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Avraham Burg was a pillar of the Israeli establishment but his new book is causing a sensation. It argues that his country is an "abused child" which has become a "violent parent". And his solutions are radical, as he explains to Donald Macintyre
It isn't long since Burg was a blue-chip member of that same Zionist establishment. The son of a long-serving government minister, from the time of David Ben-Gurion's government, he has a classic top-drawer Israeli profile. True, he was on the left: after army service as a paratroop officer and graduating from Hebrew University he was a star of the movement against the first Lebanon war – his charisma if anything enhanced by the fact than unlike many of his comrades he was religious. He was injured in the grenade attack by a right-wing fanatic on a Peace Now protest in 1983 which killed another demonstrator, Emil Grunzweig. But he was quickly swept into mainstream public life, becoming first an adviser to the then Prime minister Shimon Peres, then a Knesset member, then Speaker of the Knesset, head of the Jewish agency and the World Zionist Organisation and the almost-victorious candidate for the Labour Party leadership in 2001.
It was not until his last year as a Knesset member that he began to build a reputation as something of an enfant terrible in Israeli intellectual and political life. In 2003 he wrote a widely publicised and much argued-over piece in Israel's mass circulation Yedhiot Ahronot in which he said that Israel had to choose between "racist oppression and democracy" and that "having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centres of Israeli escapism".
But his book The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes – published this week in Britain – caused a much bigger sensation when it came out last year in Israel, at once becoming a best-seller and provoking a furious reaction not only from the right but from many of Burg's former colleagues on the political centre-left. In the book – a compelling mix of polemic, personal memoir, homage to his parents and meditation on Judaism – Burg argues that Israel has been too long imprisoned by its obsessive and cheapening use – or abuse – of the Holocaust as "a theological pillar of Jewish identity". He argues that the living role played by the Holocaust – Burg uses the regular Hebrew word Shoah or "catastrophe" for the extermination of six million Jews in the Second World War – in everyday Israeli discourse, has left Israel with a persistent self-image of a "nation of victims", in stark variance with its actual present-day power. Instead, the book argues, Israel needs finally to abandon the "Judaism of the ghetto" for a humanistic, "universal Judaism".
The implication of Burg's analysis, one that perhaps only an Israeli would have dared promote, is that the fostered memory of the Holocaust hovers destructively over every aspect of Israeli political life – including its relations with the Palestinians since the 1967 Six Day War and the subsequent occupation. "We have pulled the Shoah out of its historical context," he writes, "and turned it into a plea and generator for every deed. All is compared to the Shoah, dwarfed by the Shoah and therefore all is allowed – be it fences , sieges ... curfews, food and water deprivation or unexplained killings. All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave."
Burg's answer is that recognition and sympathy for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust are indeed essential components of "any kind of progress from the departure point of trauma to the final destination of trust". On the other hand "what I criticise in the Eichmann trial and the entire Shoah industry is the contempt, the cheapening attititude of the public system; everything is Shoah. It legitimises everything, it explains everything, it is used by everybody." Here he cites two everyday examples – the first an interview about the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad given last month by Benjamin [Bibi] Netanyahu, the right-wing former – and possibly soon to be again – Prime Minister: "Ahmadinejad is no doubt a problem," says Burg. "He is an issue in the Western world and for Israel's sense of confidence in particular. So what is Bibi's soundbite? 'It is 38 all over again.' Do me a favour. Did we have such a powerful state in '38? Did we have this onmipotent army in '38? Did we have the most important superpowers siding with us in '38? It's not '38 however you look at it. And even Ahmadinejad, when you compare him with Hitler, you diminish Hitler." But because the "Holocaustic language is so common, so well understood," says Burg, the reflex attitude is: "Why not use it?"
Originally posted by masonwatcher
Excellent find! I'll be sure to get my library to order that book. The thesis he makes has been recognised by anti-Zionists for decades, only he makes the case from the other side of the fence.
The day is approaching when we will long for these Hamasniks. One day we will wonder why we didn't talk to these Hamas leaders. At the same time, we will be faced with much larger threats. It is clear to me that this is a bitter lesson of history.
Sari Nusseibeh gives me a lesson on one chapter of history in his memoir, "Once Upon a Country." His life story, which is written with precise, even noble, elegance, is a mirror of our missed opportunities. It is a rebuttal of the patronizing Israeli assertion that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
With a sharp pin, Nusseibeh bursts our balloon and says: Here are all the opportunities that the Israelis have missed. When that cursed war ended, the Six-Day War, we immediately expelled the supporters of the Jordanian king, and since then we have never stopped longing for them. We concocted local leaderships to avoid dealing with the nobility of Jerusalem, Ramallah and Nablus, and how much do we today miss Faisal Husseini and other Palestinian leaders who have since come and gone?
Then we declared that "we will never talk to the PLO," and yet, in just a few moments, we won't even be able to talk to them because there will be no one to talk to. And now Hamas is knocking on our door. When will we reach the point where it will be impossible to speak with Hamas' people, only to long for the very few people remaining today? As long as the organization is an inseparable part of the national landscape of the Palestinian people, Hamas members will be tough partners for dialogue. But they are partners for dialogue who exist. And the day Hamas despairs and completely throws in its lot with global radical Islam, we will lose it entirely. Its members are already on the launch pad of their journey to the next fundamentalist galaxy. Yet we still refuse to grasp that a political movement that is part of the regional fabric, whose dimensions remain nationalist for the most part, must be a part of the regional dialogue, even with all the difficulty this entails. And on the day Gaza becomes a stronghold of Al-Qaida and global radical Islam, we will discover that it was Hamas, the Hamas of today, that was not so awful.