Avraham Burg – a former contender for leadership of Israel’s Labor Party, ex-speaker of the Knesset and a past chair of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency – has become an iconoclastic critic of Israel and Zionism. His latest and boldest move to date is in his most recent book, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes.
In New York on April 21, he was a guest speaker for the Hashomer Hatzair left-Zionist youth organization and the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation. He’s a friendly individual, with considerable charm and a wicked sense of humor. His basic critique of modern Israeli and Jewish life – an inability to transcend the trauma of the Holocaust and a history of persecution – has a degree of validity, but I find that he takes it too far.
As Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, began on the evening of April 20, I attended a synagogue commemoration. Its highlight was a very good, balanced and nuanced documentary film, Blessed Is The Match, about the life and death of the famous Hagana parachutist and poet, Hannah Senesh. She gave up her young life on a doomed mission to organize resistance and save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. (Haviva Reik – for whom Givat Haviva is named – was one of the other 30-odd Hagana parachutists, about half of whom [including Reik] perished behind enemy lines in a number of European countries.)
The film does not refrain from showing Senesh’s flaws: she was almost inhuman in her capacities as a self-sacrificing idealist. One comrade called her a “statue” and one or two said they admired but disliked her. But she was also a hero who grew out of this coldness, ironically in her final four months as a prisoner, in interactions with her fellow captives (most of whom survived). And the movie brought home the tremendous burden of hatred that we Jews bore in the early to mid 20th century.
Returning to Burg’s critique: It is definitely true that our past as victims blinds many of us to the necessity to be more sensitive to the suffering of others today – especially when wrong-headed Israeli policies cause that suffering. And Burg is correct that since nothing that Israel does really comes close to what the Nazis did, that this very fact is sometimes cited by Israelis to dodge criticism.
Still, I find his one-sided condemnations hard to accept. I am a dove and a long-time critic of the West Bank settlements project and I often find fault with overly aggressive military tactics, but I know that the conflict’s rights and wrongs are approximately 50-50.
Burg closed his talk with a humorous story of visiting the zoo in Berlin and staring at a depressed monkey. Burg asked an attendant about the monkey’s problem and was told that it had a “grip phobia.” Unlike the other monkeys, this neurotic one could not climb, because it would not trust to hang on with one hand for an instant while grasping the next highest branch of a tree or the next handhold on a climbing wall. Its fear of letting go became a metaphor for Burg to represent Israel’s lack of trust to let go of the occupied territories.
But I was frustrated at this because Israel has attempted to “let go” several times in recent years and not been rewarded with peace. First of all, the peace process of the 1990s was an exercise in trying to let go. Israel’s degree of letting go was incomplete, but the terrorist attacks of the Oslo years rebounded against the momentum for peace by causing Israel’s electorate to vote for the right several times and to react with excess caution at other times. And when Israel loosened its grip entirely by withdrawing from southern Lebanon and from the Gaza Strip, those quarters became staging areas for attacks on Israel.
One can still criticize these withdrawals as unilateral and not aimed at a peace process, but in both instances, Israel’s Arab enemies undermined Israel’s peace camp. They provided fuel to right-wing arguments that “the Arabs” regarded such withdrawals as “signs of weakness” and that they “only respect force.”
Like Senesh, Burg is an idealist. He identifies with Ahad Ha’am’s cultural vision of Zionism rather than Theodor Herzl’s practical political orientation. Burg declares that Herzl won out in the 20th century, but that there is a need for Ahad Haam in the 21st. Maybe he’s right in this, but I wish he wouldn’t be so clownish in how he makes his point. And he does not provide a clear roadmap on how one gets to Ahad Haam. Nor does he give adequate consideration to how such extremism on the other side as the rise of Hamas may block the way.