Zionism has meant many things to many people over the past century. To Theodor Herzl and the founders of the Zionist movement, it meant creating a national home to gather in the Jewish people — to some minds, as a refuge from antisemitism; for others, as a fulfillment of an ancient promise. To Herzl’s great critic, the essayist Asher Ginsberg, better known as Ahad Ha’am, Zionism meant building a cultural and spiritual center in Israel to enrich the lives of Jews wherever they live.
To David Ben-Gurion and generations of Israelis after him, it meant the act of settling in Israel and building it, brick by brick. To millions of Jews around the world, it meant providing material and moral backing for that effort. To Palestinians and other Arabs, it meant assault and dispossession. To much of the outside world, it has come to mean the seed of seemingly endless conflict.
To Avraham Burg, former Knesset speaker, former chairman of the World Zionist Organization and son of one of Israel’s founding fathers, it is all of those things and more. In a new book, “Defeating Hitler,” and in a much-discussed interview in Ha’aretz last week, Burg argues that the time for Herzl’s Zionism is past. Now it is time for Ahad Ha’am’s Zionism, for Israel as a spiritual beacon.
Israel has lived long enough in the shadow of trauma and fear, he argues. Now is the time for trust — trust in Israel’s place in the world, in the possibility of coexistence, in the moral legacy of Judaism.
That, at least, is how Burg describes his message. You’d hardly know it, though, from the Ha’aretz interview and the response it’s gotten in Israel and the broader Jewish world. The interviewer, Ari Shavit, read the book and admits he detested it.
As Shavit reads it, Burg’s book rejects the very notion of a Jewish state, claims that Israel has no moral core and has become a brutal Sparta fast sliding toward Nazism. In the interview, Burg tries gamely to answer Shavit’s objections, to explain what he meant, but Shavit won’t have it. Burg is talking spiritual philosophy, and Shavit is tasting red meat.
They go at each other for 4,500 words (2,800 in the abridged English translation), but the casual reader needn’t wade through it all. Shavit and his editors sum up the main points — abandoning Zionism, rejecting Israel — in the headlines and bold print.
“He did something I’ve never experienced before in journalism,” Burg told the Forward in a telephone interview this week. “He read my book and got angry, and then sat with me for what was supposed to be an interview and argued with me.”
Reading the interview, after hearing it discussed endlessly online and in synagogues over the weekend, is an almost psychedelic experience. Shavit starts out by telling Burg that he saw the book as a “farewell to Zionism” and asks, “Are you still a Zionist?” Burg explains his belief that it’s time to move from Herzl to Ahad Ha’am.
Shavit promptly informs Burg that Zionism “means belief in a Jewish national state,” and that he, Burg, no longer believes in that.
Burg: “Not in its current definition. A state in my eyes is a tool,” not a spiritual or religious value. “To define Israel as a Jewish state and then to add the words ‘the first dawning of our redemption’” — a quote from the chief rabbis’ Prayer for the State of Israel, and the core principle of settler messianism — “is explosive. And to add to that the attempt to embrace democracy, it’s just impossible.”
Shavit: “Then you no longer accept the notion of a Jewish state?” Burg: “It can’t work.” (The English version, by the way, skips over Burg’s warning about messianism and the state as a tool, and cuts straight to “explosive” and “can’t work.”)
I phoned Burg because the interview looked fishy to me. I hadn’t read his new book, but I know Burg.
Is it true, I asked, that he believes Israel can no longer be a Jewish state?
“I think Israel should be defined not as a Jewish state, but as a state of the Jewish people,” Burg said. “What I mean is that the significance of the state’s content, its culture and ethos and so on, should be placed on the shoulders of every one of us. We shouldn’t be on automatic pilot.” “I see Israel as a state that was created by the Jewish people, as the expression of thousands of years of yearning,” he said. “Its governing structures should be democratic. Its content should be created by its people. When you create something called a Jewish state and then leave it on automatic pilot, the individual bears no responsibility for its content and character.”
Burg has harsh words for Israel’s current character. He believes that years of confrontation and fear have spawned a militaristic spirit and a widespread contempt for universal norms like human rights. In one of his most controversial assertions, he compares Israel today to Germany in the years before the Nazi takeover. Shavit hammers him on that one.
Is Shavit exaggerating the point? “Yes and no,” Burg said. “Not every comparison to Germany means gas chambers. There is a long history to the rise of German nationalism, beginning with Bismarck.”
It’s also true, Burg said, that important elements of Israeli society and culture are drawn from German culture. “From the beginning, Max Nordau and Theodor Herzl were deeply influenced by the awakening of German nationalism.”
Still, he said, “It’s important to recognize that there are some difficult processes underway in Israel. What I’m saying is that we’re living in a society that is becoming more militaristic, and it’s important to pay attention to the process. That means looking at similarities elsewhere.”
Burg, 52, is used to raising eyebrows and stirring outrage, and he seems to get a kick out of it. The son of Yosef Burg, the longtime leader of Israel’s National Religious Party, he gained almost instant notoriety in 1982, when he helped lead a soldiers’ protest against the first Lebanon War. He quickly entered politics, serving as an aide to Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, while also hosting an improbably popular weekly biblical-portion show on television.
Elected to the Knesset in 1988, he resigned in 1995 to run for chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency for Israel, a post traditionally reserved for washed-up ex-politicians. In 1999, he returned to politics. Riding that year’s Labor Party election victory, he became speaker of the Knesset.
In the fall of 2003, a few months after leaving the speaker’s post, Burg gained international notoriety for an article that was published in Yediot Aharonot, translated by the Forward and then reprinted worldwide, in which he claimed that Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was undermining the moral foundations of Zionism. That was taken, by Israel’s friends and enemies alike, to mean that Zionism had lost all moral justification — something he never said. Soon afterward, he left politics entirely and entered business.
His latest outing in Ha’aretz seems like a rerun of his 2003 misadventure — especially the part where his provocative thesis is circulated in a slightly garbled version and makes him a bete noire. He claims to be annoyed, but he seems at least a bit amused at the same time.
During the interview with Shavit, he recalled with a chuckle, “I got him angry when I said, ‘You have abandoned Judaism. You have an Israeli identity without Jewish content. You identify Judaism with narrow particularism and settlements. I suggest you go to see places where Judaism is a universalistic ideal. Go and learn the meaning of Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism.’”
“What I want to do is to expand the borders of Israel beyond land and location to include universalism and spiritual search,” Burg told me. “We were raised on the Zionism of Ben-Gurion, that there is only one place for Jews and that’s Israel. I say no, there have always been multiple centers of Jewish life.”
And what about Shavit’s claim — repeated in a headline — that Burg favors abolishing Israel’s Law of Return?
“I never said ‘abolish’,” Burg replied. “I said ‘rethink.’ Look, in the parliamentary mythology of Israel, the Law of Return is an answer to the Nuremberg Laws. That’s not its actual origin, but that’s how it has come to be seen. Whomever Hitler would have killed, we will accept as a Jew. And I say Hitler will not define me and who I am.” Hence the book’s title, “Defeating Hitler.”
“If a state is Jewish,” Burg said, “it is founded on a certain measure of holiness. Moses himself defined holiness as an ongoing process of actions, of behavior toward others and toward God. I am very afraid of automatic holiness. It can lead to chauvinism, to exclusivism, to all kinds of negative ramifications in relations between individuals and between nations. The Jewish people after 60 years of statehood cannot allow itself to take its holiness for granted. It has to question itself every day.”
Avraham Burg’s New Zionism
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).