The man who would tear down ‘scaffolding’ of Zionism
The Globe and Mail Canada December 9, 2008
NATAF, ISRAEL — Asked to name the forces that led to the state of Israel, almost every Israeli would say Zionism and the Holocaust.
If those same people were asked just a few years ago which Israeli was likely to become prime minister, the name most often given would have been Avraham Burg — son of a prominent rabbi and founder of the country’s National Religious Party, former paratrooper, leading member of the Labour Party, speaker of the Knesset and head of the powerful Jewish Agency.
For more than 20 years, Avrum Burg, as he likes to be known, was a pillar of the Israeli establishment.
However, four years ago Mr. Burg turned his back on all that and wrote a powerful book, an indictment of how Zionism and the Holocaust have been used.
In "The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise from its Ashes", Mr. Burg slams what he calls the "omnipresence of the Shoah," in Israeli society and urges his countrymen to move beyond Zionism. He goes even further and says that Zionism has become an excuse for racism. The statement is not far removed from the infamous 1975 UN "Zionism is racism" resolution to which Israel, Canada and many other countries strenuously objected, and had rescinded in 1991. When his book first appeared in Hebrew a year ago, Israeli reaction was fast and furious. Overnight, the man once voted the most popular politician in Israel became one of the country's most reviled political figures. This fall, the book that so outraged Israelis has been published in English. There's one good reason for choosing to live in Nataf: to get away from it all. This modern village of about 350 people sits on a hilltop at the end of a cul de sac, eight kilometres from the nearest main road. Few Israelis have ever been to or even driven past the Burgs' home, which sits, unmarked, at the highest point of the village. Mr. Burg and a few others bought the land 25 years ago from the nearby Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh and quickly set up house. He wistfully recalls how many years it took for the village, sitting on the edge of the West Bank, to get a proper road and even basic services. In those days, Mr. Burg, a distinguished military veteran, was a strong opponent of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Most people in Nataf held similar views, although all had different approaches to religion. Mr. Burg, who wears a skull cap at all times, takes credit for helping create an unusual kind of synagogue in the village, one that allows people with diverse approaches to worship together. For example, the shul has three sections, one for men and one for women, in the traditional orthodox fashion, (the way Mr. Burg grew up), and one section where men and women can sit together, as Mr. Burg prefers today. "It's worked remarkably well," Mr. Burg says. "When one family is celebrating a special event — a bar or bat mitzvah, for example — they give notice and the service is conducted in that family's way. Other families can absent themselves if they wish." With his close cropped hair and a thick Germanic accent, Mr. Burg looks and sounds a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger, a comparison he seems to appreciate. Like the California governor, Mr. Burg, 53, relishes his role as a maverick trying to save others, even when they don't necessarily want to be saved. Mr. Burg says he decided to write his highly critical book in large part because Israel had become aimless. "It's a kingdom without prophecy," he writes. "Where are we headed? No one knows." He wrote to open the eyes of Israelis to a vision based on trust and optimism, not fear and loathing. He believed that the Holocaust had paralyzed Israelis. The mantra of "never again" had meant that every possible threat to the country was treated as another potential holocaust. Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, in Mr. Burg's eyes, plays on people's fears when he likens Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolph Hitler and says, "It's 1938 all over again." "Give me a break, Mr. Netanyahu," Mr. Burg says. "Did we have a state in '38? Did we have an omnipotent army in '38? Did we have the entire Western superpower world supporting us in '38? No we did not." "And to equate Ahmadinejad to Hitler is actually diminishing Hitler," he insists. "Because of the Shoah, Israel has become the voice of the dead," he writes in his book, arguing that even military victory cannot overcome the great bereavement. "A state that lives by the sword and worships its dead is bound to live in a constant state of emergency," he concludes, "because everyone is a Nazi, everyone is an Arab, everyone hates us, the entire world is against us." As for Zionism, Mr. Burg says he sees it as "a kind of scaffolding that was supposed to enable the Jewish people to move from [exile] to sovereignty." In the past 150 years, that mission was accomplished, he says. "Now it's about time to remove the scaffolding." Mr. Burg says it's enough for an Israeli to define himself three ways: as a human being, a Jew and an Israeli. "I do not need a fourth definition …unless I need it to do some discrimination" – such as Israel's policies toward its Arab citizens. "I believe that racism is rampant," Mr. Burg writes near the end of his book. People don't see it, he says, but an "Israeli Race Theory" is being disseminated "just under our nose." And its proponents see Israel's Jewishness as more important than its democracy, he says. "It is imperative to declare a war of values on these racists, and to present a practical alternative of faith to the distortion they call 'Judaism' and which they present as our authentic faith." The trouble is, a lot of Israelis don't like the message Mr. Burg is trying to get across. "I was outraged by the book," says Ari Shavit, a prominent columnist in the Haaretz newspaper, who marched with Mr. Burg to protest against the war in Lebanon in 1982. "I saw it as a one-dimensional and unempathetic attack on the Israeli experience." Even Yossi Beilin, a prominent Israeli politician who, like Mr. Burg, was once seen as a future Israeli leader, said in an interview, "I love Avrum. He's a good friend of mine. But I don't like his ideas. … I'm a staunch Zionist. I believe that Zionism is still an important and noble cause, and I do believe we cannot put the Holocaust behind us." Some Israelis have dismissed Avraham Burg as nothing more than an egomaniacal publicity hound out to make a profit. Mr. Burg insists that young Israelis have welcomed his ideas, but also says he understands older people's criticism. "It's easier for one man to stand outside the box and see what's happening," than for everyone to do it, he says. "I'm just trying to lay a cornerstone for the discussion this country has to have."