here or any other place in the world? Let's take this 200 years down the road, when the trauma is far away, and there are no more living witnesses. Imagine a Jewish generation with no guilt feelings. I'd pay to live in such a generation [he laughs]. Imagine that we have peace in the Middle East. Here, I'm not being a utopian. I believe that peace, practically speaking, is closer than anyone realizes. Okay, so here we are 200 years down the road, and we have had peace for 100 years. Don't tell me that's impossible, because if I had told you 200 years ago that by today the Jewish people would have a sovereign state, the most powerful Jewish Diaspora in the United States, and the overwhelming majority of the Jews living in the democratic hemisphere - you would have told me that's impossible. The question of this future generation will not be about pogroms and anti-Semitism. Rather, it will be about whether the Jewish people can survive without an external enemy. Give us war, pogroms, disaster, we know what to do. Give us peace, tranquility, prosperity, equality, emancipation and we're lost. My argument, therefore, is that all the old paradigms of aliya, the word for ascending, and yerida, the word for descending - are wrong. In fact, for me, Jerusalem and Babylon are no longer geographical places. They are states of mind. The Jewish people has had, and should have, two hemispheres. One is very singular, private, intimate, particularist; and the other is universalist, open to the rest of the world's cultures and civilizations. We need them both. For me, Jerusalem is the symbolic expression of the isolationist Jew, while Babylon is that of the universalist Jew. In other words, you can be a Jerusalemite in Monsey, and you can be a Babylonian in Tel Aviv. It's about your attitude. The question is: Are you ghettoizing yourself, even when you do not have a real enemy doing it to you, or are you opening yourself up to the experiences of other cultures and enriching them and being enriched by them? So, when you ask why it matters if someone leaves Israel, I say that it is not about "descending." It's an exchange program. Some go; some come; some stay here; some stay there. It's all about enrichment, which is fine with me. As for the Holocaust being too recent for us to get past it: I admit that this book is before its time, especially in a society that has turned the Holocaust into a national religion or ritual. This is actually a book for my children and my children's children. These are formative days that are shaping the nation's behavior. What I oppose are the national efforts to clone the trauma - to take the kids to the camps in Poland when they're 16-17, before they begin their military service, at the age when their blood is boiling. This is not only a cheap manipulation, it is the wrong way to shape the next generation's experience. Take me when I'm 25 or 30. Give me a voucher for a trip when I'm a more mature person. Don't send me off to the military barracks right from the streets around Auschwitz. You seem to be talking about the Holocaust and its aftermath the way many people on the Left talk about the Six Day War and its aftermath - as though there were no Jewish history preceding the event. As an Orthodox Jew well-versed in the Bible, do you not see similarities between stories in the Five Books of Moses and today's newspapers? It's impossible to cover everything in one book, and this one is a zoom-in on a particular thing. Of course, there is a larger context. But let me give your hype a little structure. You call me an Orthodox Jew. I'm not. I don't believe in orthodoxy in any sense of the term. In fact, whenever someone asks me whether I'm Orthodox or Conservative or whatever, first of all I say, "It's none of your bloody business" - with humor, of course - and then I say, "Listen, this is such a private affair. Who are you to invade my intimacy with the transcendental?" And when I'm nice, I describe myself as a Protestant Jew [he laughs], which means that I have a private set of relations between myself and my creator, and that I have 100 percent responsibility for my interpretation and performance. Why do I bring this up? Because orthodoxy stands against pluralism. Pluralism is something much more complicated. Pluralism means that at the present time my identity respects many different pasts. There is a messianic past and a prophetic past and a philosophical past and a national past and kingdom and exile - everything is here. And anyone who wants to emphasize this set or that is fine with me. The problem lies in the psychology of trauma. It is not about the Holocaust, per se, or about 1967. It is about the years between 1945 and 1948 - three years between the end of Auschwitz and the beginning of Israel's War of Independence. And what we did was to take this one three-year period out of our entire past, so that whenever Palestinians kill someone, it's not just one victim. It's one victim plus six million plus 2,000 years. You're saying that this is the way we justify our feelings toward the Palestinians? I'm not patronizing anybody. All feelings are justifiable if you feel them. But are feelings necessarily true? Is it really 2,000 years of traumas? When you study the Holocaust, is all there is the six million Jewish victims? Aren't there also the Righteous Among the Nations? Isn't there another layer there that involves trusting humanity? Should the only thing we take out of the Holocaust be distrust? But we do honor the Righteous Among the Nations, don't we - certainly at Yad Vashem? Tell me the truth: Do we really trust the world? That's the beginning of the conversation, because I do. This is so difficult for Israelis to accept. I say, let's move slowly but surely - not overnight - from trauma to trust. Can you give an example from Jewish history where trust led to anything positive? Can trust exist in a vacuum? Doesn't experience play any role? I see where you're trying to lead me, so I'll happily walk into your trap. Let's assume that lack of trust is based on experience. Look at a thousand years of European history. Europe was a continent of bloodshed, where everybody killed everybody else. It is therefore a very biased description of history to say that all of them were against us. Especially since, during this 1,000 years, most of the time, the conversation between the Jews and the world was very impressive and positive. Can you understand Western civilization without grasping that Jesus was born as a Jew, crucified as a Jew and buried as a Jew? Can you understand the opening of Europe in the Middle Ages without recognizing what Maimonides took from the Muslim hemisphere - Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies that were totally abandoned and forgotten in Christian Europe? Can you understand Europe's move to modernity without Spinoza in Amsterdam? Can you understand the 20th century without Zamenhof, Freud and Marx? At the same time, can you really understand Judaism the way we know it - or, unfortunately, the way we do not know it - without the Enlightenment? Without philosophy? Without trade? Without banking? Without democracy? In other words, it's an unbelievable exchange program! You cannot understand us or them without this 1,000 years of cross-fertilization. It's true that we had traumas. But others had them as well. It's part of a larger fabric. So, yes, Arabs kill us, and we them. And we hate them. And when one argues that this isn't Islam, which had a golden era in Spain, the response is, "Ah, bullshit." Why do you say that we hate the Arabs? People across the political spectrum insist it is not Arabs or Islam that is hateful, but radical Islamists and terrorists. In fact, most people today hold the position that Islam has been hijacked by extremists, and that moderate Muslims the world over are victims of those extremists. I, too, feel that I was abducted by religious extremists. And when you follow public-opinion polls, you see a frightening degree of xenophobia among Israelis - not just our goodwill when it comes to redeeming the Arabs from their own kidnappers. If working towards your utopia involves developing trust and shedding xenophobia, wouldn't the logical conclusion be to disband the army - which is by its very nature the symbol of a lack of trust in one's enemies? Clearly you have had a successful aliya, judging by at least one thing you have learned from us Israelis: that everything is black or white. No middle ground. No in-betweens. You're either a peacenik or a fascist. Unfortunately, life is a bit more complicated. I believe that many - though not necessarily all - nations need power to defend their essentials. The degree of power depends on what those essentials are. It's a simple grid. So, if you're Switzerland, and your essentials are the banks, you will need, say, five bank checkpoints or something along those lines. Now today, Europe is dismantling the private armies and making a kind of collective effort. It's an interesting process of building a united states of Europe. We'll have to wait and see what develops, but the point is that even the very peace-oriented Europe has an army - effective, not effective, with the Americans, without the Americans, but still an army. Israel, too, has essentials. It also has legitimate fears, not all of which are the fruits of our imagination. What troubles me is the centrality of the army in our lives. I'm terrified by the ease with which military people move on to government. It is all part of the same system. Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Shaul Mofaz, you name it. This is not only dangerous; it erodes the very fundamental constitutional checks and balances between the tool and its masters. The army is the tool of the people. But when you see so many generals automatically becoming leaders of the state, you cannot avoid feeling that it is an army that has a government, and not the other way around. As much as I love and admire the IDF - I have six children who serve or served in the best, most frightening units - I don't want it in politics. But in the case of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Amir Peretz, neither of whom made their way to politics from the military, didn't this backfire in the Second Lebanon War? The minute there was a situation, the army took over - took control of them and used them like puppets. And part of the violence within Israeli society - such as the abuse of women and children - becomes kosher as a result of our experiencing uncontrolled violence during wartime. This goes to our essentials. I need an army to defend me against my enemies. But the army today is a tool in the hands of a messianic program. The entire West Bank is the expression of a messianic agenda that the IDF is there to defend. But wasn't it the IDF that was deployed to carry out the withdrawal from Gaza and evacuate Jews, many of whom were religious? Yes, but you know, you have 41 years of a messianic program and one event of evacuation. It is not a balanced reality. Each and every time in our history that Jewish politics merged with messianic philosophies, it ended in catastrophe. That's what's happening now. We have the most powerful state ever. We have the most powerful military apparatus. And we have the most powerful messianic agenda ever. It's a recipe for disaster. Is this, then, "The End of Zionism," as the title of one of your more controversial articles suggests? [published in the Guardian in October 2003] Will the Jewish state survive? Zionism and Jewish statehood are two separate issues. Zionism was scaffolding - to borrow Ben-Gurion's metaphor about the Zionist organizations - that was supposed to enable the Jewish people to restructure itself from exile to sovereignty. And it worked - not only once, but twice. We have the powerful, sovereign State of Israel, on the one hand, and the powerful, Western Diaspora on the other. Once you have these two structures in place, you no longer need the scaffolding. You can remove it and see the beauty of the building. For some people, Zionism is a book to be read and reread. For me, it's chapter. You finish one, and go on to the next. Isn't this view problematic, coming from a former head of the Jewish Agency? Indeed, when I served in that job, I put out a booklet called Brit Am [National Covenant], in which I planted the seeds of this idea. I said that we had to get ready for the post-rescue era. At the time, I had 400,000 Jews coming from the former Soviet Union, and tens of thousands coming from Ethiopia - so it was still the inertia of the old paradigm. But it's over! And where is it going? Well, we love this definition of Israel as a Jewish democracy. We call it the best of all worlds, and ask, "What's the problem?" I say, "Kids, it's an illusion." Thank God we have the Arabs as enemies. We see them as evil. There is a Sartre-style definition of anti-Semitism as defining who is a Jew. Well, the Arabs define who is an Israeli. So, let's assume that one day a disaster happens and there's peace [he laughs], and the Arabs decide to adopt Gandhi's path of non-violence. Then we won't have the excuse not to deal with our internal erosion due to an external threat. That's when the clash of democracy and theocracy - like in Christianity and Islam - will erupt here. At that point, this definition of a Jewish-democratic state, which sounds so good, will become such a conflict that I'm not at all sure we'll be able to contain it. When you say the State of Israel is a Jewish state, what does that mean? Does it mean that it doesn't matter what you do or how many Arabs there are here, because it's Jewish by its very nature? Well, I'll tell you that when you say the state is Jewish, and you release the individual from responsibility, it's a recipe for an immoral reality. I do not want the state to define my spiritual reality for me. The State of Israel is a democracy. It is the state of the Jews. And the Jews decide to be here and behave as Jews. It's our bottom-up responsibility - not the state's top-down enforcement. So, for me, the State of Israel is a democratic state of the Jewish people which belongs equally to all of its citizens. If we don't ensure the separation of Knesset and beit haknesset [synagogue], of rav and ribon [rabbi and sovereign leader] and of Halacha and law, we will be doomed to collide and doomed to fail. Making this separation is the only way to guarantee a flourishing future.