Book review: Avraham Burg and the denying of denial
Western liberals have a great need of "good Israelis." Hitherto, the novelists Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman have fit the bill: they are against the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they dislike the settlers, they are "for" peace and "against" violence ("on both sides"). In approvingly citing their names, western liberals both attest to their own philosemitic credentials and perpetuate the illusion that Israel is a "vibrant liberal democracy" with a robust diversity of opinion. Of late, however, these bellicose peaceniks have blotted their copybooks by supporting one or two of Israel’s wars too many. A new "good Israeli" was urgently required, and he may have arisen in the shape of Avraham Burg.
The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), published in Hebrew in 2007 as Defeating Hitler and now translated by Israel Amrani, claims that the Shoah (the Nazi holocaust) has been "nationalized" and "privatized" and seeks to reclaim its memory for a universalist vision. Only thus, claims Burg, can Israelis be rescued from their obsession with spurious victimhood, and Hitler finally be defeated. Burg’s concerns, unlike those of, say, political scientist Norman Finkelstein, are ultimately theological: the English title is taken from his penultimate chapter — "Make God Smile Again" — which may make the secularist frown.
As chair of both the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization in the 1990s Burg had precociously scaled the heights of the Zionist pyramid; he subsequently became speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and even interim president of Israel for 20 days after Ezer Weizman's resignation in 2000. Having published articles in the UK's Guardian and Israel's Yediot Ahronot in 2003 that were frankly heretical from a Zionist point of view, he resigned from politics in 2004 to devote himself to business. For western liberals, aghast at Israel's refusal to behave liberally, Burg is a plump catch indeed. Not surprisingly, therefore, The Holocaust Is Over has gleaned plaudits both from liberal Jewish commentators (Tony Judt, J.J. Goldberg) and gentiles (John Mearsheimer, Rupert Neudeck, Eric Rouleau). And yet both this book and the homages paid to it fill me with despair. At the heart of Burg's vision is an egregious denial of reality, most blatantly exposed in Chapter 6, "Lessons from the Holocaust":
"Although the creation of Israel led to the problem of [Palestinian] refugees, it does not mean that Israel's existence prevents the solution. Yet the refugee problem haunts us relentlessly and is used to justify the harshest criticism of Israel … The heirs and descendants of our old European persecutors, who had slaughtered us and expelled us from Europe beaten and injured, take advantage of Israel's toughness … to continue persecuting us by other means. They use the refugee problem to denounce our leadership in every possible way …" (p. 84).
This passionate outburst, quite different in tone from the rest of the book, does not suggest that Burg has progressed very far from the "lacrimose" interpretation of Jewish history that he elsewhere criticizes as a counter-productive embrace of victimhood. The phrase "persecuting us" implies a self-pitying inability to confront soundly-based criticism on its own terms, even if it emanates not only from "our old European persecutors" but from Jews like Ilan Pappe or Richard Falk. Yet it gets worse:
"The state was born, some refugees were taken in and others were forced out … The victims of this war became political persecutors, using propaganda as a weapon against us everywhere on the planet. They torment us in the major capitals, in the diplomatic arenas and in the media" (p. 84)
Leaving aside the preposterous obfuscation involved in the claim that "some refugees were taken in," this passage shamelessly transfers the role of persecutor from wicked Europeans to Arab refugees, tormenting poor little Israel "everywhere on the planet," presumably from the comfort of their miserable camps in Lebanon, Jordan or Gaza. And there is more:
"Only a comprehensive recognition by Israel, the Arab states and the international community regarding the moral responsibility for this necessary historical event will enable the opening of hearts and minds" (p. 85).
The Nakba (or Palestinian catastrophe) was apparently "a necessary historical event" in order to facilitate the establishment of what Burg calls "the Jewish people's state." One might even overlook this self-seeking sharing and disavowal of responsibility were the universalist Burg's "opening of hearts and minds" to point towards a just resolution of the Israel/Palestine issue in the shape of a single democratic state shared by Jews, Muslims, Christians and others. But nothing is further from his mind: "Restitution will be discussed in lieu of the refugees' return to their properties. My mother will not return to her home in Hebron … Likewise the Naqbas [sic] and the refugees of 1948 will not return to Jaffa, Jerusalem, Majdal or Acre."
For Burg, 1948 was "a stunning national enterprise" and "an epic achievement on a mythical scale," marred only by the unfortunate but "necessary" ethnic cleansing of the natives. Burg's vision of a new Israel that will have "left Auschwitz behind" and will have truly become "a light unto the nations," seat of the "International Court of Crimes Against Humanity" and the "World Religion Organization," becomes less inspiring in view of the fact that this utopia will apparently continue to sit smugly on the spoils of dispossession. It is unclear to me, therefore, how Avraham Burg can claim to be a "post-Zionist" or indeed an "anti-Zionist," given how comfortably his views of history and historical responsibility sit alongside those of, say, the earlier Benny Morris. There is much to admire in The Holocaust is Over. Many of its criticisms of the Israeli polity and of US Jewry are incisive to the point of savagery. And yet, it is a book premised on self-deception and denial. Burg's admirers display culpable irresponsibility in failing to confront and analyze these flaws, having apparently learned nothing from their earlier misplaced adulation of Oz and company.
As a small but growing number of good Israelis (without quotation marks) know, only when the Palestinians find justice will Hitler truly be defeated.