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Avraham Burg’s Book and Interview Stirs Zionism/Post-Zionism Debate

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 2007

A stalwart of Zionism stirred widespread controversy when he stated that defining the State of Israel as Jewish is the key to its end. In an interview published in Ha’retz, Avraham Burg, a former head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a former Knesset speaker, former chairman of the World Zionist Organization and son of one of Israel’s founding fathers, argued that Israeli society has elements of German fascism, that the Law of Return should be reconsidered and that Israelis who are able to obtain foreign passports should do so.  
According to The Forward (June 15, 2007), “leftist Israeli academics and intellectuals have made such statements in the past, but the fact that these words came from the mouth of a man born, fed and bred in the elite of the Zionist establishment created an uproar in the country. Some were angry, others were frightened, but observers from across the political spectrum agreed that Burg’s comments marked a watershed moment in the history of Zionism.”  
“Burg is in the line of the great leaders of Zionism,” said Yoram Hazony, who founded the Shalem Center, a right-leaning research institute in Jerusalem. “For him to come out against the Law of Return, to abandon Herzl and to compare Israeli laws to Hitler’s laws, it’s like the pope announcing that he has already converted to Judaism.”  
The son of Yosef Burg, a National Religious Party founder who participated in the creation of the state alongside David Ben-Gurion, Avraham Burg was one of the few soldiers to publicly oppose the first Lebanon War. He became one of the most powerful members of the Labor Party, serving for 10 years as chairman of the Jewish Agency and as speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003.  
Forward editor J.J. Goldberg writes that, “Zionism has meant many things to many people over the past century. To Theodor Herzl and the founders of the Zionist movement, it means creating a national home to gather in the Jewish people — to some minds, as a refuge from anti-Semitism; for others, as a fulfillment of an ancient promise. To Herzl’s great critic, the essayist Asher Ginsberg, better known as Ahad Ha’am, Zionism meant building a cultural and spiritual center in Israel to enrich the lives of Jews wherever they live ... To millions of Jews around the world, it meant providing material and moral backing for that effort. To Palestinians and other Arabs, it meant assault and dispossession. To much of the outside world, it has come to mean the seed of seemingly endless conflict. To Avraham Burg ... it is all those things and more. In a new book, Defeating Hitler, and in a much- discussed interview in Ha’aretz, Burg argues that the time for Herzl’s Zionism is past. Now is the time for Ahad Ha’am’s Zionism, for Israel as a spiritual beacon.”  
Asked if he any longer believes in a “Jewish national state,” Burg replied: “Not in its current definition. A state in my eyes is a tool, not a spiritual or religious value. To define Israel as a Jewish state and than to add the words ‘the first dawning of our redemption’ (a quote from the chief rabbis’ Prayer for the State of Israel, and the core principle of settler messianism) is explosive. And to add to that the attempt to embrace democracy, it’s just impossible.”  
In an interview with The Forward, Burg was asked if he believes Israel can no longer be a Jewish state? He replied: “I think Israel should be defined not as a Jewish state, but as a state of the Jewish people. What I mean is that the significance of the state’s content, its culture and ethos, and so on, should be placed on the shoulders of every one of us. We shouldn’t be on automatic pilot. I see Israel as a state that was created by the Jewish people, as the expression of thousands of years of yearning. Its governing structures should be democratic. Its content should be created by its people. When you create something called a Jewish state and then leave it on automatic pilot, the individual bears no responsibility for its content and character.”  
Burg has harsh words for Israel’s current character. He believes that years of confrontation and fear have spawned a militaristic spirit and a widespread contempt for universal norms like human rights. In one of his most controversial assertions, he compares Israel today to Germany in the years before the Nazi takeover.  
In his interview with The Forward, Burg declared: “What I want to do is to expand the borders of Israel beyond land and location to include universalism and spiritual search. We were raised on the Zionism of Ben-Gurion, that there is only one place for Jews and that’s Israel. I say no, there have always been multiple centers of Jewish life.”  
Concerning the Law of Return, Burg stated: “I never said abolish. I said ‘rethink.’ Look, in the parliamentary mythology of Israel, the Law of Return is an answer to the Nuremberg Laws. That’s not its actual origin, but that’s how it has come to be seen. Whomever Hitler would have killed, we will accept as a Jew. And I say Hitler will not define me and who I am ... If a state is Jewish, it is founded on a certain measure of holiness. Moses himself defined holiness as an ongoing process of actions, of behavior toward others and toward God. I am very afraId of automatic holiness. It can lead to chauvinism, to exclusivism, to all kinds of negative ramifications in relations between individuals and between nations. The Jewish people after 60 years of statehood cannot allow itself to take holiness for granted. It has to question itself every day.”  
Discussing the growth of “post-Zionism” in Israel, one of its critics, Yoav Gelber, a professor of history at the University of Haifa, describes it this way in Midstream (May/June 2007): “The gist of post-Zionisn is the denial of Jewish nationalism at least in its present form of a nation-state, and the demand — apparently relying on the world ‘spirit of globalization’ — to turn Israel into ‘a state of all its citizens’ in reduced boundaries. The post-Zionists repudiate the Zionist ideology and its basic assumptions lock, stock and barrel. ... By ‘a state of all its citizens,’ they do not mean a pluralist society in the manner of the U.S. or Canada, but an invigorated version of the binational state idea of the 1930s and 1940s, or the Palestinian state that was envisaged by the British White Paper of May 1939 (and the Palestinians rejected). This is primarily a new form of old anti-Zionism ... Most post-Zionists ... reject the negation of the Exile, describe the surviving remnant of the Holocaust and the oriental Jews as the prey of Zionist manipulations and the Palestinians as innocent victims of collusions and atrocities ... The post-Zionists’ opposition to the Jewish nation state derives from their denial of the very existence of Jewish nationality.”

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