Interview: Avrum Burg

[This was done in June for the Jewish Chronicle, but they backed out. For your pleasure. ]

The common wisdom is that history never remains at a standstill. Nations change, as do the ideological frameworks that support them. A number of weeks ago, one of Israel’s most respected politicians gave an interview to the Haaretz newspaper, which sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world and beyond it – and appeared to signify many of the questions and changes now being undergone by the state of Israel.

Avraham “Avrum” Burg, 52, comes from the very core of the Israeli Zionist experience. He is son to Yosef Burg, founder of the National-Religious Party, and he himself had served in two of the most significant positions in the Israeli political world: head of the Zionist Agency, responsible for persuading Diaspora Jews to come to Israel; and chairman of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. It’s difficult to think of anything more mainstream. But in the interview to “Haaretz”, given to mark the release of a new book, Burg spoke of the failure of the Jewish character of the state, calling for it to be reconsidered; suggested opening up the Law of Return; and praised the pre-Zionist sense of Jewish cosmopolitanism. The Israeli public reacted with dismay. Knesset members called for Burg’s citizenship to be withdrawn, and for his state pension to be cancelled. Now that a few weeks had passed I sought to speak to him for a calmer consideration of the issues that came up in the interview – can the Jewish state remain Jewish while maintaining even a semblance of democracy? Where is Jewishness today in regard to human rights, to social justice? And how does someone come from where he was to where he is today?

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. My first question would be about the process that one goes through – from the center and even the summit of the Zionist experience to the new positions that you hold. How does this happen?

Тhe word, indeed, is “process”, a rather srtange word to the Israeli political experience. I’ve been observing the Israeli politics for some time, and in many ways they have come to resemble a black hole – a great planet whose energy imploded – and one of the reasons for that is that we ran out of political thinking. If I would expand on that, I should say that three pillars of the Israeli political discourse collapsed. The pillars were the aliya, the settlement and the security. The aliya had run out: now that most of the Jews live in the democratic hemisphere, not under any real physical threat, the immigration of distress was bound to have run out. The settlement is no longer a political platform, neither on the right nor on the left. Even the current plans to “judaize” the Negev and the Galilee are either “retro” or just plain pathetic. They would never come to signify what settlement used to signify 60 or 70 years ago. And as far as security is concern, it’s plain to see where we ended up. Now this vacuum that was left is increasingly occupied by the traumatic discourse. Every thing is going through the trauma test. There is a situation of “only presence” of trauma plus Holocaust in our lives. Every enemy is a Hitler, any threat is a total threat, every years is 1938, etc etc. And the central premise of my book is that we have to abandon the trauma discourse and to change it for a new discourse of trust: between us to ourselves, between us and our enviorment, and most importantly between us and the rest of the world.

How is it to be done?

I have deliberately avoided dealing with current day issues in my book. Current affairs always take you to a thousand places of possibility and impossiblity. All I’m doing in my book is trying to draft the lines of the next Israeli landscape. And it takes time, it’s a very slow process. But if you’d ask me what is the ingredient that has to be injected into the Israeli political formulae, I’d say it a deep, national commitment to humanism in the Israeli society, and a return, or perhaps reconnection to the universalist strand in Judaism, which had run completely dry in the last few decades. We ditched universality and we have become enclosed, particularistic, and ghettoized, which strangles both our minds and spirits.
There is a struggle going on now for the future of humanity, of humanism. A struggle between the developed and the undeveloped countries, rich nations and poor nations, between theocracy and democracy, within religions, between religions, an epic struggle for the future of humankind. And for the first time in history, us Jews are not a positive player in all of this; I mean of course both Israel and the Jewish communities in the diaspora, as collectives, not as individuals. It’s impossible to comprehend Western culture without realizing the Jewish contribution through Jesus and through christianity, for better or for worse. It’s impossible to fully understand the Renaissance without realizing how the Rambam (Maimonides) brought Hellenism back to Europe from the Islam. You can’t understand the modern era without Mendelsohn, Heine and Spinoza. You can’t understand the 20th century without Marx and Freud. You can’t even understand fully the great civil rights changes of the mid-20th century without remembering that Jews played a more than central role in that And today when we are witnessing perhaps the most meaningful struggle of this kind for generation to come – the state of Israel is definitely out of the game and the Jewish communities are at best taking a stand at the conservative establishment’s side, and not on the side of the progress.
One of the reasons is that we are dug up so deep inside our own wounds – and maybe justly so, no nation had gone what we have gone through – that are would not allow ourselves to go from trauma to contribution (“truma”). How do we approach a world that’s facing all this evil, take our motto of “never again” and turn it from “never again shall it happen to me” to “never again shall I let it happen to anyone else”, to “I have duty to utilize my traumatic experience to prevent any similar trauma happening anywhere in the world”? And we are not doing any of this! We were doing this for one fascinating moment in the 1960’s when Israel was the greatest partner of the African nations. And now it’s over. And this is something I would like to see returned.

In light of that , what do you think of the Israeli attitude to catastrophes befalling to other peoples?

I think a distinction should be made between two type of responses. In the first category is the reaction to a natural disaster, like the tsunami or an earthquake. In such a case the rallying to help the victims is immediate and overwhelming. But when a man-made disaster happens, Israel definitely doesn’t rally to the call. Because a natural disaster supposedly doesn’t require us to take a stand, also because ecology is not an ideological issue yet. I can tell myself that I’m not against anyone out there, I don’t need to form a moral stand on this or that. But when we get to massacre by man, whether its Tjanamen, Cambodia or Armenia, we are suddenly asked to take a stand. And we won’t. For two reasons: first, on a very deep level we are not willing to “share” our experience with other peoples. We won’t accept, for example. the fact that the Armenians see their experience as a Holocaust. We want to retain the monopoly on that. And as a result, we are not empthatic partners to the experience of the 20th century in which aside from us, over 160,000,000 people were butchered in crimes against humanity alone. These are unimaginable numbers. You have to remember Mao, and Stalin, and Darfour, not to mention Ruanda and East Timor. So that’s one reason: we won’t let anyone into our experience, we say it’s exclusively ours, and I say, no, on the contrary, we have to open it up, we have to be able to say “I understand, and we have to prevent this from recurring together”. The other reason is that Israel, for political interests, is not ready to take the moral stand. I have a political need in Turkey, so I’ll give up on a moral stand about the Armenians.

Can Israel really forfeit its political interests to take the moral stand? Risk losing Turkey to stand up for the Armenians, risk angering the Americans by standing up for East Timor…

Look, we have always been so smart and we always love talking “real-politik”, and deciding what good for us and what’s bad for us, and you can’t help but wonder – how come all this wisdom resulted in such a mediocre kind of world? Maybe now that we see that real-politik didn’t get us to anywhere that anyone would want to be in, it’s time to go to the place that should be so natural for us – the moral place, the place of values, that place that I would call truly Jewish; and from that place, to be able to say that this is the uniqueness of Israel, “a light onto the nations”, this is why the country was established in the first place, and maybe when we are a light onto the nation it would result in a better political alternative than what we have today. I really don’t think that the reality we’re facing is dichotomous, a reality of either or: either the Indian Gandhi or the Israeli “Gandhi” [the nickname for Rechavaam Zeevi, a radical right-wing politician]; either sword or pacifism. We should be dealing with a mixture of all of these. And today we don’t have that sense of mixture. We have only fears, only trauma, only real-politik. And I want to introduce other dimensions, that it won’t be “only” but “as well as”.

The process you describe is supposed to start in the Jewish society alone, or do the Israeli Palestinians also have a role to play?

I don’t believe in Israel, the country of no one but its Jews. I don’t believe in it morally. I also don’t believe it’s right for Jewish minorities living elsewhere in the world. Think about England for example. Imagine you get the Anglican church, which is also the official state church, saying “England for the English”. Would it go down well with anyone at all? I don’t think their Trustees would be too happy. And I think we, as a nation that knows so well how is it like being “the other”, should develop in Israel a model of accepting the other, and not a world-known model of rejecting the other. I think that Israel, with over 20% of its population not being Jewish, is an invitation to develop a model of containing dialgoue, rather than excluding dialog.

But hold on – one of Israel’s basic arguments is that Jews always participated in multi-ethnical societies, and many of them ended up turning on up. The state of Israel was supposedly established to provide a society in which Jews would be dominant, if not even on their own.

Let’s take a look at this exclusivity idea. I’d like to start from a very obvious point: this is not the reality we live in. If once upon a time there will be a heaven in which you can organize a society with no one but your kind, then we can talk. At the moment, such places don’t exist. I believe that the reality on the ground obliges us to certain things. Martin Buber called it “compromising with the possibilities”. I’m scared of people who tell each other “this is our dream, so why don’t we kick out everyone who’s different”. You know how it’s going to be like: first we’ll expel the Palestinians, and no one will say anything, then we’ll kick out all the lefties, and no one will say anything, and then we’ll drive out all the seculars, and no one will say anything, and then we’ll kick you – for instance you, Dimi – and no one will have been left to say anything. It doesn’t work like that. It’s dangerous. But I say – let’s turn the danger into an opportunity. I’ll go further: we in the Middle East are blamed for a lot of things, like our conflict spilling over to the streets of Paris. And I ask myself, we can’t we take what is happening to us here, in Jerusalem, or between us and the Palestinians, or us and the Arab citizens of Israel, and with a great effort turn it into a model for solution? Why do we have to hold on to that national rhetoric of ours, prophesizing that what happens to us now will happen to you five years later? When riots break out in Paris, or a bomb goes off in London, there is always the inevitable Israeli spokesperson who goes to the press and says “now, you see, now you understands us”. As we speak today I still don’t have a clear understanding of what is happening in Gaza, beyond the obvious human disaster. But up until a few weeks ago, when things were clearer, I could still say “let’s turn Jerusalem into a model that Paris can benefit from”, or “let’s turn the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into something of educational value for English constituencies”.

In the Haaretz interview, you pretty much said that the idea of the national Jewish state is dead. Is the two national states solution still alive?

I didn’t say that the Jewish state was dead. But have harbored for years a great degree of criticism of the definition of the Israeli state as “Jewish and democratic”. I’ve believed all my life in separation of church and state. The state – a political instrument of control – should never have a religious dimension to it. As soon as you endow a state with a religious or a messianic aspect, you’ve made the first step towards the establishment of a new Jewish theocracy. If there is a struggle happening between the Jewish, religious identity of the state and the democratic one, the Jewish part of the identity will persist and the democratic part will be eroded. There is another issue here – as soon as you define the state as Jewish, you’re getting into autopilot. So if the population is 100% Jewish, it’s a Jewish state, and if it’s 50% Jewish, it’s still a Jewish state, and even if it’s 10% it will still be a Jewish state, and the only dilemma is which tools we’ll use to enforce this Jewish identity. I have never subscribed to this view because of how I see the question of church and state. I believe that the character of the state of Israel should be defined by the people that live there, and it should be defined as a country of the Jewish people, under a democratic government. A country of the Jewish people means that this is the country where we choose to settle. We’ll be a majority here so long as the majority of us remains here, we’ll design its public sphere, we’ll decide its meaning and its content, and it can we a wonderful state to live in. If we decide not to do that, or we abuse our power, or run away, then there won’t be a state of the Jewish people, but at least we won’t get there on autopilot. I’d rather not comment on the two state solution, its too topical an issue.

It seems that you are suggesting is a return of sorts to the Balfour Declaration. Not a State for the Jews but a kind of a national home. And next to this home there can be a national home for the Palestinians, and so on and so forth.

Look, the Balfour Declaration is an expired document. On November 29 1947 the General Assembly of the UN heard the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel. At this point the Balfour declaration became irrelevant, and the generator of the state of Israel became instead the International Law. This was supposed to be the framework: here are the borders and the fences, while the content within these borders and those fences was to be defined by the community within them. I’ll use an analogy. Imagine if the Saxons that comprise a part of the Anglo-Saxon part of the British population would pack their bags and return to Saxony. England would be a different country, wouldn’t it? So just as the idea of Englishness is defined by all those who live in England, between its borders, so too the Jewishness and Israeliness of Israel should be defined by those who live here.

So just as Britishness today is defined by Muslim Britons, Hindu Britons, Christian Britons and so on, Israeliness should be defined by Muslim Israelis, Jewish Israelis and Christian Israelis?

Exactly. And if there will be plenty of Jews here, whether with a universalist or some other outlook, this will be the character of our society; and if it won’t be, it means we failed as a people.

In this context, how do you relate to the recent declarations by members of the Palestinian Israeli community, the so-called vision documents?

In my view, these attempts to develop and re-structure the Palestinian-Israeli, or Arab-Israeli narrative are a testimony to the failure of their integration into Israeli society. It is a testimony of failure, discrimination and neglect. I think that with the exception of the Rabin years, when the the Palestinians inside the 1967 borders were considered to be as strategically important as the Palestinians outside the 1967 borders, in the last sixty years there wasn’t neither a de jure or de facto policy of equality for the Arab citizens of Israel. The results of this discrimination are the vision documents. I will not, of course, agree to consider them something final and absolute. I think many of the Israeli Arabs, both leadership and private individuals, are not saying “we want to leave”, but rather “we are inviting you to a dialog, something can be done”. And I think that a part of this dialog will be working to create a general, containing, rather than excluding, narrative.

We spoke of how religion influences politics in our context. What do you think of the influence of politics on Judaism in our time?

It seems that most of my answers to you today begin with “terrible”. The combination of politics and religion corrupted both systems. I’ll give you an illustration that is not very commonly made, and I’m sorry if I have to generalize. If you look, in a very generalized manner, at the politicized religious Jewish world outside Israel and most certainly inside Israel, you will most commonly find it on the right side of the territorial question. There is a close alliance between the political Judaism and the territorial right – not just territorial, but also anti-human rights and anti-liberal. And it seems almost impossible, especially if you consider that in all the Jewish canon – the Torah, the Talmud and the Halachah combined – issues of land and territory don’t get the one thousandth of the attention dedicated to the rights and injuries of the widow, the orphan and the poor, solidarity, humanism and so on. How is it possible that in a society like ours, where the gaps between the rich and the poor are growing almost daily, you don’t find the religious camp next to the beaten wife, the poor person, the immigrant who only just set foot here, but you will find it in the midst of right-wing territorial politics? And if you ask me, this constitutes a dire violation of our religious ethics. The territorial issues of the past 40 years, with all the messianic motives camouflaged within the territorial aspirations, have really turned religious Jews indifferent to economic and social distress. This is of course a sweeping generalization, because there are individuals who are a remarkable exception to the rule. But most of the religious community is not on the social-economic pole, but on that of the territorial struggle. And this is definitely what I would call a corruption [of religious values].

What do you think of the so-called New anti-Semitism?

It’s really not down to me to explain why an anti-Semite is an anti-Semite. But I do see an embarrassing and worrying nearing between the traditional religious anti-Semitism, and secular left-wing and right-wing anti-Semitism. Whether it stems from criticism of Israel or criticism of the Jews is not, to me, as important. What I’m wondering about is that the cry of “wolf” had become so loud that people are beginning to talk about a second Holocaust. And my answer to this is a very definite “no”. I would like to counter that with two alternative snapshots, if you will. The first is this: let’s say that anti-Semitism today is drawn by criticism of Israel; that when you say ” I hate the Jews”, what you mean to say is “I hate Israel”; and that a Jew in Hampstead, for example, “gets it” for what Avrum Burg had done in Jerusalem, or in Tel Aviv, or who knows where. Suppose that this is true. This means I have an opportunity. Can I take the Jewish people in its Diaspora, and say that rather than being a hostage to the criticism against Israel, this people would invest all its energy and resources in “tikkun olam” – in mending the world? in the relationship between the minority and the society it’s part of, in dialogues between different minorities, in acknowledging responsibility for Darfur and other Third World issues? And I mean, we know that when we get involved, we really get involved. So maybe in five years’ time, or seven years’ time, someone will look at us and say, I like Jews so much I’m willing to step back and take another look at their State of Israel. If people are capable of hating the Jews because their dislike for the State of Israel, they might also be able to like the State of Israel because of their liking for the Jews. Unfortunately, in many places in the world, particularly in North America, the Jews have forsaken the dialog with “the other”, and became a part of the establishment.
The second issue that I would like to raise is that the anti-Semitism today is also different in another crucial way. In the past, anti-Semitism was almost exclusively against us, against the Jews. Today it’s just a part of a great wave of hatred rising all over the world; certainly in the West there’s xenophobia, migrant workers go home, less immigrants, you had Heider in Austria, La Penne in France, and the list goes on. This is a reason for us to stop saying: there is anti-Semitism in the world today, and as a Jew I must put up a fight to it, and begin saying: there is hatred in the world today, some of it is directed towards us, and some of it is directed towards others. Let us begin building worldwide coalitions against hate.

Would you say that Jewish organizations, like the ADL are wrong to invest their efforts in fighting anti-Semitism but not Islamophobia?

I’m not very well familiar with the activity of the ADL, so I would rather not comment on that. But I can tell you that in my opinion, the greatest and most important cultural phenomena of the last few decades is the emergence of a Western Islam; a European and maybe even American Islam. Will it choose dialog, or will it be confrontational? This is the greatest question of our times, above all others. And in this context, I think that when there is Islamo-phobia, Jews should be the first to come forward and say: enough. We were victims of the Judo-phobia. Look at what we lost because that, what Europe lost because of that, and what the world has lost in that. We need to learn from it, so that God forbids, the same thing that happened to the Jews sixty years ago, won’t happen to Muslims in the West sixty years from now.

You have been criticized for seeking refuge in cosmopolitanism, boasting your dual citizenship, and in general taking the easy way our rather than staying and promoting the ideas you put forward.

I’m not moving anywhere. I live here, my family lives here, my children live here, and my language is spoken here. But like many people in Israel and elsewhere, I posses a second citizenship. I don’t see it as divorcing my Israeliness, but rather as extending it. I think we have always been global and cosmopolitan, but in recent decades this had considerably declined. In the last ten or fifteen years it had become possible again. I’m excited by this opportunity and have no desire to miss out on it.

Do you intend to forward the process that you call for?

Any ideas how? I mean, there had been remarkable support. I have been involved in quite a few political controversies in my time – the opposition to the first Lebanese war, the conflict between church and state, the drafting of the yeshiva students, and many more. I cannot recall a greater controversy than this, nor any controversy within which I have received so much support, quite a substantial part of it coming from young people. Take my own children, for instance. I have not always received support from them for my political position. In this case it had been practically unanimous. Another example is all the letters I’ve been getting. Take even the comments on the website – and it’s a very rough, very unreserved, very culture that we have here – about twenty to thirty percent of the commentary had been positive, ranging from “let’s talk about it” to all-out support. So I think the potential for change is there. But I also think that in contemporary Israel, the ideas that I am suggesting are still a bit far-off.

But in the Haaretz interview you say that the Israeli society had hit a dead end. This feeling is quite widespread, along with a sense of panic and a loss of way – maybe it’s not too early for your ideas after all?

What I’ve done is merely filing a suggestion to the agenda. So now people will talk about it, they will respond to it, some will object it, some will support it, and from it other ideas will be born. I don’t know how exactly it will happen: I ask more questions than I have answers to. Maybe those that will come later will have the answers. It’s too early for me to start a movement; I’m not saying either yes or no. Let’s see where this going to.

When did you tell yourself “hang on, this isn’t working”?

Look, every Israeli feels that something isn’t working. People blame the government, the ideology, the economy, the Arabs, the Orthodox, the rest of the world and whatnot, but they all share the feeling that something had gone wrong. And they usually arrive at one of two conclusions Either they decide it’s a strike of fate – so what if it’s not working, it’s not working in America either, Bush is not better that our government,

…and Finland has a much higher rate of suicide…

Exactly, and Tony Blair messed up, Segolene Royal lost the elections, the whole world is going to bits, so we are not to blame. The other conclusion that people can arrive at is that the political system is rotten and can’t be held, so let us channel our energies in other directions. So then you suddenly have this amazing economy emerging, which people really put their hearts and souls to, you see beautiful art flourishing, you see solidarity – as in the last war, for example, where individuals suddenly joined into a collective and did remarkable voluntary work. What I am trying to do now is not to say – look, this is stuck and this is stuck and this is stuck, but rather find the overriding reason that keeps getting us stuck here in the first place. When people look for overriding reasons they can come up with all kinds of things – the Jewish-Arab interaction, the Occupation, and so on. What I’m saying is that this is much greater than this – I’m saying that the first, primal, overriding, almost abstract reason for Israel being the way it is today is that we look at everything through our traumatic past. We define our experience through the trauma. As a result, everyone is suspect, and reality is permanently nightmarish. But I think we can water down the trauma with a bit more hopefulness, a bit more confidence, a little less clawing and a bit more manners. Which is why I went out on this journey to find where it all begins – before that I was like everybody else, complaining that this is wrong and that is wrong and this is even worse. And once I found an explanation, which for now and for me is satisfying, I began making proposals and suggestions how it can be amended. These proposals are very small, they are partial, they are insufficient, but this is a beginning.

Do you think that Israel can be changed from without, through sanctions?

To me, one of the greatest ills of the 21st century is unilateralism. If the 1990s were the years where the Berlin Wall came down, the apartheid ended and even Oslo proved hopeful for a while. It was, overall, a decade of dialog. The 21st century so far proves to be quite different. There is no great difference, to my mind, between someone who work through boycott to George Bush or Ariel Sharon with his unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Boycotting is the antithesis of dialog. It’s wrong. In this specific case, it’s also fantastically stupid – the call now is to boycott Israeli academia, one of the few establishments in Israel that still carry the banner of humanism, understanding and openness. Boycotting them is stupid and unjust. I’m boycotting this boycott.

Why do you insist on constantly comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, of all times and places? Why not South Africa, or Northern Ireland, or any other place?

I’m not saying that Israel resembles, or even that it will eventually come to resemble, the Germany of the twilight years of Hitler’s rule. Germany to me is a long historic process, commencing with Bismarck and going through the Weimar Republic to the beginning of the Nazi era. And you cannot ignore that the Israeli democracy is very weak, almost as weak as the Weimar one. Voices from the Right that I personally thought extinct are calling for expulsion – just take Avigdor Liberman. There is a horrible racist element in much of the religious ideology and theology in Israel. Added to that is deeply rooted militarism, there is a worship of power, there is the contempt for anyone who’s different, there are the graffiti all over the streets – “Kill the Arabs” “Expel the Arabs”. There are things that one cannot ignore.

Let’s go back for a while to your time as head of the Zionist Agency. You have contributed to the immigration to Israel of quite a number of Diaspora Jews…

I would say that in my time [as head of the Jewish Agency] around 400,000 Jews came to Israel.

Wouldn’t you say there is a contradiction between calling for cosmopolitanism and actively persuading people to develop and pursuit a very strong national identity?

First of all, ten years ago, when I was head of the Agency, I was thinking differently from what I do today. Since then, reality changed, the world had changed, and so did I. But to be honest, I don’t really see a contradiction. I want a society that is strong and not afraid to look out and communicate with the outside world. In this context, the great wave of immigration from the Soviet Union, which washed Israel in the 1990’s and changed the country, is first of all a great opportunity of interaction with the world outside; and the Ethiopian immigration forced Israel to understand that “Jew” does not mean only “white”. I think that both of them enriched Israel and made it more diverse and open.

What about the Law of Return?

I want to open it up, for two reasons. First of all, the Law of Return defines how a person can become a member of the Jewish state. I don’t think that sixty years after the holocaust, we can afford ourselves to still be asking the question “is Jewishness genetic”? The law of return, who defines a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother, is in fact a law which defines Jewishness by a genetic criteria. The law should be changed to say that anyone who chooses to commit himself or herself to living here, adopting the language, the culture, comitting to military service and other contribution to society, tying himself to the Israeli collective, is also passing the test of belonging to this commonwealth.

Would that apply to Palestinian families also?

At the end of the day, there is a great conflict between the Law of Return and the Right of Return. I have been supporting a peaceful resolution of the conflict for years, I want to see a Palestinian state, but I would not want to see a one and a half Palestinian state: the whole of the Palestinian state and a half of the Israeli state. I think that when the Right of Return is recognized it will be a return of Palestinians to Palestine and of Jews to Israel.

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One response to “Interview: Avrum Burg

  1. Pingback: Foreign Policy: Who’s afraid of a one-state solution « Dimi’s notes

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