Last August this newspaper published a front-page essay by a former speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Avraham Burg, arguing that the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was threatening to destroy the Jewish state from within. To save itself from demographic obliteration and moral decay and preserve the Zionist vision of a democratic Jewish state, Burg argued, Israel must act quickly to disengage from the Palestinians.
The article, originally published in Hebrew in Yediot Aharonot, set off a worldwide furor in its English version. It was reprinted in countless newspapers on every continent and debated endlessly. Enemies of Israel cited it, predictably, as first-hand evidence of Israel’s failure. But far more, it was greeted by friends as proof that Israelis had not lost their moral bearings, despite the violence that surrounds them.
Within Israel the article reverberated powerfully. After three years of virtual silence, Israel’s once-robust internal debate burst open again with a passion. Two weeks after Burg’s article appeared, the first group of soldiers announced its refusal to participate in targeted assassinations. Days later, two daring peace plans — the Ayalon-Nusseibeh and Geneva documents — were unfurled for public debate. A few weeks after that, a round-table interview appeared in Yediot Aharonot with all four living ex-chiefs of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, unanimously echoing Burg’s arguments. Soon after, the army chief of staff himself gave an interview and endorsed some of the most controversial aspects of the growing critique, including the still-taboo idea that Palestinian rage and violence rise and fall at least partly in response to Israel’s tactical choices. Less than a month after that, Israel’s deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, publicly called for an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza. A few weeks later, Prime Minister Sharon went public with his own withdrawal plan.
Not all these things happened simply because Avraham Burg wrote what he wrote. But Burg’s essay was an essential part of the process of advancing Israel’s public debate.
Why is this important to recall? Because opponents of the renewed peace process have lately taken to attacking Burg and others like him as enemies of Israel who foment antisemitism by airing Israel’s dirty laundry abroad. The incendiary allegation is not limited to the far fringes of the right; it was raised for public discussion earlier this month at an international conference on antisemitism convened in Jerusalem by Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky.
Nor is Burg the only one so charged. Last week the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman came under attack from pro-Israel organizations because of a column he wrote complaining of Israeli pressure on the White House. Friedman wrote in his February 5 column that Sharon “has George Bush under house arrest in the Oval Office.” Critics, led by the Zionist Organization of America, complained that the imagery was reminiscent of past statements by Patrick Buchanan “and other extremists” calling the White House “occupied Israeli territory.” If it had come from them, critics said, it would have been rightly condemned as rank antisemitism.
But it didn’t come from them. It came from one of America’s most respected pro-Israel journalists — one who was himself attacked in the left-wing Village Voice just two weeks earlier for donating a journalism award to his synagogue, thereby showing his Zionist bias.
The notion that antisemites around the world need the likes of Thomas Friedman or Avraham Burg to feed their fevered ravings ought not to merit a second glance. Hard-liners have been adamant that the actions of Israel’s government play no role in fomenting antisemitism. How, then, could the words of its critics run that danger?
The truth is that the critics don’t really care about antisemitism. They want to silence the likes of Burg and Friedman because they want to stop the debate. If they could do that, they reason, they could prevent the reemergence of a peace process. Fortunately, they won’t get away with it.