The Avraham Burg Controversy

The Avraham Burg Controversy

A journalist friend of Meretz USA, Doug Chandler, reported on an appearance by Avraham Burg in New York the other week. I first saw Burg — the son of the late National Religious Party leader and perennial government minister, Yosef Burg — being interviewed on Israeli television as a leader of Peace Now in the early 1980s. He was young, charismatic, impassioned and unusual as a peacenik who was also a kippa-wearing Orthodox Jew.

I’ve had the experience of seeing him in person in the mid to late ’90s when he chaired the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency and I attended the World Zionist Congress. His deep monotone in moderately-accented English and his large frame reminded me of an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie character intoning, “I’ll be back.” A few years later, he came very close to winning the chairmanship of the Labor party — so close that he was initially declared the victor and therefore almost a contender for prime minister.

A year or two after that, he wrote an opinion article that became a widely quoted moral outcry against the excesses and failings of the Israeli government (then headed by Ariel Sharon). This soon became twinned with a somewhat less publicized article addressing the moral failings of the Palestinian national movement and appealing for peace. At around that time, he resigned from public service. He was falsely rumored to have moved to France. An interview with him in Haaretz a couple of years ago created a sensation in challenging his views, seen by many, including some Israeli liberals, as increasingly anti-Israel. His recent book, “Defeating Hitler,” has only reinforced that impression for many.

Doug Chandler describes his appearance about two weeks ago before a Zionist audience in part as follows:

Making his first New York appearance since the book’s publication in Hebrew last June, Burg told his audience that the Holocaust plays such a dominant and
traumatic role in Israeli life that it “nihilates” other moral considerations.
If nothing else can compare to the absolute evil of the Holocaust, he continued,
it becomes much easier to legitimize many other actions, like the occupation,
and to move moral boundaries.

As to the approach he would take, Burg said that rather than set aside a separate day each year to recall the Holocaust, as Israelis do now, they should do so on Tisha b’Av, the day on which Jews commemorate a host of catastrophes. “I don’t believe the Holocaust, as traumatic as it is, requires a different day,” he said.

He suggested, as he has in the past, that Zionism is finished, likening the movement to “a chapter in a book” and referring to it in the past tense.

The movement played a role, rescuing Jews and creating a state, said Burg, who once chaired the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for
immigration and absorption. But “now that the structure is in place,” he asked,
“do we need the scaffolding?”

At other points, he said he would revise Israel’s Law of Return, granting citizenship only to those Jews who need rescue, and he considers aliyah a thing of the past, good for certain individuals, but not for the collective. “I don’t see – and, if you ask me, I don’t want to see – the majority of Jews coming to live in Israel,” Burg added, calling himself happy with the current situation, in which the majority of Jews lead comfortable lives in the world’s democracies. …

Aside from Doug’s piece in the NY Jewish Week, Doug and I recommend a short blog posting by a reporter for the JTA. My take away so far is that Burg’s right that Israelis and Jews by in large are still traumatized by the Holocaust and that this impacts upon policies and views in unhealthy ways, but you don’t treat trauma by yelling at people to “get over it,” which is essentially what he’s doing.

The Holocaust — and not only what the Nazis did, but the complicity of so many others, either as allies and active collaborators assisting the genocide (true occasionally even of anti-Nazi forces, such as some right-wing Polish fighters) or of the relative indifference of the US and others of the Allied powers — is still a living memory. Critics and activists working to change Israeli policies on behalf of the Palestinians, if they have any concern for being fair and effective, need to keep this trauma in mind in what they say or do, rather than simply to viilify Israel — and especially not to liken Israelis and “Zionists” to the Nazis.

Burg has something of the Biblical prophet in his moral pronouncements, but like most of them, he’s also infuriating in some of what he says. I’ve given you the most reasonable of his statements.

By | 2008-04-11T05:43:00-04:00 April 11th, 2008|Blog|4 Comments


  1. Anonymous April 13, 2008 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    Hi Ralph,

    Your reaction to Burg would seem to prove the old adage that the truth is hard to hear.

    Do your criticisms of Burg and of his positions refelect an official position of Meretz-USA?


  2. Ralph Seliger April 14, 2008 at 3:12 am - Reply

    It should be clear that my analysis of Burg is exactly that (i.e., my analysis) and not an official statement.

  3. Anonymous April 16, 2008 at 2:08 am - Reply

    What is so telling is the large number of former Labor Zionists and others, who were full supporters of the Israeli experiment that are so frustrated with the inability of Israel to better address issues They are not only offering alternate approaches and critiques but are abandoning ship.
    This requires analysis and discussion.

  4. Yehuda Erdman April 16, 2008 at 9:37 am - Reply

    Dear Ralph
    I don’t think Burg’s opinions should be dismissed if only because there are many other Isrelis who agree with some but not all of his pronouncements. Personally I disagree that Zionism is over and that the law of return must be drastically amended. However it is clear to me that the Diaspora will continue for a very long time and that Jews will move between their homes in e.g Europe or the USA but many Israelis will move in the opposite direction till there is a form of dynamic equilibrium.
    With reference to the holocaust, with the passage of time and the fact that living survivors are gradualy dying, our overall view of this “black hole” in Jewish history will be modified but Burg has jumped the gun. It is factually incorrect, for example, to equate the establishment of Israel as some form of trade off for the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust (I am not attributing this to Burg). The correct view is that Jews suffered antisemitism for more than two thousand years and Zionism as a political movement is 150 years old. Another words these huge historical forces are being played on a much wider tapestry, and facile arguments do not help.
    As for criticism of Israel, there are areas where Israel frankly deserves sharp rebuke. Two counts are the institutional corruption in Israeli politics, which John Major in Britain called sleaze; and the second is the almost total failure to move decisively towards peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs.

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