It’s no secret that in the past four years under Pres. Trump white supremacy has been in the ascendancy. While in the past, Americans could argue that this racist ideology existed only on the bare margins of society, Trump has proven, in the words of the old radio serial, “what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” far too many men.
Decades ago, before the 1967 War, Judeo-supremacy too lurked on the edges of Israeli politics. Though it was implanted early in the history of the Zionist movement, it wasn’t until the Israeli victory in that war that the country fully became an ethno-state imbued with religious-messianic impulses.
Though there has always been a secular Israeli left which opposed such racism, after the Likud election victory in 1977, the left gradually ran out of road. Now, it has virtually disappeared. The only exception is the Joint List, a largely Israeli Palestinian political faction (with one Party in the coalition including Israeli Jews).
Avrum Burg has been one of those who has been at the intellectual forefront of such Israeli resistance. An Orthodox Jew, whose father led the national religious party for decades and served in numerous Labor-led governments, the younger Burg was once a senior leader in the Labor Party, Knesset Speaker, and head of the Jewish Agency. Close family members were murdered by Palestinians in the Hebron riots of 1929.
But unlike others on the Zionist Left, Burg’s politics have adapted to the changing circumstances and increasing radicalization of Israeli society. Over the decades, his essays have pointed the way to a cogent, fearless analysis of what is wrong with the nation. Whereas liberal Zionists are constantly constrained by their nostalgia for a long-dead era (if it ever existed) of Israeli decency and tolerance, Burg has little use for such diversions.
In this essay from 2012, he spoke of his vision of a future Israel and conceded the only way to realize it might be via boycotts and one day, a one-state solution:
…An iconic conflict could also present an iconic solution. As in Northern Ireland or South Africa, where citizens no longer spill one another’s blood, it will eventually become clear that many Israelis are not willing to live in an ethnic democracy, not willing to give up on the chance to live in peace, not willing to be passive patriots of a country that expels or purifies itself of its minorities, who are the original inhabitants of the land.
Only on that day, after much anguish, boycotts and perhaps even bloodshed, will we understand that the only way for us to agree when we disagree is a true, vigorous democracy. A democracy based on a progressive, civil constitution; a democracy that enforces the distinction between ethnicity and citizenship, between synagogue and state; a democracy that upholds the values of freedom and equality, on the basis of which every single person living under Israel’s legitimate and internationally recognized sovereignty will receive the same rights and protections.
Since 2012 he has abandoned a two-state solution as no longer viable and endorses a one-state solution. As a result of such “radical” notions, he sits in the wilderness, writing books perhaps more widely read in the Diaspora than in Israel itself. Though not a man without a country, he is a man in a country violently at odds with his deepest principles.
It’s possible that no one throws rocks at him or paints price tag graffiti on his front door because they believe he no longer poses a danger to the far-right nationalist agenda. But Burg’s ideas offer a clarion call to a progressive left vision of what Israel must become.
Recently, he has mounted a challenge to Israel’s racist Nation State Law which declares that Israel is a country only for Jews. Though defining Israel solely as a Jewish state may seem like an innocuous statement to some, it is freighted with Judeo-supremacy. The Law makes clear that non-Jews may expect little or nothing from the state. It was not made for them, and refuses to offer them full equality. It also derogated any state symbols which suggested that Palestinians were meant to enjoy parity with Jewish citizens.
Burg’s attack on the Law challenges its definition of Jewishness. Of course, Burg is a Jew, but he defines his Jewish identity without any national component. Israeli law currently defines Jewish as both a religious and national category. But if the Supreme Court redefines the Law as he seeks for it to do, permitting a designation that is neither Jewish nor Arab, but rather “Israeli,” he will have posed a significant threat to both the Law itself, and the Israeli conception of Judeo-supremacy.
Further, Burg has embraced similar ideas to those I offered in my recent essay about the conflation of Judaism and Zionism. The reason I use the term “Judeo”-supremacy rather than “Jewish”-supremacy here and in that essay, is that I reject the definition of Jewishness offered by the Israeli settler state. I reject the notion that God in the Torah granted Jews superiority over indigenous non-Jews. That our rabbis over the centuries envisioned a Judaism which endorsed ethnic-cleansing, desecration of non-Jewish holy sites, and a Jewish army whose mission was to kill non-Jews.
Burg’s vision of Jewishness is closer to that of most Diaspora Jews, for whom it is a religious identity separate from national identity. Very few such Jews, except those like Sheldon Adelson, see their identity as merged with Israel. They are Americans or British or French, then Jewish. The Diaspora also allows room for a secular Jewish identity that contains no element of religiosity, a feature increasingly lost in today’s Israel.
Burg’s ideas strike at the heart of today’s Zionism, which holds that Jews are superior to non-Jews and that Israel must be an ethno-theocracy. That’s why, even as it offered coverage of his lawsuit, the liberal Zionist Haaretz betrayed its discomfort with Burg’s radical ideas. The headline falsely claimed that Burg’s goal was to obtain state permission to “quit the Jewish people.” That’s not his goal at all. His aim is to reject the state’s official definition of Jewishness. Those are two very different things. This notion suggested in the article, is that the Israeli state is the proper arbiter of Jewishness, and that Burg needs its permission to withdraw from such identity. But he is not rejecting Judaism at all. Rather he is rejecting the state’s right to define his religious identity.
The article further states that the ideas espoused in the lawsuit are an “extraordinary act, which seems light-years away from most of Burg’s well-known public activity.” Not at all. If the reporter had read any of his essays over the past twenty years, she would understand that this lawsuit derives directly from ideas he has advanced throughout that time.
Offering more evidence of Haaretz’s condescension to Burg’s views is the claim he has made a: “journey…to the fringes of the left.” Not true at all. Perhaps he has made a journey to the fringes (and beyond) of the Zionist left. But that isn’t all there is in Israeli politics. In fact, in 2015, he announced he was joining Hadash, the former Israeli Communist Party, whose membership includes both Jews and Palestinians.
Only a reporter full of liberal Zionist privilege would define Israeli politics within such a narrow scope. And this is indeed the tragedy of Israel–that the takeover of all levers of political and military power by Judeo-supremacists has driven Israelis who don’t conform to the nationalist consensus out of the arena. Liberal Zionists and settlers alike are guilty of such erasure.
Here is another tut-tut passage from the Haaretz report, which speaks of Burg as some sort of rare and exotic species under threat of extinction:
The positions he espouses today are considered radical by most of the Israeli public, including those who call themselves left-wing.
Again, this is false. What the reporter means to say is that they are “radical” in terms of his own liberal Zionism and that of the Zionist Left. But Burg (and I) reject the premises of the Zionist Left. When I think of the latter, it summons the lyrics of the Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” Clearly, it isn’t. Clearly, the Zionist Left doesn’t have the courage or clarity of vision to see, as Burg does, that Israel must become something more, and different than what it now is.
During the interview, the reporter accuses Burg of falling into the trap set by Israeli nationalists like Netanyahu, who say the Left “forgot what it means to be a Jew;” and that the former is saying “I don’t want to be a Jew.” Again, this is a false articulation of his views. He is saying he won’t be Bibi’s version of a Jew. And that such a definition of Jewishness is a false god.