[Marxism] Avrum Berg

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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

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 
of Hitler.

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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