Commentary Magazine

A Wicked Son

L’affaire Burg, as it might be called because of its French connection, may be a tempest in a teapot, but it is the kind of teapot that whistles. On the morning of July 7, it woke Israelis up with a photograph on the front page of the newspaper Ha’aretz of Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, ex-director of the Jewish Agency, and nearly elected head of the Labor party in 2001. The photo was accompanied by the headline, “Burg: Abolish the Definition of Israel as a Jewish State!”

Inside, in the paper’s weekend magazine, there was a long interview with Burg conducted by the well-known journalist Ari Shavit. The occasion was the publication of Burg’s new Hebrew book Defeating Hitler, of which few people in Israel had heard until that morning. By the end of the weekend, few hadn’t. The interview, whose first page of text was dramatically printed on the magazine’s cover, bore the caption: “Avraham Burg compares Israel to Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover and declares [that] . . . a Jewish state is an explosion waiting to go off.”

Among Burg’s other remarks to Shavit were these:

• “We [in Israel] are dead. We haven’t been officially informed of it, but we’re dead. . . . Israeli existence has only a body. It has no soul. At the most, the leftover of a soul.”

• “The great triumph of the Israeli Right in the struggle for Israel’s soul is that it has made it almost totally paranoid. . . . In every respect, Israel is a country living in total trauma [from the Holocaust]. . . . During most of the writing of my book, I thought of calling it Hitler Has Won. . . . There is something so xenophobic [about Israel]. So insane.”

• “The Law of Return [which grants anyone with one Jewish grandparent the right to immigrate to Israel] is . . . a mirror image of [the racial laws of] Hitler. I don’t want Hitler defining who I am.”

• “Of the three identities that I’m composed of—the human, the Jewish, and the Israeli—I feel that the Israeli deprives me of the other two. . . . The Jew is the first post-modernist. The Jew is the first globalist. . . . I’m a citizen of the world. That’s my hierarchy of identities: a citizen of the world, then a Jew, and only then an Israeli. I feel a great responsibility for the welfare of the world. That’s why I voted against Sarkozy.” (Burg, who is married to a French Jewish woman, has taken out French citizenship and participated in the recent French elections.)

• And to the question of whether he would advise every Israeli to acquire a foreign passport: “Every Israeli who can.”



Were Avraham Burg just a fringe Israeli intellectual, his remarks would have passed without comment. Shallow-minded and deliberately outrageous, they hardly call for serious refutation. Yet given the man who made them, they cannot simply be ignored. As the New Yorker’s David Remnick called him in an article on the Shavit interview and its repercussions, Burg is the highest-ranking “apostate” ever to desert the ranks of Israel’s political establishment, into which he was born. His father, Yosef Burg, a leader of the National Religious party (NRP) who died in 1992, holds a record, unlikely to be surpassed, of 36 straight years of service as a cabinet minister in over a dozen different Israeli governments, from 1951 to 1986. Had Burg junior won the 2001 Labor primary, he would have been the party’s prime-ministerial candidate against Ariel Sharon in Israel’s 2003 elections and possibly a ranking figure in today’s Kadima-Labor coalition rather than the private businessman he has become. It is as if Al Gore, after losing to George W. Bush in the year 2000, had denounced the Declaration of Independence, called the United States a cultural and spiritual wasteland, compared it with pre-Hitler Germany, prepared asylum for himself in a European country, and recommended to all Americans that they follow his example.

Had this happened, of course, Gore would have been accused of a colossal case of sour grapes, and the reaction of many Israelis was to assume the same thing about Burg. No country that had dared reject him as its potential leader, he appeared to be saying in the subtext of his interview, could have or deserve a future.

This may not be a wrong way of looking at it. Like most politicians, Burg has a large ego and, unlike some, no ability to laugh at it. Nor, prior to his 2001 setback, was he accustomed to losing. First elected to the Knesset as a Labor backbencher at the age of thirty-three, he had risen, by virtue of a commanding presence, driving ambition, and an intellectual bearing rare in Israeli political life, to third place on Labor’s electoral list a mere four years later. The only time I recall being in a room with him was in the early 1980’s when we were attending the same conference. Then a young ex-paratroop officer and a prominent activist in Peace Now, he was intensely holding forth to a crowd of older people who were raptly hanging on his every word. In the 2001 primary he found himself, for the first time, as it were, without the largest crowd in the room—while the man who had that crowd, defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was a backroom pol he disdained.

But this cannot be the whole story. Serious politicians in such circumstances roll up their sleeves and try again. Burg had lost by a narrow margin in his first bid for a position of national leadership, and had every reason to believe he could do better the next time. One has to give some credence, therefore, to his telling Ari Shavit that his basic disenchantment with Israel went further back in his political career and that for many years, as he put it, “I was living a lie. . . . It was easy to go along with the consensus, to be liked, to trim one’s sails and be statesmanlike.”

Needless to say, this show of honesty, if such it was, does not make Burg look any better. It is one thing to confess to having lived a lie in one’s personal life and another to confess to having lived it in order to hoodwink a nation. Israelis can be thankful that the undistinguished Ben-Eliezer saved their main opposition party from such a man. And yet it does make the man himself more interesting. There is more to reflect on in a hidden life than there is in sour grapes.



Cherchez le père is a good principle when one wants to know where a man is coming from. In Burg’s case one does not have to search far, since his father, written about with love and admiration, is the hero of Defeating Hitler, many pages of which are devoted to him. Since, however, Yosef Burg would undoubtedly die all over again were he come to life and read his son’s book, this filial homage poses an obvious question. What does it mean to honor a father who is thus dishonored by his son?

Burg expresses no misgiving about this in Defeating Hitler—unless, that is, his highly idealized view of his father is to be interpreted as guilt’s attempt at restoration. Yosef Burg, German-born and -educated, was far from being the semi-saintly character that his son remembers. No one but an extremely cunning and manipulative politician could have stuck to a cabinet seat for so many years.

But the elder Burg was indeed the man of broad erudition and wide horizons that his son describes: a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Leipzig with a knowledge of Latin and Greek, a liberal attitude toward secular Israeli culture, flexible views on the territories occupied in 1967, and the sense of humor his son lacks. His political moderation, once common among the “modern Orthodox” Israelis who are the National Religious party’s voters, is rare today in the NRP, which became totally identified with the religious settlement movement in the occupied territories after the 1967 war. A cautious man by nature who never endorsed settler ideology and was closer in his approach to the pragmatism of the Labor party, Burg senior became increasingly marginalized in his own party as the years went by.

The Israel in which Yosef Burg was still a representative NRP figure—the Israel in which Avraham Burg grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s in the elite Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, situated near the Hebrew University and inhabited by many of its professors—is a place that Defeating Hitler yearns for. A semi-socialist country, it had, for all its problems, an optimistic, pioneering spirit; a highly egalitarian social structure; and a strong sense of collective solidarity not yet corroded by ethnic and religious tensions, growing income inequality, and the great debate over the occupied territories and the Palestinians. Nor did its rejection by its Arab neighbors and the hostility toward it of the Soviet bloc detract from its feeling of acceptance by the democratic West, in which it enjoyed much esteem. To grow up as an Israeli in those years was to have a high national image of oneself and of one’s countrymen; to do so as a religiously Orthodox Israeli was to belong fully to the national consensus. Never again were Israelis to feel so welcome in the family of man, or religious Israelis so harmoniously a part of predominantly secular Israel.



This is an Israel whose disappearance the Avraham Burg of Defeating Hitler mourns, as much because it reflects his vision of what a Jewish state should resemble as because it embodies the nostalgically longed-for world of his childhood. Unlike the great majority of “modern Orthodox” Israelis, who moved politically to the Right in the years after the Six-Day war, Burg, who was twelve years old in 1967, eventually moved to the Left, partly under the influence of the religious philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who had insisted from the morning after the Six-Day war that Israel’s sensational military victory would turn into a moral and political disaster and who would take to calling Israel’s occupying soldiers “Judeo-Nazis.” Although all the doors of the NRP were open to Avraham Burg as his father’s son, he chose instead to join the Labor party, in which observant Jews were few and far between. Paradoxically, leaving his father’s party was a form of identification with his father—who, while continuing to serve the NRP faithfully, was no longer comfortable with its policies.

But this was only one side of it. The other was that, just as deciding to seek his political fortune in Labor expressed the perfectly ordinary desire of a son to strike out on his own, so it was also a form of rebellion against his father, albeit one barely hinted at in this book. There is something odd about Burg’s reticence on this subject. On the one hand, throughout Defeating Hitler, Yosef Burg, the German Jew who came to Palestine in 1938, is depicted as a humane, courageous man, a “Diaspora Jew” whose aversion to violence and to the Israeli military ethos is viewed by his son as a heroic model. On the other hand, in all the years after 1967—years in which, from the younger Burg’s perspective, Israel lost its place of respect in the human family because of its oppression of the Palestinians—Yosef Burg the cabinet minister never once took a public stand against the settler movement or voted in defiance of his party. Time after time, he went meekly along with the NRP’s policies.

Although one would think that in the son this would have produced great anger against the father, one finds not a word about it in Defeating Hitler. The anger one finds there —fury might be a better word—is directed exclusively against the state of Israel. When Burg tells Ari Shavit, “A Jewish state is an explosion waiting to go off,” one senses a vindictive glee in him at the thought of this happening. (As if not enough explosions have already gone off in this state’s streets!) Emotionally, he reminds one of the student radicals of the American 60’s, children of parents honored for their “progressive” values but against whom they, the children, inwardly raged for never having dared to act on their beliefs.



Indeed, when Avraham Burg seeks in Defeating Hitler to give an example of his father’s political courage, the only incident he can think of, in all the years of Yosef Burg’s long career, is one that occurred during a cabinet debate not over the settlements or Israeli policies toward the Palestinians but over the fate of Adolf Eichmann. This debate, which took place in 1961 after Eichmann’s conviction and death sentence, centered on whether to carry out that sentence or commute it to life imprisonment. Avraham Burg, himself an “absolute and uncompromising opponent of capital punishment under any circumstance,” has his own opinion about this; he believes that executing Eichmann was the “childish” result of an “uncontrollable, irresistible urge . . . to chop off the head [of] a real Nazi we at long last had in our hands,” and that at this cabinet meeting, Israel’s ministers “blathered on and on and waxed positively lyrical about how best to kill a goy.”

According to the official record of the session, a large majority, led by David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, opposed commutation. Only two ministers were in favor of it, Levi Eshkol and Yosef Burg, the latter of whom stated his opinion that Israel “can afford to let the murderer die every day anew.” Nearly 50 years later his son writes:

My father and Eshkol lost that battle. . . . But a [different] time will yet come. The time of my father, whose astounding Jewishness, with its morality and wisdom that always went together, will become a pillar of fire guiding the decision-makers of Israel. Eichmann was hanged and cremated. My father is long dead. But the more time passes, the more I discover him and miss him. . . . Thanks to Eichmann . . . I discovered my lost father. All I can do is ask forgiveness for all the many years in which I criticized him. Forgive me, father. You were so much more than I am.

It is a bizarre passage. A single, inconsequential vote against hanging a Nazi war criminal atones, in the mind of his son, for all the years in which Yosef Burg never lifted a finger to stop his country’s allegedly precipitous decline! More sympathy is shown in these pages for Eichmann (Burg accepts and praises Hannah Arendt’s thesis that he was a mindless bureaucrat who had nothing against the Jews he killed) than for Ben-Gurion (“nasty and malicious in his fashion”) or for Golda Meir (“her predictably boorish and superficial self”).

Yet the passage does have its twisted logic. Burg’s discussion of the Eichmann trial, which he remembers being fascinated by as a small boy in Jerusalem, is central to Defeating Hitler. In tracing how Israel evolved, in his opinion, into an “imperialist, power-mad Zionist ghetto,” he gives more weight to the trial than he gives to the Six-Day war. That is because—so he believes—already a half-decade before the war, the grip of the Holocaust on Israel, from which all its other ills ultimately derive, began to tighten. Successfully contained or repressed until the capture of Eichmann, the trauma of the Nazi genocide, deliberately magnified and exacerbated for political purposes, now burst forth and carved its cynical conclusions on the Israeli psyche: that Jews stand alone in the world; that the non-Jew can never be trusted; that the belief in human brotherhood and solidarity is a gullible delusion; that Israel’s enemies will always seek to destroy it; that only relentless Jewish military might can keep this from happening; that the Palestinians therefore deserve no mercy or quarter.

Hence, as Burg told Ari Shavit, he had at first titled his book Hitler Has Won. From this point of view, his father’s vote against the vengeful hanging of Eichmann was a brave preemptive strike against ceding this final victory. Because Burg senior acquitted himself with honor in 1961, he deserves forgiveness by his son for his subsequent political inaction. The rage, while still secretly vented on Yosef Burg by writing a book he would have hated, can now openly be turned elsewhere.



Avraham Burg is against military might. In another passage about the Holocaust, this one touching on the Warsaw Ghetto revolt and its being made a symbol of Jewish resistance, he writes:

Had I lived in one of the ghettos, I’m not sure I would have chosen to take up arms [against the Nazis]. I think I would have asked myself until the moment of my death whether armed revolt was not foreign to the spirit of Judaism. . . . In the end I would have turned to the spiritual repertoire of Mahatma Gandhi and sought to stir Europe with a wave of non-violent protest.

One rubs one’s eyes with disbelief. A wave of non-violent protest in the Europe of World War II, as if Auschwitz were Amritsar—or Selma, Alabama! That Mahatma Gandhi, who came from a religious tradition with no real conception of evil, thought the Nazis could be shamed into lowering their rifles by the sight of Jews standing passively in front of them (as they indeed stood: in Rovno, in Kamanetsk-Podolsk, in Babi Yar, in a thousand other places) is perhaps understandable. That the ex-speaker of the Israeli Knesset should think so is beyond understanding.

For Burg, unlike Gandhi, does have a conception of evil, and he sees it everywhere in one small country. Here are some of his prognostications for the Jewish Third Reich that he believes Israel is turning into:

I believe—I can feel it in my bones—that there is a good chance that a future Israeli Knesset, not many years from now, will ban Jewish-Arab marriages . . . abolish those that exist, forbid sexual contact with Arabs, and take administrative measures to prevent Arabs from employing Jewish household help and workers. . . . [A]ll this will happen and is happening already.

If [Israel’s] policy ever becomes the genocidal one that the Torah ostensibly [i.e., in the eyes, or so Burg believes, of many Israelis] commands us to carry out, I and many of my friends will not agree to be citizens of this country, or not to be free men in it, because we will fight with every legitimate means at our disposal to prevent such moral suicide; we will sit in its prisons or leave it to its own devices.

If violent conflict ever breaks out in Israel, it will not be a war between brothers but a civil war—not a war [just] between differently thinking Jews but an uncompromising battle between good and evil, wherever they are found. All the good Jews and Arabs will be on one side, and all the evil Jews and Arabs—and there is no shortage of them—on the other side.

One may rest assured that, were these absurd predictions to come to pass, one would find this “citizen of the world” not in an Israeli prison but comfortably ensconced in France, leaving his native country “to its own devices.”

Curiously, Burg turns out to be far more in the grip of the Holocaust than are the Israelis he writes about: the remarkable thing about Israel, it needs to be said, is not how traumatized it is by the Holocaust but, considering the Holocaust’s magnitude, how great the recovery from the trauma has been. For Burg, however, unless Israel mends its ways, another Holocaust is the only future he can conceive for it—the twist being, of course, that this time the Jews will be the Germans and the Palestinians the Jews. Just as his rage against his country strikes one as an unconscious projection of his rage against his father and against himself (for in all those years that he “lived a lie” as a loyal member of the Labor party, was he not behaving exactly like his father?), so his harping on the Holocaust’s warping of the Israeli soul is an expression of his own Holocaust obsession.



Given the clear aberrancy of the man and his book, how worried by Avraham Burg should one be?

The answer is: probably more than my description suggests.

The good news about the Burg interview is that, as David Remnick concluded after sampling the fallout during a quick trip to Israel, “criticism [of it] was, with few exceptions, general and crossed ideological lines.” Prominent Israelis on the political Left no less than on the Right, Remnick wrote, felt “disgust, or worse, for their wayward brother.” Much of this had to do with Burg’s perceived hypocrisy, which Ari Shavit, who did an admirable job of aggressive questioning, brought out in the interview. Since Burg’s retirement from politics, Shavit observed, he has ridden around in a chauffeured car paid for by the Jewish people as part of his Jewish Agency retirement package and has been linked to shady business dealings. How can he of all people accuse Israel of being materialistic and corrupt?

But this is also the bad news. For were Burg more above personal reproach, and had he expressed his views in more moderate language, the united front against him would have collapsed. Not a few of these same views are held by some of the people who condemned him to Remnick. That Israel has lost its soul; that its democracy is imperiled; that it is a racist and colonialist society; that, failing to keep pace with the great human-rights advances of the times, it has regressed to a quasi-theocratic tribal nationalism; that it is intellectually backward compared to the Diaspora, in which Jewish values flourish more than they do in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; that perhaps a Jewish state was not therefore really necessary; that this state must give up the adjective “Jewish” in order to become a country “of all its citizens”—all of these opinions, though not universally subscribed to, are a part of the discourse of the post-Zionist Israeli Left.

Even more so, they are part of the discourse of the anti-Zionist Left in Europe and the United States, from which the post-Zionist Left has taken them. The striking thing about Burg, as of other Israelis who think like him, is how deeply he has been affected by the world’s intellectual assault on Israel. In his desire to remain part of the world (something with which one can sympathize), he has quite simply internalized that assault wholesale. There is hardly an idea in his interview or book that can be said to be his own; not a statement that Israel’s harshest detractors abroad have not voiced before him. Normally, when one wishes to go beyond stereotype in one’s understanding of a foreign country, one turns to its intellectuals for a more nuanced view of it. Burg, whose years at the Jewish Agency involved constant travel, has turned to foreign stereotypes for an understanding of his own country.

Here, too, however, he is not atypical. Indeed, there is probably no other country in the world whose intellectuals tend to see themselves so thoroughly through the eyes of the world. In part, this is because the eyes of the world always are on Israel; in part, because Israeli intellectual life, like that of any small land but even more so, takes place in the shadow of elsewhere. Its models of achievement live in other countries and write in other languages; most of its textbooks and scientific literature come from abroad; so do many of its grants and research projects; its best students go to the United States and Europe for their doctorates and post-doctorates; it is there that its professors, scholars, scientists, writers, and artists take their vacations and sabbaticals, attend conferences and give papers, and establish their reputations. No Israeli intellectual can remain uninfluenced by what his non-Israeli peers think of him, not least because this determines what his Israeli peers think of him, and no Israeli intellectual can remain uninfluenced by what his non-Israeli peers think of Israel.

This does not mean that most Israeli intellectuals tend to identify with every criticism of Israel encountered abroad. On the contrary: most, even on the Israeli Left, do not, and many on the Israeli Left have argued vociferously back. Yet one of the less commented-on consequences of today’s anti-Israel climate is its spillback into Israeli life. There is a process of attrition that, because it is as slow as it is steady, often goes unnoticed. Even the Israeli intellectual most convinced of the fundamental justice of his country’s cause is undermined in his convictions upon hearing that cause repeatedly derided outside of Israel. In this respect, the intellectual war over Israel is being fought not just for European and American minds; the minds of Israelis are at stake, too. Defeating Hitler is one indication of how badly this war has been going.

One of the greatest dangers facing Israel is that, under this kind of unrelenting pressure, its intellectual elite will eventually “crack” in precisely the way that Avraham Burg has cracked. A country whose best minds no longer believe in it is a country whose ordinary minds will sooner or later follow. The only way to contain apostasy is, as Jews traditionally have done, to place the apostate beyond the pale. Yosef Burg’s son should be made to understand that this is where he now is.


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