By Ari Shavit, Haaretz Magazine
We met 25 years ago. Exactly 25 years ago. Avraham - Avrum - Burg and I were then part of a small group of reserve soldiers and officers who came out against the First Lebanon War. "Soldiers Against Silence," we were called. Very quickly Avrum was taken from us. In the great demonstration of the 400,000 [the peace rally in Tel Aviv following the September 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Chatilla camps in Beirut], he became a star and immediately turned to politics. At first he was one of Shimon Peres' smart young men. Then he was the great hope of the Labor Party's Young Guard. After that the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Speaker of the Knesset, a candidate for the Labor leadership.
And then, suddenly, three years ago, Burg got up and left. Went to feather his nest. Got entangled in a problematic and failed privatization deal. Was slandered in the papers, scrutinized by the state comptroller, investigated by the police. And all this time he was writing a book.
All this time he was formulating the bold insights of "Defeating Hitler."
Burg will not admit it, but from his point of view the book he is launching now, to coincide with Hebrew Book Week, is a book of prophecy. A book that is intended to vest the kingdom with prophecy. For others, the book will not be easily definable. It contains deep thoughts about Israel and Zionism, a prolonged comparison between Israel and Germany, trenchant criticism of Eichmann's hanging, reflections on Judaism in the age of globalization and memories from his father's house.
Yosef Burg, the refugee from Dresden, accords the book a certain softness that is not to be found in the angry words of his son. True, toward the end the optimist Avrum tries to transform his eulogy into a paean, but the attempt is not entirely convincing. The Israel of "Defeating Hitler" is a very harsh place. Brutal and imperialist, confrontational and insular. A shallow place, thuggish, lacking spiritual inspiration.
I was outraged by the book. I saw it as a turning away of an Israeli colleague from our shared Israeliness. I saw it as a one-dimensional and unempathetic attack on the Israeli experience. Still, the dialogue with Avrum was riveting. We got angry at each other and raised our voices at each other and circled each other warily like two wounded gladiators in the arena. You can't take away from Avrum what he has. You can't take away the education or the articulateness or the ability to touch truly painful places. Maybe that's why he is so infuriating. Friend and predator; brother and deserter.
Avrum Burg, I read your new book, "Defeating Hitler," as a parting from Zionism. Am I wrong? Are you still a Zionist?
"I am a human being, I am a Jew and I am an Israeli. Zionism was an instrument to move me from the Jewish state of being to the Israeli state of being. I think it was Ben-Gurion who said that the Zionist movement was the scaffolding to build the home, and that after the state's establishment it should be dismantled."
So you confirm that you are no longer a Zionist?
"Already at the First Zionist Congress, Herzl's Zionism was victorious over the Zionism of Ahad Ha'am. I think that the 21st century should be the century of Ahad Ha'am. We have to leave Herzl behind and move to Ahad Ha'am."
Does this mean that you no longer find the notion of a Jewish state acceptable?
"It can't work anymore. To define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It's dynamite."
And a Jewish-democratic state?
"People find this very comfortable. It's lovely. It's schmaltzy. It's nostalgic. It's retro. It gives a sense of fullness. But 'Jewish-democratic' is nitroglycerine."
We have to change the national anthem?
"The anthem is a symbol. I would be ready to buy into a reality in which everything is fine and only the anthem is screwed-up."
Do we have to amend the Law of Return?
"We have to open the discussion. The Law of Return is an apologetic law. It is the mirror image of Hitler. I don't want Hitler to define my identity."
Should the Jewish Agency be dismantled?
"Back when I was chairman of the Jewish Agency, I suggested changing its name from the Jewish Agency for the Land of Israel to the Jewish Agency for Israeli Society. There is room for philanthropic tools. But at the center of its experience it have to deal with all of Israel's citizens, including the Arabs."
You write in your book that if Zionism is catastrophic Zionism, then you are not only post-Zionist but anti-Zionist. And I say that since the 1940s, the catastrophic element has been integral to Zionism. It follows that you are anti-Zionist.
"Ahad Ha'am made the charge against Herzl that his whole Zionism had its source in anti-Semitism. He thought of something else, of Israel as a spiritual center - the Ahad Ha'am line has not died, and now its time has come. Our confrontational Zionism vis-a-vis the world is disastrous."
But it's not just the Zionist issue. Your book is anti-Israeli, in the deepest sense. It is a book from which loathing of Israeliness emanates.
"When I was a boy I was a Jew. In the language prevalent here: a Jew-boy. I attended a heder [religious school]. I was taught by former yeshiva students. After that, for most of my life I was an Israeli. Language, signs, smells, tastes, places. Everything. Today that is not enough for me. In my situation today, I am beyond Israeli. Of the three identities that form me - human, Jewish and Israeli - I feel that the Israeli element deprives the other two."
On the face of it, your position is conciliatory and humanistic. But out of that approach you develop a very harsh attitude toward Israeliness and Israelis. You say terrible things about us.
"I think that I have written a book of love. Love hurts. If I were writing about Nicaragua, I wouldn't care. But I am coming from a place of tremendous pain. I see my love withering before my eyes. I see my society and the place I was raised in and my home being destroyed."
Love? You write that Israelis understand only force. If someone were to write that Arabs understand only force or that the Turkmen understand only force, he would immediately be condemned as a racist. And rightly.
"You can't take one sentence and say that this is the whole book."
It's not just one sentence. It is repeated. You say that we have force, a great deal of force and only force. You say that Israel is a Zionist ghetto, an imperialistic, brutish place that believes only in itself.
"Look at the Lebanon War. The people returned from the field of battle. There were certain achievements, there were certain failures, things were revealed. You would expect people in the mainstream and even on the right to understand that when the IDF is allowed to win, it doesn't win. That force is not a solution. But then comes Gaza, and what is the Gaza discourse? We will smash them, we will erase them. Nothing has sunk in. Nothing. And it's not just between nation and nation. Look at the relations between people. Listen to the personal conversation. The graph of violence on the roads, the discourse of the battered women. Look at the mirror of Israel's face."
What you are saying is that the problem is not just the occupation. In your eyes, Israel as a whole is some sort of horrible mutation.
"The occupation is a very small part of it. Israel is a frightened society. To look for the source of the obsession with force and to uproot it, you have to deal with the fears. And the meta-fear, the primal fear is the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust."
That is the book's thesis. You are not the first to propose it, but you formulate it very acutely. We are psychic cripples, you claim. We are gripped by dread and fear and make use of force because Hitler caused us deep psychic damage.
Well, I will counter by saying that your description is distorted. It's not as though we are living in Iceland and imagining that we are surrounded by Nazis who actually disappeared 60 years ago. We are surrounded by genuine threats. We are one of the most threatened countries in the world.
"The true Israeli rift today is between those who believe and those who are afraid. The great victory of the Israeli right in the struggle for the Israeli political soul lies in the way it has imbued it almost totally with absolute paranoia. I accept that there are difficulties. But are they absolute? Is every enemy Auschwitz? Is Hamas a scourge?"
You are patronizing and supercilious, Avrum. You have no empathy for Israelis. You treat the Israeli Jew as a paranoid. But as the cliche goes, some paranoids really are persecuted. On the day we are speaking, Ahmadinejad is saying that our days are numbered. He promises to eradicate us. No, he is not Hitler. But he is also not a mirage. He is a true threat. He is the real world - a world you ignore.
"I say that as of this moment, Israel is a state of trauma in nearly every one of its dimensions. And it's not just a theoretical question. Would our ability to cope with Iran not be much better if we renewed in Israel the ability to trust the world? Would it not be more right if we didn't deal with the problem on our own, but rather as part of a world alignment beginning with the Christian churches, going on to the governments and finally the armies?
"Instead, we say we do not trust the world, they will abandon us, and here's Chamberlain returning from Munich with the black umbrella and we will bomb them alone."
In your book we are not only victims of the Nazis. In your book we are almost Judeo-Nazis. You are careful. You do not actually say that Israel is Nazi Germany. But you come very close. You say that Israel is pre-Nazi Germany. Israel is Germany up to the Nazis.
"Yes. I started the book from the saddest place. As mourning, but for the loss of Israel. During most of the writing the book's title was 'Hitler Won.' I was sure it was finished. But slowly I discovered the layer of not everything being lost. And I discovered my father as a representative of German Jewry that was ahead of its time. These two themes nourished the book from beginning to end. In the end I am an optimistic person, and the end of the book is also optimistic."
The end may be optimistic, but throughout its entire course the book repeatedly equates Israel with Germany. Is that really justified? Is there sufficient basis for the Israel-Germany analogy?
"It is not an exact science, but I will describe to you some of the elements that go into the stew: a great sense of national insult; a feeling that the world has rejected us; unexplained losses in wars. And, as a result, the centrality of militarism in our identity. The place of reserve officers in society. The number of armed Israelis in the streets. Where is this swarm of armed people going? The expressions hurled publicly: 'Arabs out.'"
What you are actually claiming is that we have viruses of Nazism within us.
"The term 'Nazism' is extremely charged."
Avrum Burg writes in his new book: "It is sometimes difficult for me to distinguish between the primeval National-Socialism and some national cultural doctrines of the here-and-now."
"There is a difference between saying 'Nazi' and saying 'National-Socialist.' Nazi is an ultimate icon; in us it goes to final and terminal places."
OK, we will leave Nazism. Are you concerned about a fascist debacle in Israel?
"I think it is already here."
Do you really believe that the racist slogans which, appallingly, do indeed appear on the stone walks in Jerusalem are akin to the slogans of the 1930s in Germany?
"I see that we are not weeding out those utterances with all our might. And I hear voices coming out of Sderot .... We will destroy and kill and expel. And there is a transferist discourse in the government .... We have crossed so many red lines in the past few years. And then you ask yourself what the next red lines that we cross will be."
In the book you both ask and answer. "I feel very strongly," you write, "that there is a very good chance that a future Knesset in Israel ... will prohibit sexual relations with Arabs, use administrative means to prevent Arabs from employing Jewish cleaning ladies and workers ... like the Nuremberg Laws ... All this will happen, and is already happening." Didn't you get carried away, Avrum?
"When I was Speaker of the Knesset, I heard people talking. I conducted in-depth conversations with members from all parts of the House. I heard people of peace say -I want peace because I hate Arabs and can't stand to look at them and can't tolerate them, - and I heard people on the right use Kahanist language. Kahanism [referring to the ultranational doctrine of Rabbi Meir Kahane] is in the Knesset. It was disqualified as a party, but it constitutes 10 and maybe 15 and maybe even 20 percent of the Jewish discourse in the Knesset. These matters are far from simple. These are roiling waters."
I will tell you frankly. I think we have serious moral and psychological problems. But I think that the comparison with Germany on the eve of the rise of Nazism to power is baseless. One example: There is a problem with the place of the army in our lives and with the place of the generals in our politics and in the relations between the political echelon and the army. But you are likening Israeli militarism to German militarism, and that is a false comparison. You describe Israel as a Prussian Sparta living by the sword, and that is not the Israel I see outside. Certainly not in 2007.
"I envy your ability to read the situation as you read it. I very much envy you. But I think we are a society that in its feelings lives by the sword .... It is not by chance that I make the comparison with Germany, because our feeling that we are obliged to live by the sword stems from Germany. What they deprived us of in the 12 years of Nazism necessitates a very large sword. Look at the fence. The separation fence is a fence against paranoia. And it was born in my milieu. In my school of thought. With my own Haim Ramon. What is the thinking here? That I will erect a big wall and the problem will be solved because I will not see them. You know, the Labor movement always saw the historical context and represented a culture of dialogue, but here we have terrible pettiness of soul. The fence physically demarcates the end of Europe. It says that this is where Europe ends. It says that you are the forward post of Europe and the fence separates you from the barbarians. Like the Roman Wall. Like the Wall of China. But that is so pathetic. And it is a bill of divorce from the vision of integration. There is something so xenophobic about it. So insane. And it comes just at a time when Europe itself, and the world with it, has made such an impressive advance in internalizing the lessons of the Holocaust and has fomented a great advance in the normative behavior of nations."
The truth is that you are a salient Europist. You live in Nataf but you are all Brussels. The prophet of Brussels.
"Completely. Completely. I see the European Union as a biblical utopia. I don't know how long it will hold together, but it is amazing. It is completely Jewish."
And this admiration you show for Europe is not accidental. Because one of the riveting things in your book is that the sabra Avrum Burg turns his back on being sabra and connects very deeply with some sort of yekke [a reference to Jews of German origin] romanticism. Zionist Israel comes across as a vulgar baron in the book, whereas German Jewry is the ideal and the paragon.
"You are dichotomous, Ari, and I am inclusive. You slice off and I try to contain. Therefore I do not say that I am turning my back on being sabra but that I am turning in a different direction. And that is true. Completely true."