[Marxism] Avrum Berg
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Sat Dec 20 09:10:16 MST 2008
NY Times, December 20, 2008
The Saturday Profile
Once a Political Riser, an Israeli Challenges His Country's Identity
By ETHAN BRONNER
JERUSALEM THERE was a time not so long ago when Avraham Burg was
viewed by many Israelis as proof that the inherent tensions of
Zionism religious versus secular, insular versus worldly, Jewish
state versus state of all its citizens could be reconciled with
grace. Here was a religiously observant Jew with a cosmopolitan
outlook, a decorated paratrooper who believed deeply in peace with
the Arabs, an eloquent, fast-rising public figure accessible to a
broad range of citizens.
Widely known by his nickname, Avrum, Mr. Burg, a happily married
father of six and the son of one of Israel's most admired and
longest-serving government ministers, was talked about as a candidate
for prime minister. Long before his 50th birthday, he led the World
Zionist Organization and served as speaker in Parliament.
But four years ago Mr. Burg not only walked away from politics, but
also basically walked away from Zionism. In a book that came out last
year and has just been translated and released in the United States,
he said that Israel should not be a Jewish state, that its law of
return granting citizenship to any Jew should be radically altered,
that Israeli Arabs were like German Jews during the Second Reich and
that the entire society felt eerily like Germany just before the rise
In other words, rather than reconciling the country's complex
tensions, Mr. Burg ended up imploding from them.
"I realized something about myself and Israel that frightened me," he
said recently, looking back over the past few years. "I realized that
Israel had become an efficient kingdom with no prophecy. Where was it
going? What is a Jewish democratic state? What does it mean that Jews
define themselves by genetics 60 years after genetics were used against them?"
Israel is no stranger to self-examination. Its leaders and thinkers,
indeed many of its average citizens, are aware that nearly everything
about the place defies normal categorization and is subject to
debate. This is a source of both pride and irritation. But many said
Mr. Burg, 53, was not just asking delicate questions. He was
poisoning the well from which the nation and he had long drawn their water.
As Ari Shavit, a writer for the newspaper Haaretz, said to him in an
interview when the book was published here: "Your book is anti-Israel
in the deepest sense. It is a book from which loathing of Israeliness
Mr. Burg rejected that accusation and still does. He wrote from love,
he said, and if the issues he raised were troubling, if they caused a
stir, that was very much his aim.
There is no doubt that he raises some serious questions: Is Israel
too focused on the Holocaust as a touchstone of history? Can it stay
both Jewish and democratic over the long term, or is it time to look
for another model? What kind of future is there for Israeli Arabs?
Less clear, however, is whether Mr. Burg has provided any serious
answers. This is partly because his book and discourse vacillate
between two poles: congratulating Jews and the Zionist movement for
their success so far, but warning them that they are turning into a
kind of self-justifying Sparta, a warlike state on the verge of tragedy.
His central point is summed up in the English title of his book: "The
Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes" (Palgrave Macmillan).
The Nazi slaughter of six million Jews, he says, has become the
central theme of Israeli life, dominating it in a way that distorts
the country's outlook. Teenagers are sent on trips to Auschwitz;
every enemy of Israel (Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader; Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran) is viewed as the reincarnation of Hitler.
MR. BURG has shifted the title of his book over the years. When he
was writing it, he called it "Hitler Won." When he published it in
Hebrew he called it "Defeating Hitler."
Partly, he said in the interview, his thinking is evolving, and
partly his American editors made some smart cuts and suggestions. But
it also seems clear that he has modified and adjusted his arguments,
especially for a foreign audience. The English version does not have
some of his more alarming assertions in the Hebrew one for example,
that the Israeli government would probably soon pass the equivalent
of the Nuremberg laws, with provisions like a prohibition on marriage
between Jews and Arabs.
Asked what precipitated his initial shift from mainstream public
figure to more marginal public scourge, Mr. Burg pointed to a process
that began in 2001 when he ran for leadership of the Labor Party and
lost in a tight race that he says was stolen from him through back-room deals.
It was not so much the loss, he asserted, as the realization that he
had poured his heart and soul into trying to win something that he
had thought so little about.
"I knew how to get elected, but what was I going to do once I got
there?" he recalled thinking. Maybe, he felt, it was lucky that he lost.
He took five weeks off and walked part of the Appalachian Trail in
Connecticut, New York and New Jersey by himself. "In five weeks I met
11 people, none of them Jewish," he said. He realized that life here
was too insular for him, that it was time to step outside the
provincial concerns of the extended Jewish family.
Mr. Burg, born and raised in one of West Jerusalem's most admired
neighborhoods and a graduate of the Hebrew University, comes from one
of the country's iconic families. His father, Yosef Burg, barely
escaped the Nazis when he left Germany in September 1939 and was a
government minister for nearly four decades. His mother was a
survivor of the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929.
But Mr. Burg wanted a clean slate. He decided to leave politics and
build an international business, stop writing bills and news releases
and write books, stop taking short runs and train for marathons. And
so he has. He is co-owner of a company that takes over failing
businesses and rebuilds them for sale, has published two best-selling
books and is a long-distance runner. He travels frequently and added
a French passport to his Israeli one, a benefit of his wife's origin.
The many friends and acquaintances of Mr. Burg a man of great charm
and wit, with a large social appetite have been left bewildered by
it all, saying the soft, flowery answers he has offered to his big,
tough questions have left them cold.
Tom Segev, for example, a left-wing historian and Haaretz columnist,
said in a review that the book was "one of the most spaced-out and
in-your-face books this country has seen in many years."
WHAT are Mr. Burg's prescriptions? He wants a new Jewish identity
focused not on the particular but on the universal, asserting that
"if we do not establish modern Israeli identity on foundations of
optimism, faith in humans and full trust in the family of nations, we
have no chance of existing." He wants Israel to dismantle the Yad
Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and replace it with the
headquarters for the International Criminal Court, making it the
epicenter of international prevention of genocide.
In truth, he has gained almost no traction here with such
recommendations. Yet what is perhaps most interesting of all is that
Mr. Burg continues to play a public role in Israel. He is invited to
speak to young people, he writes occasional opinion columns, and he
is greeted warmly, even embraced, in this city's cafes. This may be
because, despite it all, Avrum Burg is family. And whether he likes
it or not, Israelis look out for family.
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