A Critique of Avraham Burg

The former head of the World Zionist Organization is now one of Zionism's fiercest critics.

This article was written in response to Avraham Burg’s working paper, The World & Judaism, which was presented at the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Michael Walzer once described “the stereotypical leftist critic” as a man who “with much attendant drama, detaches himself from all emotional ties” that had bound him to his place of origin, and “discovers universal values as if for the first time.”
Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg is Israel’s stereotypical leftist critic, high priest of the country’s alienated elite. His father, who fled Berlin in September 1939, was among the founders of the National Religious Party. Burg fils followed in his father’s political footsteps; he headed the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, and spent a decade in the Knesset, including four years as speaker.

But since his failed 2001 bid for leadership of the Labor Party, the increasingly disaffected Burg rather dramatically began to express revulsion for the world in which he had been raised, and for the country which he had served with distinction.

Disaffection & Isolation

“The Israeli nation today,” Burg averred in an overheated 2003 article, “rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice? It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers.”

In his latest book, The Holocaust is Over, Burg suggested that the Israeli soul had been distorted by the Shoah, the trauma of which “created a national obsession of exaggerated securitism that often morphs into primitive belligerence.” Israel’s moral deterioration, he remarked, reminded him not a little of the last days of the Weimar Republic. And the Shoah complex, he wrote, infected the Jewish state with “a boundless paranoia that is no longer able to distinguish between friend and predator, a primitive suspicion of everyone.”

Burg’s disaffection was not surprisingly accompanied by a growing sense of isolation. “There is no one to talk to here,” he told an interviewer from Ha’aretz. “The religious community of which I was a part–I feel no sense of belonging to it. The secular community–I am not part of it, either. I have no one to talk to.” Burg blamed his growing isolation on his erstwhile colleagues. “As an Israeli,” he told Der Spiegel in 2009, “I feel lost because so many of my fellow countrymen are in love with war.”

The World & Judaism

In a paper called “The World and Judaism: Imaginary Dangers and Genuine Opportunities,” Burg makes two further steps down the polemical road he has lately been traveling. First, he charges that religion in Israel is “reigning over a servile and petrified political establishment,” with the result that “the secular structure of Israeli statehood is under threat.”
Religious Jew in Jerusalem
According to Burg, the ranks of the besiegers swell not only with “double-faced” and “cynical” ultra-Orthodox Jews, but also with religious Zionists, who in his eyes “prefer an eternal war for the purity of Jewish descent over peace,” and who are “willing to sacrifice most of the values of Judaism” on the altar of land-worship.

Burg’s second charge here is that Israelis today have taken too much to heart the biblical description of them as “a people that shall dwell apart.” They have constructed a “spiteful identity,” he writes, one of “suspicion and seclusion.” They have become constricted and aloof.

Yet the truth of the matter is that in both cases, the verdict seems more appropriate to the judge than to the accused. This is not only because the evidence for a religious takeover of Israeli political life is slim. (As of the recent elections, the major secular parties hold almost 85 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.) More to the point, it is because Burg–who calls here for “a new theology that places at the center not God but the human”–promotes his own religion, more universalistic but no less messianic than the one that arouses his contempt. Burg’s Israel, after all, is no mere state, but “the cradle for the awakening of the dreams of hundreds of generations.”

On Uniqueness & Isolationism

So too with the verdict of spiteful isolation, for it is difficult to come away from this paper with anything but the impression that it is a self-absorbed critique of self-absorption.

For one thing, Burg begins his reflections with a lament that Jews who protest their uniqueness too much bear the mark both of self-absorption and a corrosive parochialism: “We have isolated the issues of modern Jewish identity from their broader human and cultural contexts?. We were always the Hebrews–literally those who live across–the entire world on the one side and we across from it.” But then Burg himself isolates his deliberation on Israeli identity from the broader context by insisting that the fundamental question of his meditation–namely, What is the State of Israel?–“bears no similarity to questions asked in other places and other countries.”

Burg’s style of scornful repudiation is hardly unique. Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, used to talk about the country’s “rampant chauvinism, xenophobic, ethnic, and national discrimination, clerical influence, political malaise.” Israeli novelist David Grossman lamented in a recent book that after decades of Israeli obsession with security and defense, “we may be very close to becoming a suit of armor that no longer contains a knight, no longer contains a human.”

But the apocalyptic quality of his pronouncements sets Burg apart even from his alienated peers, with the result that his latest paper illuminates not much more than its author’s aloofness from Israeli life. Fortunately, though, most Israelis instinctively fathom what their once-promising politician, for all his detachment and its attendant drama, does not: that self-examination ceases to edify when it shades into self-disgust, and that self-laceration is not a form of self-knowledge.

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