Avraham Burg: The Zionist Revolution is Dead
In August, 2003, Avraham Burg wrote an extrordinary article in Yediot Achronot, Israel’s largest daily newspaper. It is a powerful, elemental jeremiad directed against current Israeli policy and the climate of escapism and denial dominating Israeli society. It was subsequently translated into other languages and printed in Le Monde, The Guardian, The Forward and the International Herald Tribune. I’ve chosen to link to the Guardian version, The Zionist Revolution is Dead.
I quote long passages from the piece simply because of its undeniable power and the chilling message it presents to anyone who cherishes or values what the State of Israel might stand for if it ever lived up to its original promise to be a ‘light unto the nations.’
First a word about Avraham Burg. He was the Knesset Speaker under the previous Labor government (1999-2003). He is currently one of the few Labor representatives who retains a seat in the Knesset. Burg’s father is Dr. Yosef Burg, founder of the National Religious Party and one of those who was “there at the creation” with David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and others who witnessed the establishment of the State of Israel. Burg is an observant Jew with dovish views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–quite a rarity in Israel.
So to hear such a person pronounce the death knell for Zionism would be a bit like hearing George Washington’s son announcing that the American dream for which his father fought was on its death bed. To paraphrase a pungent aphorism: “There is nothing like death to focus the mind.”
Though I believe that Burg has somewhat overdramatized his case in order to “focus our minds” and make us realize how desperate Israel’s position is–this doesn’t in any way diminish the power of his words or their immense significance in the current political debate.
The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice. As such, the end of the Zionist enterprise is already on our doorstep. There is a real chance that ours will be the last Zionist generation. There may yet be a Jewish state here, but it will be a different sort, strange and ugly.
In the next passage, Burg satirically alludes to financial scandals which Sharon faces:
The opposition does not exist, and the coalition, with Arik Sharon at its head, claims the right to remain silent. In a nation of chatterboxes, everyone has suddenly fallen dumb, because there’s nothing left to say. We live in a thunderously failed reality. Yes, we have revived the Hebrew language, created a marvelous theater and a strong national currency. Our Jewish minds are as sharp as ever. We are traded on the Nasdaq. But is this why we created a state? The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or anti-missile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed.
Anyone who has ever visited Israel will understand the dark humor in Burg’s reference to a “nation of chatterboxes,” because Israelis love to talk, to argue, to joke, to berate. They are a nation of talkers and storytellers. To hear that the “chatterboxes have fallen dumb” is another dramatic image that reinforces the desperation facing Israel today.
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 who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.
This cannot work. Even if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger forever, it won’t work. A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself. Note this moment well: Zionism’s superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall. Only madmen continue dancing on the top floor while the pillars below are collapsing.
What is especially telling about the following section is the cause and effect relationship that Burg notes between Israel’s cruel and immoral treatment of the Palestinians and the moral and social decline in the quality of Israeli life:
We have grown accustomed to ignoring the suffering of the women at the roadblocks. No wonder we don’t hear the cries of the abused woman living next door or the single mother struggling to support her children in dignity. We don’t even bother to count the women murdered by their husbands.Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism. They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites, because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated.
Here Burg recognizes that like the French in Algeria and Vietnam and like the Americans in Iraq today Israel cannot kill enough guerilla opponents to keep up with the swell of new recruits added each time you kill another guerilla. This reminds me of that Dutch boy trying to stick his finer into the holes in the dike to prevent a deluge:
We could kill a thousand ringleaders and engineers a day and nothing will be solved, because the leaders come up from below from the wells of hatred and anger, from the “infrastructures” of injustice and moral corruption.
If all this were inevitable, divinely ordained and immutable, I would be silent. But things could be different, and so crying out is a moral imperative.
The following passage is the heart of Burg’s message. The fire, passion and despair for the future burn even brighter than in any previous or subsequent passage of the article. One can tell that Burg himself would love to be the Prime Minister in order to deliver this message to his people. Part of his profound despair lies in his awareness that in the present political climate there is very little chance that he either could become the Labor Party leader or that he could win an election for Prime Minister. Burg knows how to end the conflict. But he also knows that Israel in its present state of historical amnesia and moral blindness would never elect him to do so:
Here is what the prime minister should say to the people:
The time for illusions is over. The time for decisions has arrived. We love the entire land of our forefathers and in some other time we would have wanted to live here alone. But that will not happen. The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.
Between the Jordan and the Mediterranean there is no longer a clear Jewish majority. And so, fellow citizens, it is not possible to keep the whole thing without paying a price. We cannot keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East. There cannot be democracy without equal rights for all who live here, Arab as well as Jew. We cannot keep the territories and preserve a Jewish majority in the world’s only Jewish state—not by means that are humane and moral and Jewish.
Do you want the greater Land of Israel? No problem. Abandon democracy. Let’s institute an efficient system of racial separation here, with prison camps and detention villages. Qalqilya Ghetto and Gulag Jenin.
Do you want a Jewish majority? No problem. Either put the Arabs on railway cars, buses, camels and donkeys and expel them en masse—separate ourselves from them absolutely, without tricks and gimmicks. There is no middle path. We must remove all the settlements—all of them—and draw an internationally recognized border between the Jewish national home and the Palestinian national home. The Jewish Law of Return will apply only within our national home, and their right of return will apply only within the borders of the Palestinian state.
Do you want democracy? No problem. Either abandon the greater Land of Israel, to the last settlement and outpost, or give full citizenship and voting rights to everyone, including Arabs. The result, of course, will be that those who did not want a Palestinian state alongside us will have one in our midst, via the ballot box.
Burg compares Arik Sharon unfavorably to previous strong-willed Israeli Prime Ministers. His message: “woe to a nation with ‘leaders’ such as these:”
But there is no prime minister in Jerusalem. The disease eating away at the body of Zionism has already attacked the head. David Ben-Gurion sometimes erred, but he remained straight as an arrow. When Menachem Begin was wrong, nobody impugned his motives. No longer. Polls published last weekend showed that a majority of Israelis do not believe in the personal integrity of the prime minister—yet they trust his political leadership. In other words, Israel’s current prime minister personally embodies both halves of the curse: suspect personal morals and open disregard for the law—combined with the brutality of occupation and the trampling of any chance for peace. This is our nation, these its leaders. The inescapable conclusion is that the Zionist revolution is dead.
In the following section, Burg makes a very important distinction between morality and politics by saying that the utter direness of the current Israeli predicament transcends politics. He adds that those who look at the political quagmire as an opportunity for political advantage are doing themselves, their party and the Israeli public a terrible disservice:
This is the time for clear alternatives. Anyone who declines to present a clear-cut position—black or white in effect—is collaborating in the decline. It is not a matter of Labor versus Likud or right versus left, but of right versus wrong, acceptable versus unacceptable. The law-abiding versus the lawbreakers. What’s needed is not a political replacement for the Sharon government but a vision of hope, an alternative to the destruction of Zionism and its values by the deaf, dumb and callous.