A Renegade Israeli

Since Thursday, the Israeli media has been enraptured with an interview given by Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and former head of the Israeli Agency, to the daily Haaretz (Hebrew, English). The interview was part of a promotional campaign for Burg’s new book: “Defeating Hitler”, in which Burg exposes some highly unorthodox views about Israel, Zionism, the legacy of the Holocaust and the future of the Jewish people.

You can read the interview, or better the book itself (I ordered it yesterday), and form your own opinions. Here are some of my thoughts about things Burg said in the interview:

Zionism is dead. Burg is of course right here. Zionism is dead in more than one sense of the word. It was a movement that achieved its purpose in 1948 and after the establishment of the Jewish state, it is no longer relevant. But perhaps more important, for most Israelis the “zionist drive” has been replaced by more mundane goals: self-achievement, prosperity and the right to decide to live abroad without being labelled a deserter. The repeated pestering by the interviewer trying to get Burg to “admit” he’s no longer a zionist was somewhat pathetic.

Anti-semitism as the raison d’être. I couldn’t agree more. Nobody argues that Israel is the answer to 2,000 years of persecution culminating in the Holocaust and that it is the only answer to a safe haven to Jews. But 60 years on, it’s time for this country to define itself in positive terms – what it wants to achieve, where it wants to be, what future it can give its citizens – rather than in negative terms (“the whole world hates us and that’s the only reason we need to exist”).

Force is not a solution. Burg is right, and the mirror he talks about projects back an ugly picture. Israeli discourse is violent. Driving here is a nerve-racking experience. Orderly queuing is a rarity. Domestic violence and abuse of women is on the rise. A lot of this is attributable to the fact that Israel lives on its sword. Were it inevitable, I wouldn’t argue. But the continued occupation of millions of Palestinians, for example, is not entirely inevitable. The toll of this occupation on Israeli society is obvious.

Israel as a fascist debacle. I think Burg went a little too far here, but I’m happy he put it so bluntly. Better to err by exaggerating than to wake up too late because of complacency. The dialogue on the street – from taxi drivers to vendors in the market to your average Israeli “arse” – is a proto-fascist dialogue.

Israeli elite has parted with this place. So true. So sad.

Lack of spirit, “living in order to live”. Here Burg touches on the single most pressing problem of Israel, in my view. The country was founded on the belief it can turn its back on Jewish history. Religion and all those “disapora Jews” were a burden that Ben Gurion and his followers (mainly in the Mapai party) were eager to get rid of. They dreamt of the “new Jew” that is Israeli first and Jewish second. They believed that religious Jews were a thing of the past and were willing to grant them concessions only because they thought they would vanish in a couple of generations. And what are we left with, half a century later? A country struggling to define itself; a country whose youth find it hard to articulate the reason why they live here; a country where the elite sends its children abroad to stay; a country that has broken its ties with its history and its legacy but has failed to create an alternative national narrative that is not negatively-phrased. “Living in order to live” and “everybody hates us” will not take us far. This so-called “vision” is actually more likely to be the end of us. Rootless people can be uprooted easily.

Doctrine of nonviolence. Here I think Burg is being extremely naive. We are years, if not decades, away from being able to adopt such a doctrine. Whilst I agree we should not define ourselves based on the fact we are still under existential threat (and we are), I disagree that the solution is to ignore this threat and imagine we live next door to Switzerland. Unfortunately, we don’t. Some of our neighbours are violent thugs that want to wipe us off the face of the earth, and the only way for us to survive (and not let the new Hitlers win) is to wipe them off the face of the earth first. I admit I sound here like the violent Israeli Burg is complaining about, but there is a difference. I refuse to let this fight against our enemies define me. I am defined by my history, my religion, my values and the future I hope to achieve for my children; I am not defined by Ahmadinajad.

There are many other points in Burg’s interview I can relate to (or speak against) but in general I think he hit on some of the most poignant problems facing Israel today. Like many whose views I heard over the weekend, I too felt that the style of the interview and the way Burg expressed himself were somewhat harsh and out of line. I also dislike Burg on the personal level; his conduct when he was a politician was at times disgraceful. But perhaps it is exacly this outrageous style that might help jolt people out of their “live in order to live” modus vivendi and get them to think hard about what kind of Israel they want their children to live in. I sincerely wish people would concentrate less on the man and his style and more on the points he’s making. I am looking forward to reading this book.

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