Beyond the Shoah

Avraham Burg's description of Israel as a country obsessed with the Holocaust is very far from the truth.

Holocaust survivor 224 (photo credit: AP)
Holocaust survivor 224
(photo credit: AP)
The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes By Avraham Burg Palgrave Macmillan 253 pages; $26.95 If indeed the Holocaust had such a dominant influence, Israel would never have relinquished any territory or made peace with regimes that were not unequivocally philo-Semitic Avraham Burg likes to tell stories about himself which help illustrate his personal and intellectual growth and development, and this book is full of them. While I found most of them rather inane, one about his father made a strong impression. Dr. Yosef Burg is lying on his deathbed in a Jerusalem hospital. The longtime leader of the National Religious Party and a person who devoted his entire life to public service on behalf of the Jewish people is about to die. In the last sentences he ever uttered, he called out to his son, "Avraham, I'm worried. Who will take care of the Jewish people?" and it is his heartfelt plea that motivated the author to write what can best be described as his manifesto on how to save the Jewish people from its obsession with the Holocaust, which is having such a destructive influence on Zionism and Israeli society. And while Burg would no doubt claim that his is a labor of love generated by genuine concern, I believe that most readers will reach the opposite conclusion. Much of the book deals with what the author refers to as Israel's "retreat from independence to the inner depths of exile, its memories and horrors," due to an overriding obsession with the Holocaust, which he claims is "the major generator that feeds the mentalities of confrontation and catastrophic Zionism." In his opinion, the Shoah permeates every aspect of Israeli public life, media, literature, music, art, education and even Jewish-Arab relations. In short, Burg sees the shadow of Auschwitz everywhere and contends that it is those memories that have transformed Israel into a totally paranoid society in a state of "perpetual hysteria," a country in which "war has become the rule rather than the exception." Burg posits that the Jewish state most reminds him of Weimar Germany, and even accuses "Israel and its ways" of contributing to the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism. In fact, the only hope we have to make peace with the Arabs is if we free ourselves of our Shoah mentality, and stop acting like a small Eastern European shtetl. It is not hard to dismiss Burg's calls for Israel to alter its approach and take risks for peace as hopelessly naive, if not dangerously misguided. While such advice might be worthy of contemplation vis-a-vis the Christian world, where there has been a significant improvement in the attitude toward Jews and Israel, it could only be characterized as collective suicide if implemented in our dealings with our radical Islamic foes and neighbors. BURG'S DESCRIPTION of Israel as a country obsessed with the Shoah is very far from the truth. In fact, there is ample evidence to clearly prove that its policies are rarely if ever influenced by the Holocaust. So while Menachem Begin did mention the Shoah in connection with the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor and compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler, his governments maintained good relations with Germany and Austria, and we are currently negotiating a possible peace agreement with Yasser Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who wrote a dissertation denying the Holocaust. If indeed the Holocaust had such a dominant influence, Israel would never have relinquished any territory or made peace with regimes that were not unequivocally philo-Semitic. But the reality is far stronger than even the most painful historical memories, which explains why we have excellent relations not only with Germany and Austria, but also with countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Croatia and Ukraine, where local Nazi collaborators actively participated in the mass murder of Jews and having obtained independence, have done relatively little to acknowledge those crimes, let alone prosecute their perpetrators. On a popular level, it is abundantly clear that the overwhelming majority of Israelis do not conduct their lives in the shadow of Auschwitz. Many vacation in, and buy products from, the countries in which the crimes of the Shoah took place, not to mention the ever-increasing number of Israeli businessmen who are working in or with these countries. There are even Israelis who root for sports teams from countries with a Holocaust-tainted past. While Burg does accurately criticize a few elements of Israel's relationship to the Holocaust, the conclusions he draws border on the ludicrous. Thus it is true that in the early years of the state the government manipulated the events and legacy of the Holocaust to promote a Zionist message. There was an overemphasis on armed resistance, especially by members of the Zionist youth movements, which created a false impression the resistance was equivalent to, or a counterbalance for, the enormous losses suffered. But today it is universally understood that the monumental losses of the Shoah by far overshadow the acts of physical resistance and there is also growing appreciation for the importance of spiritual resistance and the bravery of those who struggled to survive. Another positive change has been the growing admiration and sympathy for the survivors, which has clearly been reflected not only in the numerous books and films chronicling their lives, but also in concrete measures taken by the Finance Ministry to improve their financial situation. Burg has unfortunately not noticed these welcome changes. He is too busy trying to debunk all the old myths. Thus, for example, he claims that he would not have fought against the Nazis since no Jews were saved by the armed resistance (a patently false assertion). Instead he would have chosen Mahatma Gandhi's methods of civil disobedience, a decision that clearly shows his total ignorance of the conditions in the ghettos of Europe. But this is typical of many of his statements, which are based on his own erroneous version of historical events. BURG'S THIRD theme is his glorification of Diaspora Jewish life, and especially those of Germany before the Holocaust and contemporary America. In his opinion, these two communities were among the most successful ever in Jewish history and a model for emulation. Thus he describes the former as "the most amazing Jewry we ever had...[which was] based on peacefulness, reconciliation, high culture, identity and integration, roots and modernity, Judaism and universalism and faith in man and endless innocence until the end." The last two characteristics are particularly noteworthy because they help explain why German Jewry was destroyed despite its tremendous efforts to integrate into German society. Burg is also totally oblivious to the fact that the overwhelming majority of German Jews were neither religious nor Zionist, and that the community was in decline long before the Shoah. Burg's distortion also applies to his one-sided assessment of American Jewry, which ignores its declining numbers and extremely low levels of Jewish literacy, affiliation and commitment. So while it is certainly possible to point to exceptional achievements by Jews in practically every sphere of American life, it would be foolish to ignore the price paid in Jewish terms of assimilation, intermarriage and conversion. Or to put it in terms which Burg would find objectionable, the US is the largest graveyard in Jewish history, far larger than Auschwitz, with the only difference being that the Jews lost there went to their Jewish demise voluntarily. The loss of so many Jews to the Jewish people should be of grave concern to a person who served as chairman of the Jewish Agency and had aspirations to become prime minister, but the new Burg apparently has no such worries. In what will undoubtedly be regarded as the most shocking declaration in a book full of outrageous comments, Burg writes, "For me it is important that the person my child marries is good, ethical, and moral. I don't care whether he or she is a Jew or a gentile..." In an age in which Jewish continuity is the greatest challenge facing the Jewish people worldwide, Burg would have us believe that the issue is totally irrelevant. Far be it from me to plumb the depths of Avraham Burg's soul to determine what prompted his transformation from Israeli patriot and Orthodox Jew to a post-Zionist critic of the Jewish state who is full of scorn for the religion of his parents. Suffice it to say that the challenge he took upon himself in this book is way beyond his capabilities. Israel certainly has serious problems and there is much to do in helping Judaism face the myriad challenges of modernity, but Burg does not have the qualifications to do so and this book is the best proof. This book will be greeted with enthusiasm only by Israel's enemies, and particularly the Jews among them. (Even the quotes of praise which appear on the cover include one by post-Zionist Tony Judt and one by Israel-basher John Mearsheimer.) And in that vein, perhaps the most appropriate conclusion is a verse from Isaiah, no doubt one of Burg's favorites, who prophesied that "those who will beat you down and destroy you will come from your own midst," a prophesy being fulfilled daily by Burg and his ilk. The writer is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a historian who has written extensively on the Holocaust and its impact on Jewish life here and in the Diaspora.