There’s something a little off about Ethan Bronner’s reporting as the N.Y. Times Israel correspondent. He gets much of his reporting right. But whenever he writes about a subject that requires nuance, or an awareness of political subtlety he invariably gets it wrong. But not wrong in egregious ways. Just wrong enough to make you wince with discomfort. If this were the Seattle Post Intelligencer (my local paper) or the Houston Chronicle it probably wouldn’t make as much of a difference. But when you’re the “newspaper of record” and so much is expected, the misses really miss.
Today, Bronner profiles Avrum Burg, who’s written a remarkable new book, the Holocaust is Over, which provides one of the most lacerating and profound critiques of modern Zionism written in years. It is a tour de force work which lays bare the contradictions inherent in the the attempt by a Jewish state also to be a secular western democracy.
TPM Cafe devoted a week to discussion of the book featuring Daniel Levy, Phil Weiss, John Mearsheimer and others. Somehow, though I was the first blogger to mention the book long before it was even translated into English, my invitation to participate must’ve been lost in the mail. TPM didn’t even see fit to reply to an e mail inquiry.
So what’s wrong with Bronner’s profile? It’s a question of tone and a question of where to place emphasis. There is a certain element of dismissal in the reporter’s portrayal of Burg’s current role in Israeli society and in his appraisal of the significance of the author’s political stance. Personally, I see Burg as a revolutionary thinker. One who grew up within the system, thus allowing him to see it for what it is–including the ability to see its contradictions and weaknesses. That’s why Burg’s contribution to the debate is invaluable. And it’s why Bronner’s minimization of Burg’s importance is off-putting:
Israel is no stranger to self-examination. Its leaders and thinkers, indeed many of its average citizens, are aware that nearly everything about the place defies normal categorization and is subject to debate. This is a source of both pride and irritation. But many said Mr. Burg, 53, was not just asking delicate questions. He was poisoning the well from which the nation — and he — had long drawn their water.
I don’t have a problem with Bronner acknowledging the critics. There are critics and they deserve their say in this. The problem though is that instead of moving on and putting Burg’s ideas in a proper context, Bronner essentially remains stuck with the critics and essentially adopts a modified version of their dismissive approach toward him.
Here’s a further example:
There is no doubt that he raises some serious questions: Is Israel too focused on the Holocaust as a touchstone of history? Can it stay both Jewish and democratic over the long term, or is it time to look for another model? What kind of future is there for Israeli Arabs?
Less clear, however, is whether Mr. Burg has provided any serious answers.
Less clear to whom? Perhaps to Bronner or Burg’s other critics. But the Hebrew edition of his book was a raging success. The English language edition is doing well as well. Somebody thinks he’s providing answers.
Bronner accuses Burg of pulling punches in the transition from the Hebrew to English editions:
…It also seems clear that he has modified and adjusted his arguments, especially for a foreign audience. The English version does not have some of his more alarming assertions in the Hebrew one — for example, that the Israeli government would probably soon pass the equivalent of the Nuremberg laws, with provisions like a prohibition on marriage between Jews and Arabs.
The implication seems to be that Burg has pulled his punches in order to either protect Israel from his most savage attacks or because he wished to save his most outrageous attacks for Israeli readers. I don’t find the notion that the Israeli Knesset might pass Nuremberg like laws at all outrageous. I don’t know if I would predict it would happen “soon” if that’s what Burg writes. But the erosion of Israeli democracy has led and will lead to many similar outrages which should be pointed out by political and social critics of Israel.
Listen to the condescension in this passage:
Asked what precipitated his initial shift from mainstream public figure to more marginal public scourge…
The implication is that the “mainstream public figure” is what should most interest a N.Y. Time reporter and the general public, but that someone who drops out of the political rat race has become, ipso facto, a marginal presence. This is utter narischkeit. The only people who dismiss Burg in this way are those on the political right who are most threatened by his analysis.
Here again is more generalized condescension masquerading as accepted wisdom:
The many friends and acquaintances of Mr. Burg — a man of great charm and wit, with a large social appetite — have been left bewildered by it all, saying the soft, flowery answers he has offered to his big, tough questions have left them cold.
The implication is that most of Burg’s friends are shocked and bewildered by his radical shift. The fact that Bronner only quotes one, leaves one to suspect that this passage is one of those typical reportorial charades in which “many” unnamed people miraculously share the very point of view the reporter already holds. It leads one to ask whether Burg doesn’t have a single remaining friend who enthusiastically endorses and understands his change of heart.
Bronner’s conclusion is infuriating because of its inaccuracy and ongoing condescension:
In truth, he has gained almost no traction here with [his] recommendations. Yet what is perhaps most interesting of all is that Mr. Burg continues to play a public role in Israel. He is invited to speak to young people, he writes occasional opinion columns, and he is greeted warmly, even embraced, in this city’s cafes. This may be because, despite it all, Avrum Burg is family. And whether he likes it or not, Israelis look out for family.
Yes, Avrum has become that eccentric uncle who’s somehow gone native and become a little dotty in the head. But we love him, don’t ya know, because he represents a facet of ourselves we perhaps are a tad embarrassed about, but which we just cannot in the end utterly reject.
In fact, the idea that Israel is part of one big Jewish family is precisely what Burg despises about modern day Israel. He does not want it to be family. He wants it to be a nation like other western nations. He wants Jews to be Jews and Israelis to be Israelis. The stronger the separation between the two, in fact the less family they are, the better for both.
Bronner has gotten Burg wrong. He’s not off by much. But even the small amount in which he is off is significant. He’s trivialized him, trivialized his views and thus diminished the impact that they could have on Israeli society and the Jewish Diaspora.