Well, not precisely, but read on.
Burston is a Haaretz columnist with a set of quirky progressive ideas and a maverick streak. You can’t pin him down precisely. Sometimes he writes columns that make me proud and sometimes I want to throw a shoe at him (his phrase from a talk he delivered tonight) or at least his column on the computer screen. A few months ago during the Anat Kamm case he wrote to me some lovely compliments about my coverage of the story. He said I was brave and I was gratified to hear him say that. Then I found that he’d been a very close friend of David Twersky, a former Jewish journalist and press officer of American Jewish Congress, who recently passed away from cancer. Twersky and Burston were part of a garin that lived on Kibbutz Gezer in the 1970s. I had spent a summer month on Gezer with an earlier American garin in 1972. We had things in common.
So when I read that J Street would be hosting a talk by Burston tonight at my shul, I e mailed him and invited him to join me for a cup of coffee (which unfortunately didn’t happen). I was looking forward to meeting him for the first time and made plans to attend his talk. I was hoping to like him and his views as much as I had over the past few months. But I was disappointed. Not in Burston the person, but in his talk.
There are Israelis who, when they speak abroad deliver talks they never would in Israel. They think their job is to rally the troops, to get them not to give up hope. And I understand this impulse, I really do. I too used to be a liberal Zionist (I’m still a Zionist, but that’s another blog post entirely). But it doesn’t do anyone any good. It sugarcoats Israeli reality. It in a sense infantilizes the Diaspora audience by presuming that it either can’t take or wouldn’t understand a full-bore analysis of the extremity of the political situation in Israel.
At the present moment, an Israeli speaking in the Diaspora does a disservice when he makes things appear not quite as bad as they really are. Only the truth suffices in the present situation. Perhaps in 1972 or 1982 or 1992, one could perhaps understand the impulse to truncate one’s message. But such bowdlerization of truth can no longer be justified.
So what did Burston say? That brings me back to my title. At one point, Burston said:
About the progressive Jew who sees nothing wrong with the many Muslim nations in the world, but who cannot allow the Jews to have a single state of their own anywhere in the world, I say that person is an anti-Semite.
That’s why I say that Burston called me an anti-Semite, though he didn’t do so personally. But let me clear about my own views. I do support an Israel that has a Jewish identity, just as I support an Israel that has a Muslim and Christian identity for those religious groups. I do not support an Israel which affirms Judaism as its sole or primary national religion to the exclusion or detriment of others. If Israel is to be a true democracy it must not favor one religion over others. It must treat religions equally. That does not mean that Judaism or Jewishness will be disrespected or ignored or subordinated. But it means that this particular religion will take its place as one of several religions practiced by the nation’s citizens.
That’s why I believe Brad Burston called me an anti-Semite.
There were other parts of his talk that troubled me as well. When Israeli liberals speak here they usually try to tell audiences things aren’t as bad as they are. So did the Haaretz columnist. He told his listeners that things weren’t as bad as they might seem, that Israeli democracy was strong. As proof, he used a Yediot poll which asked respondents which Israeli politicians they felt most embodied ultra-nationalist, even fascist views. 60% named Avigdor Lieberman. The speaker used this poll result to say that not only didn’t Lieberman represent a “real and present danger” to Israeli democracy, but Israelis saw through him and would never support him.
What Burston neglected to acknowledge was that the entire premise of the poll and accompanying newspaper articles about it was that fascism was a real and present danger in Israel. There were other questions in this same poll whose results actually proved precisely the opposite of what he claimed: that is (for one example), that Israeli by large margins support curbs on free speech and democratic rights even when the issues addressed are NOT security related.
Burston argued that while it was true that the Israeli liberal concept of “land for peace” was dead, so was the far right vision of Greater Israel. He denigrated the notion of the power of the Israeli right over Israeli political life by claiming that it doesn’t even truly represent its ideological legacy. As proof, he cited the fact that by party, 96 of the 120 Knesset members support a two-state solution. I find such a claim to be so weak and unpersuasive, I’m surprised anyone with Burston’s clear level of political intelligence would use it. This presumes of course that every Likud MK supports a Palestinian state, which is ludicrous and Burston should know it.
In fact, the vast majority of Israelis say they support a two state solution but few are willing to actually make the compromises necessary right now to make it happen. The same is true of Knesset members. There are very few that, if you asked them–do you support a return to 1967 borders, sharing Jerusalem, and a negotiated resolution of the Right of Return allowing some refugees to return–would say yes. So saying you support a two state solution means nothing in this case, since you’re not willing to face the compromises necessary to achieve it.
I left Burston’s talk during the Q&A when the local Stand With Us board member, David Brumer, began his question with the lie:
I don’t disagree with anything you said tonight.
I knew it could only go downhill from there, and I didn’t have the heart to listen to the rest of a statement from someone who once wrote me an e mail saying I should be spanked for my views.
I’m also struck by the phrase “love for Israel” bandied about by so many liberal Zionists including Burston tonight. One of the reasons (there were others as well) I didn’t attend Daniel Sokatch’s (he is the CEO of the New Israel Fund) talk here in Seattle this month was its title, Loving Israel in Challenging Times. I find the notion that one must profess love for Israel before criticizing it to be preposterous. It’s one thing in a marriage to criticize one’s wife while doing so in the context of the love you have. But Israel is not a wife. It is a country. Wives don’t kill people (not usually), countries do. I don’t want to make love to Israel. I don’t want to have children with Israel. I want it to be a country of which I can be proud as a Jew. But what’s love got to do with it? Love is a red herring. It disables critical debate. Love means that Israel cannot be something I think it should be, a normal state. Love puts Israel on a pedestal just as traditional male attitudes toward women put them on similar pedestals that prevented them from being normal human beings.
In the time when I was still on e-mail terms with Leonard Fein, he practically made a fetish out of my supposed lack of love for Israel. To him, it proved I had left the Zionst reservation because you could only express criticism of Israel out of such deep concern and affection, that your criticism would clearly be couched as that of a concerned parent for a loved one gone astray. Naturally, I don’t have patience in this hour in which Israel finds itself in extremis for such mollycoddling.
To me it is self-evident that I would not write this blog unless I loved Israel. It would simply be a waste of time to devote as many tens of thousands of hours to this enterprise as I have unless there was deep emotion attached to the subject. And there is. Many decades of my life have been devoted to Israel. I could not do so unless I loved it. But I will not trot out such love as if it were a stamp on a passport in order to prove my Zionist bona fides.
It’s the same way with the American far right which accuses the left of hating America and similar nonsense. No one on the American left owes any explanation, justification or defense to their political opponents on this matter. I don’t need to confess my love for America in order to criticize it. In that sense, criticism is love.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Burston has been touring the U.S. on behalf of J Street. This type of pulling of punches regarding Israel is J Street’s trademark. I have pretty much given up on J Street as having any useful purpose regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. But I had hoped for more from Brad Burston and his talk tonight.
It’s possible that Brad Burston would not deliver the same address to an Israeli audience. That he would speak more unguardedly, more forthrightly, more directly to such an audience. That I would admire the penetrating analysis he would bring to bear before such a group. It’s possible that there’s a Brad Burston in there I can still admire politically. But I don’t think tonight he did Israel or himself any favors.