Middle Israel: Avraham Burg's French concoction

The gap between sonic booms and synagogue chants never seemed deeper than it did in winter of '76.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
The gap between sonic booms and synagogue chants never seemed deeper than it did in winter of '76. Eager to celebrate the arrival of Israel's first shipment of F-15s, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin decided to hold a state ceremony late Friday and thus compel the invitees to eventually desecrate the Sabbath. Early the following week, the ultra-Orthodox parties concurred with a no-confidence vote, thus cornering their modern Orthodox arch-rivals, who as members of Rabin's coalition abstained. That alone was odd, for religious Zionists were supposed to care for the Jewish state's Judaism even more, certainly not less, than the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox; yet the real embarrassment emerged when one modern Orthodox lawmaker actually backed Rabin in that vote - and not just any legislator, but the leader of the National Religious Party himself: Josef Burg. While Burg the elder was voting, his son Avraham was an operations officer in Paratroopers Battalion 50. I am not sure he ever discussed publicly the dissonance between that setting's supreme value - bravery - and the cowardice that his father displayed not only that day, but throughout his lengthy political career. Still, it takes no psychoanalyst to suspect that the younger Burg's own political evolution - from antiwar activist, through pillar of the establishment to post-Zionist scarecrow - is essentially about an Oedipal complex. "I" - Burg may have told himself back in '76, looking in the mirror while straightening his red beret - "will not be the laughingstock my father is. I will not be the token Jew, the guy who during decades of weekly government meetings never called a shot or even tipped the scale, let alone initiated a policy or shaped a situation; I will not be the religious leader who first failed to prevent the Messianics' creation of a golden calf, then joined their dancing; I won't be Aaron. I'll be Moses. I will matter." Yet as Oedipal paradoxes go, the more the son set out to forge a path all his, the more he actually followed in his father's footsteps. IN HIS views, Avraham Burg was very much his father's creation. Back in spring of '67, Burg the elder and his colleagues had no appetite for the imminent war's prospective conquests, and shared none of the generals' belligerency. In fact, even when Burg the son shouted in front of enthusiastic masses following the Sabra and Shatilla massacres: "And You shall remove evil government from the land," he was challenging his father's office and manner, but not his convictions. Even in his opposition to religious legislation, Burg the son was not so distant from his father. True, the father's party inserted Jewish law into Israeli law, but by the time Burg became its leader, it was merely preserving what it had accomplished on this front in the early '50s. When the choice between conviction and power came to a crux, as on that symbolic moment in winter '76 - Burg the elder made his choice soberly and unabashedly: power. Now you'd think that Burg the son, in last week denouncing the Law of Return, declaring the Jewish state dead and calling on its citizens to obtain foreign passports, has finally emerged as his father's antithesis - the ultimate iconoclast, heretic and dissident. Well, don't. AVRAHAM BURG's exhortations came not before, but after his loss of power. The addiction to office that led his father to 35 ministerial years also plagued Avraham, whose failure to emulate his father's career stemmed from his misunderstanding of his position within the system. Had the son understood, like his father, that he was only so big, he, too, could have camped in a cushy corner of the power labyrinths. But Burg the son insisted on doing what neither he nor his father were born to do: lead. And so when he sought Labor's leadership, its members rejected him, despite the puns and jokes he had inherited from his father and despite the fact that the alternative was Fuad Ben-Eliezer, a non-leader in his own right. It was the newly disempowered Burg who returned to his rebel posture, only to learn that from there, too, he would fail to escape his father's shadow. Even to his friends on the Left, Burg has played the role he so much hoped to avoid by joining Labor, the role his father happily fulfilled in numerous cabinets and certainly in Rabin's: the Court Jew, that inherently weak political creature whose Jewishness was manifest, decorative and easily manipulated. Yet more than his beliefs and character, what debilitated Burg's career was what made it happen in the first place: nobility. AVRAHAM BURG the boy was always visibly well-born, whether in the clothes he wore, his high-school trip to the Munich Olympics - a rare and expensive luxury in 1972 - or his occasional lift home by his father's chauffeur in his ministerial Valiant. All this was of course none of the boy's fault, but it was also no setting from which to lodge moral pontifications. Had Burg spent his nights braving missiles in Sderot and his days feeding the poor in Mea She'arim, he may have passed for a prophet of wrath. But Avraham is so accustomed to luxury that once he was out of politics, rather than fight for his convictions, he joined big business - and when he finally fought for something, it was his perks as the former chairman of the Jewish Agency. Avraham Burg is neither a leader nor a prophet. Rather, he is a lost son of Israel's founding nobility, those whose descendants find its social transformation difficult to accept. Burg would have been anonymous but for his lineage. It was his family name, not his own accomplishments, that made Burg valuable to the organizers of that 1982 rally that made him famous, and it was that same aristocratic credential that later made Shimon Peres hire him as his Diaspora affairs adviser before anointing him Jewish Agency chairman. Had Israeli political careers been launched not by appointment, but by local election as they are elsewhere in the West, it is unlikely Burg would have gotten anywhere politically. Now, like a child facing a present he broke, he surveys the ruins of his political career with the disgust of a French nobleman lamenting, from atop the Bastille's debris, the passing of the ancient regime. It takes exceptional aloofness to cry out from affluent Nataf that the Jewish state has lost its founders' moral aspirations, and in the same breath endorse Ehud Barak for Labor's leadership. It also takes no genius to suspect that in obtaining a French passport, announcing, "I am first a citizen of the world, then a Jew, and only then an Israeli," and declaring the Jewish state dead, Burg thinks he is paying his dues for a future EU position. Well we are not dead, Avraham; we are actually alive and well. It's Israel's original elite that is dying, whether biologically, as your father has; socially, as your adopted party has; or spiritually - as you have. www.MiddleIsrael.com