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Former Knesset Speaker Rejects Zionism and Envisions a New Paradigm for Israel and Judaism

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2018

By Avraham Burg,  
Nation Books,  
321 Pages, $28.00.  
Israel’s 50-year occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, its steady movement away from Western democratic values, and the rejection by its current government of the creation of a Palestinian state, has led many Israelis, as well as Jewish voices in other countries, to move away from Zionism and the idea of an exclusively Jewish state.  
On Israel’s recent 70th anniversary, the respected author and Israel Prize laureate A.B. Yehoshua wrote a 7,000 word article on the front page of Haaretz. He notes that the two-state solution is all but dead: “It’s no longer possible to divide the Land of Israel into two separate sovereign states. Similarly, the possible partition of Jerusalem into two separate capitals with an international border between them is becoming increasingly untenable. The entire peace camp had hoped that the international community would exert economic and diplomatic pressure on both sides so as to force them to find the way to a historic compromise. But that vision is no longer viable.”  
Yehoshua concludes that defense of a Jewish state in the historic Land of Israel is no longer possible: “It is not Israel’s Jewish and Zionist identity that I fear for, but something more important, our humanity and the humanity of the Palestinians in our midst.” In Yehoshua’s view, there is no choice but to “stop the apartheid process in principle” and to unilaterally, even without formal Palestinian agreement, move into some form of “de facto binational partnership.”  
The Two State Solution: An Autopsy  
Rabbi Henry Siegman, a former leader of the American Jewish Congress and advocate of Zionism, and more recently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article, “The Two-State Solution: An Autopsy,” in The London Review of Books (May 24, 2018). Lamenting Israel’s occupation and its dispossession and mistreatment of Palestinians, he notes that, “I believe I am more aware than most of the profound Jewish religious attachment to the Land of Israel. I was raised in a deeply Zionist and religiously observant home. Moreover, I am old enough to have experienced personally what it meant to live under the Nazis. On the last ship to bring a small, fortunate number of Jewish refugees to the U.S. In 1942, this 11-year-old was writing poems on deck about ‘the beautiful blue skies of Palestine.’ Yet, before the rise of the Zionist movement, this attachment was understood universally in eschatological terms. Zionism was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jewry as a heresy, just as completely as the Zionist movement rejected Orthodoxy as an anachronism that held back the political and cultural modernization of Jewish life.”  
It is Siegman’s view that, “No one could have imagined at the start of the 20th century how completely Zionism would be taken over by Orthodox Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust … To this day, the official position of Likud, Israel’s ruling party for much of the past half century, is that it will never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state anywhere in Palestine … Mahmoud Abbas deserved the worldwide condemnation he received after his anti-Semitic diatribe at the recent meeting of the Palestine National Council.in Ramallah … He has failed miserably in providing a clear strategic path to Palestinian statehood … The two-state solution died because Netanyahu and successive Israeli governments were determined to kill it and those who could have prevented the demise lacked the resolve and moral courage to do so …”  
Perhaps the most prominent former Israeli and Zionist leader to abandon Zionism and the idea of an exclusive Jewish state is Avraham Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset, former Chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization and, for a time, Interim President of Israel. His story is a challenging one and in this memoir he sets forth a new paradigm for both Israel and Judaism.  
Religious Nationalist Views  
He was born and raised in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. His father was Dr. Yosef Burg, a German-born Israeli politician and government minister for the right-wing National Religious Party. His mother Rivka was born in Hebron and was a survivor of the 1929 Hebron massacre. Slowly, he moved away from the religious nationalist views of his father and those he encountered in Orthodox religious schools and conservative Israeli circles.  
In 2003, Burg published an article in Yedioth Ahronoth in which he declared: “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 centers of Israeli escapism.”  
He resigned from Knesset in 2004 and in 2007 wrote a book, Defeating Hitler, in which he argued that the continuing trauma over the Holocaust was moving Israeli society toward fascism. In an interview with Haaretz in June 2007, Burg suggested abolishing the Law of Return and stated: “To define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It’s dynamite.” In 2012 he endorsed a boycott of Israeli settlement products and said that he personally boycotts all products produced in the settlements and does not cross the Green Line. He called Israel “the last colonial occupier in the Western world.”  
In 2015, Burg joined the Jewish-Arab Hadash Party. He criticized Israel’s continuing to follow Zionism as a national ideology and said that Israel’s choice was between becoming a fundamentalist Jewish state or a bi-national Jewish-Arab federation. Burg broke completely with his father’s views and lamented “racist Israel, the shrill xenophobia here, the malignant occupation that seems irreversible, the repellent aggressiveness and collapse of the supporting pillars of democracy.”  
Deeply Personal Inquiry  
In this deeply personal inquiry into the ambitions and failures of Israel and Judaism worldwide, Burg chronicles the highs and lows of his country over the past five decades and explains the misplaced hopes of religious Zionism through the lens of his conservative upbringing. He explains Israel’s obsession with military might while relating his own experiences as a paratrooper officer. He notes that, “This book is ultimately a personal document, written at a stormy time … Around the time of this book’s publication, Israel, the region, and the international community will mark fifty years since the Six-Day War … I had the privilege of living and acting in this chapter of the history of my people, the Jewish people, and I have a few thoughts, insights, and reflections … Mine is an Israeli voice that tries to be different from the formal, shrill voices blaring from official Israeli loudspeakers.”  
Burg’s parents enrolled him in a boys’ school which was the flagship of the religious Zionist movement. It was a yeshiva with a dormitory in the heart of Jerusalem. “Though I was born into this reality of elitism firmly established and arrogant in its religiosity and customs,” he writes, “I felt deep and frustrating alienation from it. I never felt entirely at home in my parents’ cultured household. For me, a boy looking for other pastures, their orthodoxy — with all their sensitivity, openness and tolerance — was a coercive and compulsive system. I was a young Israeli looking for pastures that did not belong solely to … ‘people like us.’”  
As a student, Burg recalls, he and his colleagues “… failed to see and understand the way things really were: the moral corruption of controlling the life of others on behalf of ‘Jewish Values,’ the lack of religious tolerance, and the explosive potential of redemptive messianic politics. It sufficed for us that people said we were the best, that we were the latest embodiment of the ancient Jewish spirit … I wanted to leave that place so badly … but ‘people like us don’t leave such a school.’ The years of my youth became a giant battleground between my soul that wanted to fly to freedom, and the official jailers who did all they could to imprison me in the seductive place called ‘like everybody else.’”  
A Narrow Religious Message  
The narrowness of the religious message transmitted is described this way: “We sang patriotic songs and marched in paramilitary parades with deafening drumbeats and flaming, inflaming torches … We yelled at the top of our lungs: ‘God is the lord of vengeance,’ and we commanded him, ‘Lord of vengeance, appear!’ We were not taught about the basic components of human life and human society … We were prevented from exposure to the existence of non-Jews in the world, to the existence of the secular world around us … efforts were made to block out the very existence of women … A world of boys without Gentiles, secular Jews, and girls.”  
In recent years, Burg points out, “All the signs of illness of those days have become complete madness … Excluding women from public spaces, members of parliament seeking to ban female performers from official ceremonies in the Knesset, neighborhoods with separate sidewalks for women and men, buses with places reserved for women (in the back, of course). Soldiers and commanders of military units refusing to hear the sound of women singing because ‘a woman’s voice is nakedness,’ religious decrees prohibiting women from running for parliament because that would violate modesty restrictions, and even a prohibition on participation in parlor meetings ‘because these are immodest public events’ — these things no longer surprise anyone.”  
With regard to non-Jews, Burg writes that, “I think until I was seventeen, I hadn’t set eyes on a real gentile (I don’t mean a local Arab or one under occupation, which somehow fits in a different category, but a gentile like Dad’s Gentiles and his friends from ‘there’ (Germany) … My experience in later years taught me that precisely conversations with those who are not like me, not like us, are the most enriching. As a collective, we sanctify the stultifying narrative of ‘a people that dwells alone,’ clinging to any manifestation of anti-Semitism as a justification for our isolationist existence, talking only with ourselves about ourselves, completely unaware of the great missed opportunity of our life: the wonderful richness of conversation with the other, someone different.”  
Burning Christian Bibles  
The religious intolerance Burg describes manifested itself in unusual ways: “Once we went as a group of children to one of those places that were called ‘missionary,’ a distribution point for Christian missionary messages. We asked them, as a complimentary gift, of course, for copies of the Bible and the New Testament bound in one volume. Each one of us received a copy, and together we went to one of the empty lots in town and used their profane pages to make a large bonfire. We didn’t know then what burning books meant. We hadn’t been told that Jews had burned the philosophic wisdom of Maimonides, and we had not learned about the burning of the Talmud in the Middle Ages. And we had no idea that only a few decades earlier the Nazis built a large bonfire in the bustling center of Berlin … and burned tens of thousands of books, the finest world literature written by Jews. Because Heinrich Heine was a converted Jew, no one bothered to expose us to his wisdom written more than a century before that conflagration, to wit: ‘That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.’”  
The generation to which Avraham Burg belongs (he was born in 1955) was, he argues, “… the bridge in which the Israeli Jews crossed from Athens to Sparta … to the hardened and tough nation that grew up seemingly unnoticed … The storm of 1967 ripped all the old doors from their hinges. Nothing returned to the way it was after the cease-fire. Everything had been thrown open, breached, and made possible. From a small country surrounded by narrow and oppressive borders we became an expansive empire.”  
Settlers in Hebron, where Burg’s mother grew up and survived the 1929 riots and massacre, compelled the Israeli government “to appease them.” He writes that, “The blood of those murdered … was their most powerful argument. And to this argument, Dad, the moderate minister partner of Mom … had no response. We had defeated armies … Daring David had struck multitudes of Arab Goliaths … From there, we went on to the Golan Heights. I had my picture taken near the Banias Fall, a twelve-year-old boy with a pioneer’s hat, holding an Uzi submachine gun … With all these places, people, images, and experiences, my spirits soared sky-high, but Dad, it seems to me in retrospect, gradually shrank. On the way back, he asked Mom a question that has remained unresolved since: ‘What will we do with two million Arabs?’ But he and his colleagues never made any genuine and committed effort to find a real answer.”  
“Messianic Hijackers”  
Today, Israel must find a way, Burg believes, to reverse the policies imposed by those he calls “messianic hijackers.” At the present time, he notes, “I see them as nothing less than a real and present mortal danger … Territory, the complete and sacred Land of Israel, replaced the state for them as the ultimate organizing idea … Today, many of them are doing what they can to move Israel to its third chapter. In the second decade of the twenty first century … Israel is growing from the chapter of Greater Israel, with all is associated ills, to the chapter of the Temple, and its myriad dangers. For many, too many — nationalists, secular people, and many of my religious relatives — the idea of erecting the Third Temple is the yearning that organizes all political activity … Bloodshed, a real civil war is no longer inconceivable if the Temple movement indeed becomes a political reality … Without a complete humanistic, egalitarian civic doctrine that will fight them and replace them and their rule, Israel will be lost.”  
In a chapter about his time as a soldier, Burg recalls that the Yom Kippur War broke out in the Fall of 1973, when he was at a kibbutz in the Beit She’an valley preparing with other young men and women for the Nahal infantry brigade. A short time later, 348 reserve officers and soldiers from army combat units published an open letter in which they called for the Israeli government to move toward peace with the Palestinians. “From the first moment,” he writes, “I felt that this new movement is my true political expression … Because of my intimate knowledge of the country and its landscape and my love for the tangible aspects of the homeland, I literally felt physical pain every time I put up the sticker ‘Peace is better than Greater Israel.’ Precisely because of that love, I reached the full-blown understanding that in this space there are only two possibilities — either to live in partnership or to die together in war.”  
During his years in the Knesset, Burg often compromised when it came to his principled positions, such as pushing for religious freedom and complete separation of religion and state, something he came to regret: “Separation of religion and state was not just another issue or compromise, one of many that any person is compelled to make in the course of his life, certainly if he is a political person … The minute I surrendered. I stopped being a man of substance and became a professional politician … It was, however, precisely the hiding and disguise that made my public breakthroughs possible.”  
Democracy and Moral Standards  
Since leaving public life, Burg has become an advocate for the kind of Israel he would like to see, one which embraces both democratic values and the moral and ethical standards of the Jewish tradition. He describes such a state this way: “Real equality between all citizens, with no difference between men and women in any area; uncompromising struggle for secularization of public space and separation of religion from the state; constitutional, governmental, and moral equalization of all citizens, Jewish and Arab, in all spheres; a social and democratic effort to narrow gaps and fairly distribute public resources … “  
When asked the question, “But what are you? Religious, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative?” Burg’s facetious reply is, “I’m a Protestant Jew.” By this, he says, he means that, “I really don’t believe in a central religious establishment responsible for belief and religious law. I am not prepared to accept and do not want these institutions to encompass all aspects of my life. On the contrary, I’m ready to fight with everything I’ve got against the religious occupiers who are trying to annex all areas of existence with their … aggression … I dream of a proper country and society in which there is a clear separation between religion and state, as well as a commitment to equal citizenship for all citizens, regardless of their spiritual choices or tribal origin. I yearn for a spiritual and cultural life in which the current corrupt reality where ‘religion is the mistress of politics,’ … will have disappeared.”  
The idea of dividing the world into two groups — those who are Jewish and those who are not — is particularly objectionable to Burg. He declares that, “I don’t believe in the sweeping ‘us.’ My world is not divided into Jews and non-Jews. My division is completely different. I divide the world into good people and bad people. Whoever is good is my brother or sister, and I don’t care what their faith is, their race, or cultural affiliation. And anyone who is bad is my enemy, even if he or she speaks Hebrew, wears a kippah, and observes the Sabbath. I have no automatic racial patriotism that favors all Jews, even the worst of them, over the gentile, even if he is the finest human being. On the contrary. And because of that, I don’t want anything that will differentiate me as a person from the community of the rest of humanistic partners, regardless of their faith and culture.”  
Israel as a “Democracy”  
Burg has these thoughts for those who refer to Israel as a “democracy,” indeed the “only democracy” in the Middle East: “My familiarity with Israeli democracy does not permit me to be party to the soppy cliché according to which ‘Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.’ We are an open, impressive, and tolerant democracy, mainly for Jews. Especially those who, like me, were born to the pedigreed, lordly Ashkenazi Jewish class that can allow itself to defy any restrictions. Unfortunately, our genuine democracy is much more limited. Israel is the only half-democracy in the Middle East. Not only because of the occupation and the structural discrimination against Palestinian Israelis, but also because of the large web of restrictions imposed on me as a Jew.”  
A few years after the Six Day War, Burg was serving as a young paratroop officer in Hebron. His troops cut through local fields, damaging ancient vineyards and destroying crops. He remembers a local farmer who could not understand why soldiers had a right to act in this manner. Burg recalls, “I understood his outcry, his pain and anger. He continued yelling and going amok. And we had to pin him down. Ten 20-year-olds against someone who could have been our father or grandfather … Before and after … there were plenty of other occupation stories that were more terrible, brutal and shameful. But those particular shouts were directed at me personally, and that is why they ring deafeningly in my ears, from the inside. It wasn’t a political shouting match, but it was the protest of the biblical Navot, the owner of the vineyard, against the indifferent oppression of the soldiers of Ah’av — us … I could hear a version of the biblical prophet’s condemnation, ‘Have you conquered and also inherited?’ I was so ashamed.”  
From those very vineyards, Abu Shaker, an Arab friend of Burg’s mother’s family, saved his mother, grandfather and the rest of their household during the riots of 1929. “Decades later,” Burg writes, “I consider my military service in the city as a moment of great personal importance … The minute I got tough with that Hebron farmer, hardening my heart as an oppressor, my Israeli nationalism jumped to a new level and over time nearly choked any other spirit in me. Something in me died then, and did not come back to life during my years of public service. I didn’t know then that I had become an occupier … I learned the first lesson of Israeli nationalism.”  
Advocating Democracy Is “Treasonous” in Israel  
The kind of society Avraham Burg would like to see Israel become would not stir controversy of any kind anywhere in the Western world, but in Israel it is considered treasonous. He writes: “As the years went on and I took on various public roles, I again and again encountered these deep gulfs in the spiritual make-up on Jewish life. In the West, if you declare, ‘I believe in democracy. I’m bound by the Constitution. I fight for the legal equality of all citizens — men and women, believers and atheists — I support the separation of religion and state and advocate for an equitable distribution of common resources,’ — -you are essentially a run-of-the-mill democrat. If you make those same statements in Israel, affirming those very same values, you are a traitor, an unpatriotic fifth column … In Israel, they never informed me that there could be any kind of Jewish soul other than ours. But … in the Jewish communities in North America, I learned a completely new Jewish vocabulary.”  
Considering whether his vision of a genuinely democratic Israel — with equal rights for all — is “far-fetched.” Burg looks to history for much-needed perspective: “Who would have believed me if I had said during the Spanish Inquisition that one day all of Europe would be a secular continent? I would likely have ended my life on the torture rack somewhere in the dungeons of Madrid. And if I had whispered to Martin Luther that one day there would be on his land a secular sect far bigger than the Catholic sect or its Protestant offspring — one that is completely indifferent to religious differences — I have no doubt what his reaction would have been. And when the Turks were at the gates of Vienna, it is doubtful if anyone imagined that one day there would be a discussion about including Turkey in the European Union, not to mention the millions of Muslim migrants that are changing its social fabric beyond recognition. Who believed 150 years ago that Europe would be the world’s continent of peace? Nobody! … And still, the facts speak for themselves. It’s not easy; new encounters produce discord and dangers. And still, it is happening.”  
In this deeply personal inquiry, Avraham Burg explores the intellectual shifts that drove Israel’s political and religious journeys and offers a hopeful vision for a new comprehensive paradigm for Judaism, Israel and the Middle East. He inspires us to think anew about Israel’s place in the world and what Judaism as a religion might contribute to making the world more humane and ethical and less tribal. Even Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who disagrees with much of Burg’s analysis, said that, “As I read Avraham Burg’s book, the disagreements between us came into sharp relief. Our debate is a worthy and viable one, ‘for the sake of heaven.’ Yet, to my surprise, reflecting upon In Days to Come, our fears are more alike than different.”  
Deserves a Wide Audience  
Avraham Burg’s important book deserves a wide audience in the U.S., particularly among Jews who often misunderstand contemporary Israel, thinking, somehow, that it shares Western democratic values of religious freedom and democracy for all citizens, regardless of race or ethnic background. It has, Burg shows us, chosen a different path — one which Burg hopes can be altered, to the benefit of all of Israel’s inhabitants.

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