Can the Jewish People Survive Without an Enemy?
- Can the Jewish People Survive Without an Enemy?
By Tony Karon
January 1, 2009
Avrum Burg is the scion of one of Israel's founding families his
father was the deputy speaker of the first Knesset, and Burg himself
later became speaker of the legislature, and a member of Israel's
cabinet. His position at the heart of the Israeli establishment makes
all the more remarkable his critique of the Jewish State, which he
claims has lost its sense of moral purpose. In his new book The
Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from Its Ashes (Palgrave/MacMillan),
he argues that an obsession with an exaggerated sense of threats to
Jewish survival cultivated by Israel and its most fervent backers
actually impedes the realization of Judaism's higher goals. He
discussed his ideas with TIME.com's Tony Karon.
TIME: You argue that the Jewish people are in a state of crisis,
partly because of the extent to which the Holocaust dominates
contemporary Jewish identity. Can you explain?
Burg: I, like many others, believe that a day will come very soon
when we will live in peace with our neighbors, and then, for the
first time in our history, the vast majority of the Jewish people
will be living without an immediate threat to their lives. Peaceful
Israel and a secure Diaspora, all of us living the democratic
hemisphere. And then the question facing our generation will be, can
the Jewish people survive without an external enemy? Give me war,
give me pogrom, give me disaster, and I know what to do; give me
peace and tranquility, and I'm lost. The Holocaust was a hellish
horror, but we often use it as an excuse to avoid looking around
seeing how, existentially, 60 years later, in a miraculous way, are
living in a much better situation.
In your book, you raise the question of the purpose of Jewish
survival over thousands of years, insisting that Jews have not simply
survived for the sake of survival. What is this higher purpose?
Both my parents were survivors my father ran away from Berlin in
September 1939; my mum survived the 1929 massacre in Hebron. So, my
family knows something about trauma. Still, my siblings and I were
brought up in a trauma-free atmosphere. We were brought up to believe
that the Jewish people did not continue in order to continue, or
survive in order to survive. A cat can survive so it's a
circumcised cat, so what? It's not about survival; survival for what?
Look at the Exodus: After 400 years of very aggressive oppression and
enslavement, all of a sudden the outcry was "Let my people go," and
that continues to resonate against slavery everywhere to this day.
Then we come to the Sinai covenant, which is a key moment not just
for Jewish theology, but for Christian belief as well: The Ten
Commandments is the first human-to-human constitution, setting out
the relations among humans on the basis of laws. And then you come to
the Prophets, and its amazing that they're calling so clearly for a
just society. And then, in the Middle Ages, you listen to Maimonides
say he's waiting for redemption of the world without oppression
between nations. So, in the Jewish story over so many centuries,
there has always been a higher cause, not just for the Jews, but for
all of humanity.
Even in the Holocaust, the lesson is "Never Again." But this doesn't
mean just never again can genocide be allowed to happen to the Jews,
but never again can genocide be allowed to happen to any human being.
So, the Holocaust is not just mine; it belongs to all of humanity.
You suggest that there's been a turning inward from the universal
purpose and meaning of the Jewish experience...
Both the internal and the external hemispheres of the Jewish
experience are essential. I cannot envisage my Judaism without the
input I got from the external world, be it philosophy, aesthetics,
even democracy, which was introduced to the Jews in the last 200
years because of our interface with the the world. On the other hand,
I can't imagine my Western civilization and Western culture without
the Jewish input, without Jesus Christ, who was born, was crucified
and passed away as a Mishnaic rabbinical Jew. I cannot image
Christian Europe opening up to modernity without a Maimonides
reintroducing Greek philosophy. I cannot imagine modern times without
a Spinoza, and Mendelson. I cannot imagine the 20th century without
Marx and Freud. So, this conversation between Jews and the world is
not just a conversation of pogroms and slaughter and Holocaust; it's
also a couple of thousand years of a conversation that enriched me
and enriched them, and I don't want to give that up.
Your book argues that the centrality of the Holocaust in Israeli
identity is dysfunctional...
The Holocaust is a very real trauma for many people in Israel, and
nobody can argue with that. But ... when I hear someone like Benjamin
Netanyahu, who is a very intelligent person, say of [Iran's President
Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, "It's 1938 all over again," I say, is it?! Is
this the reality? Did we have such an omnipotent army in 1938? Did we
have an independent state in 1938? Did we have the unequivocal
support in 1938 of all the important superpowers in the world? No, we
did not. And when you compare Ahmadinejad to Hitler, don't you
diminish Hitler's significance?
The sad thing is that whenever a head of state begins a visit to
Israel, he doesn't go to a university or to the high-tech sector or
the beautiful cultural places we have in Israel; first you should get
molded into the Israeli reality at [the Holocaust memorial] Yad
Vashem. And I do not think that Yad Vashem should be the showcase or
the gateway through which everybody should first encounter Israel.
Part of the program, yes; but the starting point? This is not the way
to baptize people into an encounter with Judaism.
You argue that the purpose of the Yad Vashem visit is to silence
It's an emotional blackmail that says to people, this is what we have
experienced, so shut up and help us... When the sages created the
national holiday of Tisha Be'av, they made it the single day on which
we commemorate all the traumas of our history, from the destruction
of the first temple to the Spanish expulsion. These events did not
all happen on this exact date; the founders of Jewish civilization
confined the memory of the traumas of our history to one day, to
allow us the rest of the year to get on with being Jewish, rather
than letting sorrow take over our entire existence...
Look where we were 100 years ago and look where we are today no
other people made this transformation. Imagine we did not keep the
shadow of the trauma looming over ourselves daily, what could we have
been? How come 25% of the Nobel laureates in certain fields are of
Jewish origins, and 10% of the arms deals around the world are done
by Israelis? Why is my brother or sister in America a great poet or
composer or physician whose achievements raise up all of humanity,
and I who live here on my sword became a world expert on arms and
swords? Is that really my mission, or is that an outcome of the black
water with which I water my flowers? To make our contribution to
humanity, we have to free ourselves of the obsession with the trauma.
Many Jews, in Israel and in America, see Israel as surrounded by
deadly threats, and would see the benign and peaceful world you
describe as a dangerous fantasy. What do you say to your critics?
I have very low expectations of new thinking and insight emerging
from the mainstream Israeli and Jewish establishment. Their role is
to maintain the status quo. Israel is bereft of forward thinking. We
are experts at managing the crisis rather than finding alternatives
to the crisis. In Israel you have many tanks, but not many think
tanks. One of the reasons I left the Israeli politics was my growing
feeling that Israel became a very efficient kingdom, but with no
prophecy. Where is it going?
My idea of Judaism can be represented through a classic Talmudic
dilemma: You are walking along by the river and there are two people
drowning. One is Rabbi [Meir] Kahane, and the other is the Dalai
Lama. You can only save one of them. For whom will you jump? If you
jump for Rabbi Kahane because genetically he's Jewish, you belong to
a different camp than mine, because I would jump for the Dalai Lama.
As much as he's not genetically Jewish, he's my Jewish brother when
it comes to my value system. That's the difference between me and the
Jewish establishment in Israel and America.
But how can this new thinking you're advocating help Israel solve its
Many people say to me, "What about Gaza? Don't have so much
compassion for them, don't tell the Israelis to be nice there, tell
[the Palestinians] to be nice there. And I say Gaza is a nightmare,
and it's a stain on my conscience. And I'm very troubled by the
attitude of Israelis against Israeli Arabs. It's a shame. It's a
black hole in my democracy. But I say sometimes that I'm too close to
the reality; I don't have the perspective; I don't have the bigger
picture. But if enough of my kids and enough of my youth will go to
volunteer, be it in Darfur or be it Rwanda, or be it in the squatter
camps of South Africa, they will sharpen their sensitivities. And
they will come back and say, listen, if we can do so much good out
there, let's do something over here. And I see my own kids, when they
come back from India and from Latin America, how changed they are as
people. I see my son, after one and a half years in Latin American.
He came home, and five days later, was called for 30 days "miluim"
service [with his military unit] in the West Bank. And he was sitting
in the worst junction in the West Bank. And he says, "When I look
around me 360 degrees, nobody loves me. Settlers, Kahanes, rabbis,
mullahs, Hamas, Palestinians, you name it they all hate me. And he
told me, "Here I was sitting on a corner one day; it was my break
time, and I was drinking coffee with a friend of mine, and out of the
valley climbed an old Arab. He was very bent forward and frail, and
walked slowly to us and said 'Here is my ID.' And we told him, you
don't have to give us your ID; we didn't ask for it. And he said 'No,
here it is, I want you to look at it. Look at it, I'm okay, I'm
kosher, I'm kosher.' I checked it and let him pass, and then I began
crying and crying."
So, I asked my son, why did you cry, what happened? And he said, "You
don't understand that for a year and a half, I was in Latin America,
going to small villages and sitting with this kind of man, listening
to their oral tradition, to the beauty of their history, to the
wisdom of their culture. And they shared it with me. And now here I
am, the policeman, here I am the bad guy, here I am the occupier. And
I can't talk to this man. You know how much he could tell me under
different circumstances?" And I say, that's an example for me.
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