Commentary Magazine


Topic: Avraham Burg

Haaretz Portrays Judaism as the Obstacle to Peace

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper will tomorrow host the grandly-named “Israel Conference on Peace” in Tel Aviv. In a crammed schedule across twelve hours, an intriguing array of speakers–Israelis, Arabs, Europeans, and Americans, left-wingers and right-wingers–will address economic development, human rights, access to water, the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough, and other critical aspects of this particular Middle Eastern conflict.

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Israel’s Haaretz newspaper will tomorrow host the grandly-named “Israel Conference on Peace” in Tel Aviv. In a crammed schedule across twelve hours, an intriguing array of speakers–Israelis, Arabs, Europeans, and Americans, left-wingers and right-wingers–will address economic development, human rights, access to water, the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough, and other critical aspects of this particular Middle Eastern conflict.

As is often the case with such events, one can tell a great deal about the nature of this conference through what’s not being discussed, as well as who isn’t in attendance. Despite Israel’s location in one of the most violent and illiberal regions of the world, the conference does not deem the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, or the conquest of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq by the Islamists of ISIS, as worthy of a separate session–evidently, all that is secondary to the fate of the Palestinians. However, since two prominent Palestinian leaders, Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat and businessman Munib al Masri, have already pulled out of the conference, citing as a reason “respect” for the “feelings of the Palestinian people” in the light of “the developments of the last few days,” one might legitimately wonder whether the Palestinians share the conviction of the Israeli left that in times of crisis, dialogue is of paramount importance.

Yet to portray this conference as a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians–as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon does, in an op-ed that praises “Israeli civil society” for “its vibrancy in speaking out against incitement,” while ignoring the integral role that incitement plays in the articulation of Palestinian goals­–rather misses the point. There is another agenda here, one that centers upon promoting the idea among Jews that racism and bigotry are inherent in the notion of a “Jewish state.”

That is why, in the collection of articles assembled by Haaretz to accompany the conference, you will find Gideon Levy, one of the paper’s resident anti-Zionists, declaring preposterously that “a Jewish state means a racist, nationalistic state, meant for Jews only.” You will find an official Haaretz editorial insisting that the murderers of the Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, are the “descendants and builders of a culture of hate and vengeance that is nurtured and fertilized by the guides of ‘the Jewish state.'” And you will find a longer meditation on the same theme by Avraham Burg, the scion of a leading Zionist family and the former Speaker of the Knesset, who concludes that the root of Israel’s problem lies (as he describes it) in the anti-gentile culture that distinguishes the Jewish faith.

To anyone familiar with the historical trajectory of anti-Zionism, this linkage between an antagonism towards non-Jews that is underscored by Jewish religious beliefs with the very existence of a Jewish state is nothing new. In “Judaism Without Embellishment,” a notorious anti-Semitic screed published by the Soviet Union in 1963, Trofim Kichko asserted that “all of Judaic ideology is impregnated with narrow practicality, with greed, the love of money, and the spirit of egoism.” The Jewish state, Kichko went on, expresses these values through its discrimination against non-Jews.

What is new and worrying, however, is the revival of this discredited anti-Judaic discourse by those Jews and Israelis for whom a Jewish state is, by definition, a racist endeavor. Writing in a tone that is slightly less contemptuous than that adopted by Kichko, Burg says, in his Haaretz piece, “The element of distrust of other nations is woven into the fabric of the way Jews operate. This stems not only from persecution and hatred, ghettos and bloodshed: It is also an internal and active choice expressed through our normative system of halakha (traditional Jewish law), which ensured this mode of thinking.”

For Burg, this emphasis on Jewish separatism, embodied in dietary laws, Sabbath observance, and restrictions on intermarriage, has been incorporated into the “pathological view of Jewish-gentile relations” practiced by the State of Israel. Three millennia of fiendishly complex history are summarized thusly: “The State of Israel is continuing to employ the strategy of alienation that was always practiced by the Jewish people. We cast all our cumulative historic accounting onto our Palestinian adversaries. They fulfill the present needs; in the past we had Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus, Khmelnytsky and Hitler. Now it’s the Palestinians’ turn.”

It’s tempting to submit that no form of Judaism would pass Burg’s ethical test. Had Judaism claimed for itself, as Christianity and Islam did, the status of universal, transcendent truth, he would be denouncing its imperial character. As it is, Judaism’s acceptance of its lot as a minority faith, along with the rules and practices that such minorities necessarily adopt to preserve their independence, is defamed as a form of racism. The logic of such a mindset determines that anti-Jewish persecution, insofar as it reinforced these separatist tendencies, was a perverse gift to the “ideologues” of Jewish separation.

A century ago, the sin of the Jews was their perceived internationalism. Hitler railed against “international Jewish financiers,” while Stalin’s prosecutors denounced the influence of “rootless cosmopolitans.” These days, the polar opposite is true: now, the perceived sin of the Jews is their aggressive, religiously-centered nationalism, which prevents them from realizing that the attainment of peace, as Burg argues, “is the total, completely beneficial alternative to all our historical phobias–a condition that can replace or erase them.” Never mind Hamas, Iran, ISIS, or Mahmoud Abbas’s double talk: the true enemy resides within us.

Doubtless, Burg’s message will resonate with those who, in another era, would have warmly endorsed Karl Marx’s maxim that “the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” The fact that we are still having this same conversation is precisely what should alarm us.

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Despising Israeli Democracy

You might think that even the New York Times would get tired of publishing rants from failed Israeli politicians denouncing not only their nation’s current government but also the entire society that had rejected them. But apparently the newspaper’s appetite for such tirades is undiminished as the publication of Avraham Burg’s in the Times’ Sunday edition today proved. There isn’t much that is particularly original about Burg’s piece that takes the point of view that Israel is on the brink of no longer being a democracy and is intolerant of minority views. That this is not remotely closely to being the truth is no barrier to its publication since it is exactly what American leftists want to be told. His views are an absurd conflation of egotism and blindness but his foolishness is not limited to his analysis of his own country, he also understands nothing about U.S.-Israel alliance and the strength of the across-the-board support the Jewish state has here.

In the conclusion of his article in which he envisions a post-Zionist government of Israel that will reject Jewish nationalism in favor of something more inclusive, he claims:

When a true Israeli democracy is established, our prime minister will go to Capitol Hill and win applause from both sides of the aisle.

That is, I suppose, a shot at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he accused earlier in the piece of being a “warmonger.” But as anyone who bothered to watch Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress last year, he was widely cheered by both Republicans and Democrats with both parties competing with each other to show their enthusiasm for their Israeli ally. This is the sort of obvious mistake that any editor, even one with no love for Israel, should have caught. That it wasn’t tells us that the gatekeepers at the Times are as out of touch with reality as Burg.

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You might think that even the New York Times would get tired of publishing rants from failed Israeli politicians denouncing not only their nation’s current government but also the entire society that had rejected them. But apparently the newspaper’s appetite for such tirades is undiminished as the publication of Avraham Burg’s in the Times’ Sunday edition today proved. There isn’t much that is particularly original about Burg’s piece that takes the point of view that Israel is on the brink of no longer being a democracy and is intolerant of minority views. That this is not remotely closely to being the truth is no barrier to its publication since it is exactly what American leftists want to be told. His views are an absurd conflation of egotism and blindness but his foolishness is not limited to his analysis of his own country, he also understands nothing about U.S.-Israel alliance and the strength of the across-the-board support the Jewish state has here.

In the conclusion of his article in which he envisions a post-Zionist government of Israel that will reject Jewish nationalism in favor of something more inclusive, he claims:

When a true Israeli democracy is established, our prime minister will go to Capitol Hill and win applause from both sides of the aisle.

That is, I suppose, a shot at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he accused earlier in the piece of being a “warmonger.” But as anyone who bothered to watch Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress last year, he was widely cheered by both Republicans and Democrats with both parties competing with each other to show their enthusiasm for their Israeli ally. This is the sort of obvious mistake that any editor, even one with no love for Israel, should have caught. That it wasn’t tells us that the gatekeepers at the Times are as out of touch with reality as Burg.

Burg, who is the scion of a famous family and was once thought to be a man with an unlimited political future, seems to despise his country these days. Though he attempts to wax lyrical about trends in its society, the main reason he thinks Israel is no longer a democracy is that Israel’s electorate has consistently rejected his views about the peace process as well his own hopes for high office. This has caused him to question not only their judgment but the entire ideological edifice on which the country rests. His egotism is pathetic but it is fed by a stubborn refusal to see what the vast majority of his compatriots understand. They agree with him that a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians would be ideal but have come to terms with the fact that their antagonists have no interest in such a deal.

Burg despises what he calls the “religious, capitalist” state that Israel has become. Most Israelis would be happy if the ultra-Orthodox would have less power but what he is really longing for is the Israel of the past in which secular Jews of European origin dominated a country in which socialist economic policies served to keep the power of existing elites in place. He rejects Netanyahu’s free market reforms that have made Israel a burgeoning economic powerhouse because more economic freedom has created a messy but more genuine democracy in which “princes” like Burg are no longer in position to tell everybody else what to do.

Burg also does an injustice to the overwhelming majority of Americans who, contrary to his belief that the alliance is now rooted in “war, threats and fear,” still care about the common democratic values that he seems to think have been abandoned by everyone but himself. Most Americans, even those who don’t particularly like Netanyahu, respect the will of Israel’s voters more than Burg. They also recognize that the threats to Israel’s existence, principally the nuclear danger from Iran is a life or death matter that requires more serious thought than Burg seems capable of these days.

Burg is right about one thing. Israel could use a written constitution and smarter people than him have been thinking and writing about it for a generation. But the course of Burg’s career shows that the only constitution he is really interested in is one that could guarantee that his views could be imposed on his country. Not even the imprimatur of the New York Times Sunday Review can disguise the fact that Burg’s post-Zionist views are outside the Israeli mainstream. In publishing his article, the Times has shown that, contrary to the title of the piece, its real complaint is not about the absence of Israeli democracy, but its vibrancy.

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