Steps in the right direction
07-31-2007, 05:30 PM
Steps in the right direction
By Ina Friedman
The Jerusalem Report
In a stinging indictment of its approach to the Holocaust, a former pillar of the Zionist and Israeli-political establishments assails his country's insecurities as self-induced, charges that the Jewish state is prone to a form of racism no less vicious than that of the Nazis, and urges his countrymen to shed their narrow Israeli ethos and transform themselves into universal Jews
Defeating Hitler By Avraham Burg - Yediot Aharonot Books and Chemed Books 382 pp.; 88 shekels (Hebrew) "Defeating Hitler" is a startling document, though less for what it says - much of which has been articulated before, both in Israel and abroad - than for who is saying it.
After all, Avraham Burg's credentials as anIsraeli blue-blood are impeccable. His father, Yosef Burg, who fled from Nazi Germany in 1939, served as a minister in successive Israeli governments representing the then-politically-moderate, modern-Orthodox National Religious Party. His mother's forbears had lived in Hebron for seven generations before she was driven out by the 1929 anti-Jewish riots, in which she lost half her family.
Burg junior, likewise a modern-Orthodox Jew, threw in his lot first with Peace Now and then with the Labor party, entered the Knesset in 1988 at age 33 and went on to become chairman of the Jewish Agency and then speaker of the Knesset in the 1990s, before retiring from public life three years ago to enter the business world.
Yet reading his polemic, one has the sense that he must have chafed in those official roles, for he has come out with a guns-blazing critique of some of the most sensitive elements of the Israeli ethos.
Burg begins by arguing that Israel's understanding and approach to the Shoah (the Holocaust) has warped its psyche and values almost to the point of mirroring those of Hitler and his cohorts. He then launches a frontal attack on what he regards as the Jewish racism (derived from the notion of being God's "Chosen People") that is fostered, he argues, by Israel's rigidly fundamentalist religious establishment and has been echoed from the podium of the Knesset (in calls for ethnic cleansing couched in the euphemism of "transferring" the Arabs out of the Jewish patrimony). Though he stops short of endorsing the repealed U.N. resolution that Zionism is an expression of racism, he advocates dismantling the classic constructs of the Jewish nation-state (such as the Law of Return), imploring his countrymen to embrace, and truly eternalize, the humanist values embedded in Judaism and thus join - and place their trust in the fidelity of - the family of enlightened nations.
By offering these judgments andprescriptions, Burg has elevated himself to something of a b?te noir, forced to parry charges ranging from heresy and superciliousness to a cockeyed optimism that, were it to be adopted by his compatriots, would quickly lead Israel to perdition. But this is not to say that his is a lone voice in Israel, or that all his observations should be dismissed as bizarre.
The gist of Burg's opening argument is that, rather than view the Shoah as part of a broader campaign of genocide propelled by the Nazi doctrine of the master race - a crime against humanity perpetrated against Communists, homosexuals, the mentally challenged, the mentally ill, Gypsies, and Slavs, as well as Jews - Israel has chosen to portray it as a unique and exclusively Jewish tragedy, the climax of a millennium of European anti-Semitism. (Germany, he points out, had already committed genocide in the early 20th century by killing 65,000 of the indigenous people of what is now Namibia in the course of colonizing it.) This insistence on the uniqueness of Jewish victimization, he charges, has led Israel down strange and unacceptable paths. For example, Israel has refused to officially acknowledge other instances of genocide, such as the Armenian holocaust (in order to maintain good relations with the Turkish government) and displayed a noncommittal stance toward Serbia despite its practice of ethnic cleansing during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Worse yet, Burg charges, by portraying the Shoah as proof of abiding Jewish vulnerability, Israel has exploited it as an excuse to justify its own acts of brutality (against both the Palestinians and the inhabitants of Lebanon). "The Shoah is our life," he writes. "We have removed it from its historical context and turned it into a claim and reason for every deed. Everything is compared to the Holocaust." (During Israel's 1982 incursion into Lebanon, Burg recalls as an example, the late prime minister
Menachem Begin compared PLO leader Yasser Arafat to Hitler.) "And everything is dwarfed by it... so everything [we do] is permissible." Ironically, Burg writes, while Israel was "quick" to reconcile with Germany - signing a reparations treaty in 1952 and establishing diplomatic relations in 1965 - it actively nurtured its Shoah-induced fears and credited them to the evil designs of its Arab neighbors.
After the Egyptian army's opening gains in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, even then-defense minister Moshe Dayan - the epitome of a seasoned Sabra fighter and the emblem of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War - panicked and predicted the imminent fall of the Jewish state. And in subsequent military confrontations against irregular forces (referring to the two wars fought on Lebanese soil and the response to the first and second Palestinian intifadas), Israel's being "stuck" in the Holocaust, Burg posits, resulted in "the sanctification of its security concept, which often turns into an obsession of revenge and power."
Yet interestingly, this mindset did not develop directly after the Holocaust, when the wounds were still fresh. On the contrary, during the first 12 years of Israel's sovereign existence, Burg observes, it was too occupied with state-building activities even to allow the Holocaust survivors who had flooded through its gates to express their trauma. Back then, he writes (drawing directly on Tom Segev's book "The Seventh Million"), it was taboo to talk about the Holocaust - while now it is discussed incessantly, all but dominating Israeli discourse. Just look around you, he invites us, and "you'll find endless references to the Holocaust everywhere: in the media, in literature, in music and art, in politics and education. Shoah, Shoah, and a little more Shoah." The turnabout came with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, which wrought a sea change in the Israeli psyche.
After almost five months of survivors' testimonies broadcast live on the radio, Burg writes, the self-confidence of the Zionist pioneers and founders of the state was supplanted by an indelible mood of angst, rendering Israel a society that is "haunted and self-righteous, panicky and brutal, remembering and vengeful." Since Eichmann's capture and trial - which Burg describes as a cynical bid by then-premier David Ben-Gurion to reverse the flagging fortunes of his Mapai party - "everything seems threatening to us, and our normal development as a people, a society and a state is brought to almost a complete halt."
A second result of this grim transformation, Burg holds, is the obdurate mantra that "the whole world's against us," which he characterizes as "boundless paranoia that is no longer able to distinguish between friend and predator, a primitive suspicion of everyone, all the time, about every issue." No amount of rapport with or support from the world's democracies is able to assuage this deep suspicion; no degree of military strength suffices to allay these fears, he suggests. Even the old saw that the paranoid may have real enemies does not seem to faze him, for he's convinced that Israel's status has never been better. Not only "gone are the days of our being 'a little country surrounded by enemies,'" he writes, "the [belief that] 'the whole world's against us' is untrue.
"Even Iran's present position as the vanguard of opposition to Israel and Judaism doesn't frighten me so much. [Iran is] not just our problem; it's menacing, but it's a challenge to the entire Western world, and most of the Arab and Muslim world, and is at any rate being dealt with accordingly. We needn't feel pushed [into a corner]... it's enough to be realistic: No other country in the world enjoys the wholehearted commitment of the leaders of the foremost powers to its peace and security. Much has changed in the diplomatic arena since the sad days of Auschwitz. We can calm down ..."
But Israelis resist the call to avoid overreaction, Burg charges, because "we need to feel [ourselves] the eternal victim... in order to avoid taking responsibility for Israel's situation and its fate." The supreme irony, he observes in summing up this psychology, is that as the initial stage of his program to destroy the Jews within his sphere of control, Hitler sealed them behind the walls of ghettos. Since the 1960s, in his portrayal, Israel has withdrawn into a ghetto of its own making, a prison of self-absorption, fear and mistrust of friend and foe alike. Given this reading, it's little wonder that the original working title of this book was "Hitler Won."
Equally disturbing, Burg proposes, is that Israelis, who view the Holocaust as utterly unfathomable, fail to see that they themselves are not free of sentiments similar to the ones that generated it. In fact, he compares an undercurrent in contemporary Israeli society to the racist doctrine that seduced the German public to acquiesce in Hitler's evil. In nigh-apocalyptic language, he argues that the warped, fundamentalist reading of the liturgical verse, "You have chosen us from among all the nations" - a belief, Burg says, that may have been comforting to the slaves in antiquity but is unspeakably inappropriate in the 21st century - has given rise to a "Jewish racist doctrine" positing the innate superiority of the Jewish people.
Preached openly by Rabbi Meir Kahane in his day and still promoted by one of his leading disciples, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg, this creed, Burg tells us, is also prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, is disseminated by mystics and kabbalists and is even ascribed to by many "traditionalist" Jews, who are not strictly observant but regard the teachings of these mentors as the "authentic" Judaism. Ginzburg, the dean of a nationalist-messianic yeshiva originally established at the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus that caters to zealots from the West Bank settler community, is ostensibly a marginal figure on the Israeli scene. But around the hard core of his followers and their ilk, Burg writes, "extend ripples of faith and support, ignorance and folly, insensitivity and apathy, and ultimately their translation into hooliganism, violence, and actual bloodshed." Combined, he assesses, this outlook poses "a genuine threat to the modern Jewish identity and the State of Israel," for "Israeli public opinion is, at least subconsciously, primed to accept [it]."
To clarify his perspective, Burg wisely qualifies that "we are not the Germany of... the height of the Final Solution." But he sees Israeli society as "somewhere quite close to the initial stages of the collapse of the humane and cultured Germany" when Hitler rose to power. So alarmed is he by his assessments that he even predicts "the day is not far off when the Knesset may well enact the equivalent of the Nuremberg Laws," forbidding marriage between Jews and Arabs, annulling existing mixed marriages, outlawing sexual relations between Jews and Arabs, and preventing Arabs from employing Jewish cleaning women or laborers in order to avoid the least suggestion of Arab superiority over the Jewish people that rules in the Jewish state. "All this will happen and is already happening," he warns darkly.
Yet despite this grim portrayal, Burg chooses to end his book on an optimistic and pragmatic note by offering prescriptions for restoring Israel's battered immune system and discarding its misguided beliefs. Among his recommendations is to halt the trips made by Jewish-Israeli high school students to Auschwitz and instead to send mixed groups of Jewish and Arab pupils on a grand tour of Europe that begins in Spain (to explore the medieval period of "amazingly fruitful relations between Islam and Judaism"); moves on to
Eastern Europe and Germany (to examine the relations between the Jews and the Gentiles that prevailed over the past millennium and "only recently became so terrible and threatening"); and ends with a visit to communities of Muslim immigrants in Europe that are currently attempting to create "the new European Islam."
Jewish students, he adds, should also be directly exposed to Jewish communities in the West, in order to learn "what a threat-free existence is, what communal solidarity is, and how it's possible to live a national, meaningful and proud existence... [marked by] relations of complete trust between a Jewish minority and its non-Jewish environment."
Less original is Burg's proposal to retire the "antiquated" concept of the nation-state, built along ethnic lines, and redefine Israel as "a state of all its Jews and all its citizens, with the majority," he adds a bit cryptically, "determining its character." This revision would entail repealing the Law of Return, whose definition of a Jew according to bloodlines is at any rate, he suggests, an unfortunate echo of the Nazis' Nuremberg Laws. Actually, he calls for altogether rejecting the tradition of "genetic Judaism" in favor of a "Judaism of values" that will readily accept into the fold anyone committed to practicing its humanistic creed. In a globalized world increasingly marked by multicultural societies and a commitment to human rights, he admonishes, Israel cannot ignore the Zeitgeist, cling to a narrow and discriminatory nationalist vision, and still hope to flourish. Indeed, the ultimate vision cherished by Burg, who portrays himself first and foremost as a human being and citizen of the world, is to transform Israel into a country of "universal Jews."
Many readers may be outraged by "Defeating Hitler," even charge Burg with providing ammunition to its enemies and anti-Semites the world over. Some will deem his appraisal of the sway of fundamentalist-religious thinking on Israeli society as exaggerated and fault him for dwelling solely on the negative, as though trauma and fear were the sum and substance of life in what strikes so many observers as an unusually vibrant and resilient society. Others will likely judge Burg incorrigibly naive, challenge his idealized portrait of the democracies of the West, and decry his cavalier treatment of the dangers facing a country located in an increasingly radicalized and unstable region.
I came away from this treatise with a deep sense of ambivalence. Burg offers many points deserving of contemplation, some of which have been raised before by writers of his political ilk and generation. Yet he does himself a disservice by maintaining a tone of outrage through much of the book, which has the effect of putting even empathetic readers on the defensive and is hardly the way to gain a wide hearing among his countrymen.
Ostensibly placing Israel on the couch with therapeutic intent, he proceeds to deliver a harangue of blame to his "patient" for creating its own problems, while barely alluding to the extenuating circumstance that Israel is engaged in an intractable political dispute with neighbors who have suffered their own traumas and bring to the table neuroses and cultural baggage of their own. His style is also marred by resort to hyperbole and sweeping statements backed by a single example, or none at all. And while he quotes (and sometimes contends with) the views of historians and philosophers, from Hannah Arendt to Alain Finkelkraut, I would have appreciated references to research by sociologists and social psychologists to anchor his claims.
Despite these shortcomings, however, "Defeating Hitler" is a thought-provoking read that will, I believe, be particularly intriguing to younger Israelis willing to approach it with an open mind and will also resonate with all those who have wearied of living in a perpetual Israel Agonistes and are searching for paths to reconciliation.
Give me the judgment of balanced minds in preference to laws every time. Codes and manuals create patterned behavior. All patterned behavior tends to go unquestioned, gathering destructive momentum.
- Darwi Odrade
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