A stalwart of Zionism caused an ideological earthquake last week when he stated that defining the State of Israel as Jewish is the key to its end. In an interview published in Ha’aretz, Avraham Burg, a former head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a former Knesset speaker, argued that Israeli society has elements of German fascism, that the Law of Return should be reconsidered and that Israelis who are able to obtain foreign passports should do so.
Leftist Israeli academics and intellectuals have made such statements in the past, but the fact that these words came from the mouth of a man born, fed and bred in the elite of the Zionist establishment created an uproar in the country. Some were angry, others were frightened, but observers from across the political spectrum agreed that Burg’s comments marked a watershed moment in the history of Zionism.
“Burg is in the line of the great leaders of Zionism,” said Yoram Hazony, who founded the Shalem Center, a right-leaning research institute in Jerusalem. “For him to come out against the Law of Return, to abandon Herzl and to compare Israeli laws to Hitler’s laws, it’s like the pope announcing that he has already converted to Judaism.”
The son of Yosef Burg, a National Religious Party founder who participated in the creation of the state alongside David Ben-Gurion, Avraham Burg was one of the few soldiers to publicly oppose the first Lebanon War. He became one of the most powerful members of the Labor Party, serving for 10 years as chairman of the Jewish Agency and as speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003.
While Burg’s comments last week were widely portrayed as having crossed an ideological barrier, he has previously criticized the State of Israel in what was perceived as a post-Zionist fashion. In 2003 he wrote an opinion article titled “The Zionist Revolution Is Dead,” originally published in the Israeli mass daily Yediot Aharonot and subsequently in the Forward. In the piece, he claimed that moral and political corruption had bankrupted the ideology.
But in his interview with Ha’aretz, and in his just-released book, “Defeating Hitler,” the former Knesset speaker goes one step further in attacking the ideological foundation of his home country, questioning whether the Zionist revolution could have ever succeeded and whether a Jewish and democratic state is possible. Israel is spiritually dead, said Burg, who now resides in France, and it is only a matter of time before the best and brightest quit the Jewish state.
“People are not willing to admit it, but Israel has reached the wall,” Burg told Ha’aretz. “Ask your friends if they are certain their children will live here. How many will say yes? At most 50%. In other words, the Israeli elite has already parted with this place. And without an elite, there is no nation.”