Avrum Burg’s Radical Diasporism

Avrum Burg at his home in Israel (Rita Castelnuovo)

In spite of the dominance of Jewish life and identity by the concept of Zionism, for centuries prior to the last one, there was always a healthy tension between the concept of Zion and Diaspora. It is only in the past sixty years, since the creation of the State of Israel, that Zion has overwhelmed Diaspora in the life of world Jewry. It was not always so. And Jewish life was better off for it.

Avrum Burg, one of the most innovative and iconoclastic thinkers in current Jewish life, wrote a brilliant Rosh Hashanah essay for Haaretz. Though it begins with a premise comparing Bibi Netanyahu and George Soros as Jewish types, it ranges far beyond this. In contrast to much of conventional Jewish thought, Burg doesn’t begin with the premise of the primacy of Israel. In fact, he turns the traditional concept on its head. Instead of being the center of Jewish life, Zion represents the worst, most problematic aspects of Jewishness. Whereas the Diaspora symbolizes the openness of Judaism to the world, Israel symbolizes its isolation. Israeli Jews are the people of the land, while Diaspora Jews are people of the world. Diaspora represents inclusion and integration while Israel represents exclusion it separation. The former Jews want to be part of the outside world. They want to demand all the rights and privileges of citizens of the western world. They want to be “equal to.” Israeli Jews on the other hand, assert their superiority over the non-Jew, the outsider. They want nothing to do with the non-Jew–except insofar as it can benefit them or their State:

The Israeli Jewish cultural identity is religious, nationalist and forced. It wallows in isolationism, unaware of other Jewish horizons. Graduates of our schools are totally ignorant of Jewish and general narratives that differ from the Zionist dogma in its current ultranationalist interpretation. The sense is that “we are a nation that dwells alone,” which leads to arrogant behavior tinged with a sense of being persecuted. This is accompanied by two conventional wisdoms: “The whole world is against us” and we’re automatically the best because we’re the Chosen People. All this has eroded the little that connected the Israeli Jew to more general spheres of humanity.

Burg suggests that Rosh Hashanah is a holiday outside the narrow confines of Zion. It embraces the world, celebrates its creation. The sound of the shofar is meant to awaken humanity, not just the Jew, from its moral slumber. The Jewish New Year is not bound by a piece of land. It is beyond territoriality. It embraces the universe:

…Life in the Diaspora requires Jews to constantly acknowledge the existence of others occupying the same space. They must constantly adapt in culture and conduct for the sake of a shared life, which expresses both solidarity and an independent identity. This is a life of equals despite the differences. In this life, every day is a kind of Rosh Hashanah with its acceptance of all God’s creatures.

Diaspora-based identity is by nature diffuse. Each locality develops differently, creating a multiplicity of similar identities. These identities derive from the tradition of the local Jewish community as well as customs derived from the discourse with the non-Jewish world. Jews without the power of coercion are persuasive Jews capable of forming alliances. These are Jews who believe in democracy for all citizens.

Avrum Burg during a family reunion, visiting the cemetery of the Flossenburg concentration camp.

He contrasts this with the Israeli identity:

…An inward-looking…Israeli…identity…curbs multiplicity. [It is] a closed identity with few voices and meager alternatives. Whereas in the life of a minority living in the Diaspora, no one is truly free as long as all society is not free, one can always find Jewish activists at the forefront of solidarity campaigns and struggles for liberty and equality for all. In a sovereign state there can always be a selective form of equality, a very limited freedom in which solidarity with the “other” is perceived as an almost treasonable offense – Israel is proof of this.

The Israeli convergence into itself is characterized by a revolutionary fusion of five elements: sovereignty, power, territory, language and religion. These are translated into isolationism, arrogance and fear of anything different. Paradoxically, Israel, one of whose original purposes was to solve the Jewish problem, has cloned the ghetto experience rather than found a solution to it. Our walls of hostility are nurtured as a matter of policy, in order to separate Jews from anyone or anything that’s not Jewish while constantly denying the existence of others.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Burg’s thinking is that he rejects the norms of classical Zionism. In this case, he tears down the shibboleth that is the “return” to Zion; the ingathering of exiles that precedes messianic redemption. Instead, he suggests:

Most Israelis lack an awareness of the “other” that is vital for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Most Jews around the world live peacefully among the family of nations, the wide and accepting one. They have absolutely no desire to move to Israel.

Nor is Burg overly concerned about another obsession of the Jewish mandarins: intermarriage. He has little interest in demography: the eternal question of how quickly intermarriage will dissipate the Jewish population. Burg doesn’t run away from the term. On the contrary, he commits the traitorous act of embracing it:

Marriage among different groups isn’t a dilution but enriches both sides; each side brings in stimulating customs, values and culture. This is how it was in the days of our forefathers, the judges, the kingdom, the first and second temples. So why can’t it be so in the third Jewish commonwealth?

Burg rejects this obsession with Jewish genetic identity that is somewhat akin to the Nazi obsession with Aryan racial purity. In fact, what is most important is what values inform your life, whether Jewish or not:

…A person’s genetic background, origins or lineage are meaningless to me if his ideas, behavior and values are good.

Jews have always lived with non-Jews. As such, they’ve often married non-Jews. This has not destroyed Jewish life. It has not diluted Jewish identity. In many cases, it has enriched it. And what has Israel offered in the battle against intermarriage? What is the serum that inoculates Israeli Jews and guarantees they will marry Jews and continue the Jewish tradition? What sets Israeli Jews apart? The vision of rebuilding the Holy Temple and founding a Davidic theocratic monarchy. It is a vision that leaves Diaspora Jews and most Israeli Jews cold.

For secular Israeli Jews, there is no real Jewish vision; nor is there a concept of nationality to replace religious identity. What is there in the “Israeli” that separates it from the “Jew?” What is there in “Israeli” that embraces even non-Jewish Israelis? Nothing. That is why settlerism has assumed control of the contemporary Israeli Zionist narrative.

While Burg offers a refreshing rejection of Zionist cant, it’s important to acknowledge there is some legitimacy in Zionism’s major premises. While Diaspora Judaism has created a rich tapestry of Jewish tradition and achievement, it has not always been the paradise Burg makes it out to be. It has been the cause of immense Jewish suffering. The ultimate Diaspora trauma, the Holocaust, was in fact, the main impetus for the founding of the State in 1948. But just as the pendulum of Jewish thought has swung too far toward the Zionist pole, it once swung too far toward the pole of Diaspora. What we really need is a balanced equilibrium which acknowledges the value of each pole. We must stop rejecting one or the other.

Burg closes his essay with that juxtaposition of Soros and Netanyahu, which I referred to above:

Netanyahu has said Israel must protect itself against “wild beasts,” while Soros has said he chose America as his home because he values freedom, democracy, human rights and an open society.

I won’t celebrate this holiday with Netanyahu, with his traumas and Israeli paranoias that he invents or so skillfully represents. I’ll be with Soros, the Jews of the world and their struggle for open societies everywhere, for every human being.

I can’t emphasize enough how heretical these ideas are for the High Priests of Jewish identity; the ones who decree what is acceptable discourse and what is aberrant. That is one of the reasons that mainstream discourse is so impoverished. It has dumbed-down Jewish identity by eliminating well over half of it (over half of world Jewry lives outside Israel). What’s left is a pale imitation, a dime store version of Jewishness.

While there is no doubt of the vitality and importance of Burg’s views in light of this homogenization of mainstream Jewish thought. We must not fall prey to the expectation that he will be embraced by the mainstream any time soon. Rather, he’s more like the prophet ignored in his own country, while lionized outside it. There is little chance that Israelis will rally en masse to his cause. They are too entrenched in their world view. Too certain of the righteousness of their cause. And that is why reading him brings as much sadness as joy.