Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2007

A Zionist Changes His Mind

A Conversation with Avrum Burg

TIKKUN: IN THE PAST FOUR months you've caused a sensation in Israel by saying that the religious dimension of Israel is on a collision course with the democratic dimension, and that you cannot accept the genetic definition of who is a Jew—that Israel must go beyond the current Orthodox-dictated law of return. That severely criticizes existing conceptions of Zionism. Could you tell us a little bit about the transformation that's taken place in your consciousness from the time you were the leader of the most significant Zionist organization in the world, the Sochnut, The Jewish Agency, and then Chair of Knesset, to the present moment in which you've expressed some doubts about the Zionist vision.

BURG: I prefer the term evolution. It has been a kind of a process: a link, which leads to a link, which eventually creates a chain. The circumstances of people's lives are very dynamic. What happens today is nothing similar to what will happen tomorrow, and ten years ago has nothing to do with ten years ahead. The only place where people are so fixed about non-transformation is in public life. In your personal life you can change five wives during a lifetime. In your work life you can change twenty jobs. In your consumer life, you can change from one product to another in no time. It's only in politics where there is an expectation that you stay the same from when you're two years old to when you're 100 years old.

When I first started in political life, kind of sailing out into the public arena, I had two sails and one wind. One sail was the issue of peace, mainly the immorality of the Occupation, the malignant expressions of the no peace situation, and the other was a permanent core drive for a wall of separation between Knesset and Bet Ha Knesset (politics and synagogue). These were the two sails of mine and the one wind was Isaiah Leibowitz [Ed. note: the leading religious dove who spoke at the Tikkun conference in Israel, 1991]. And I had a feeling that this was the tail wind. This was what enabled me to fly high and to fly fast and be very accurate about my messages. So that was twenty five, thirty years ago. 

Now when I looked at the situation three, four, five years ago I said to myself, "Avram, if you're honest with yourself there is no wind anymore and your cores have failed." Israel today is a state with no prophecy. There is no peace vision, no justice vision; there is no Jewish vision for the Land of Israel. There is just a very ordinary focus on survival for the sake of survival, continuation for the sake of continuity. The higher call of Jewish history simply expired. And it's impossible, spiritually and psychologically, for me to be in public life without a higher calling.

When I retired from politics, one of my motivations was to rediscover the call. I wrote a book called God is Back, about the religious dimension of the twentieth century. My feeling was that God was the number one survivor of the twentieth century—the most secular, manmade century ever. The twentieth century is filled, almost saturated, with the presence of God, fanaticism, zealotry, you name it. I wanted to understand it, and I wrote a book about Israel as a microcosm of the world and the world as a macrocosm of Israel.

Well, I finished my book and did something that is very strange for writers—I read it. When I finished reading my first book I realized that I described only one spiritual pillar of the Israel/Judeo existence: church and state. But there is another dimension, another pillar, which was elevated to the level of semi-religion: it is the omnipresence of the Holocaust in Israeli life. So that's the focus of my second book.

I started writing about the omnipresence of the Holocaust in our lives and realized that it actually dominates every ounce and every dimension of our existence—from politics to culture to media to personal preoccupation to diplomacy. The more I explored this, the more I realized that if we do not transform (to use your word) from a trauma-molded society to a trust-oriented civilization, we're doomed.

Israel today is trapped between two castrated forces until the day of peace, and this day will come one way or another. The Right in Israel has nothing to offer the Israelis and the Jews but the Messiah and the sword. The Left in Israel does not offer to the Israelis anything of substance and content in spirituality and values. And I did not feel comfortable with either. What I tried to do was to develop, at least for myself, my own discipline.

TIKKUN: In 1991 when we came to set up a Tikkun Peace Conference in Israel with Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) and others, we made this explicit point as a center of what we were saying, that there needed to be a vision that was not simply Israel as the "new Taiwan" of the Middle East, because that was not a spiritual vision that would sustain anyone but technocrats in Haifa.

BURG: I couldn't agree with you more. What happened to "Mr. Israeli?" You know, Mr. Israeli who was the founder of the State, he was a Kibbutznik, and a military serviceman, and an Israeli stereotype, he flew as a hero to Entebbe, and came back and did not visit Syria, you know the stereotype I'm talking about. The relation between us and the past was abandoned by Mr. Israeli, who wanted a negation of the Diaspora and an affirmation that he was creating "the new Israel." But without that continuity with the past, there was no deeper meaning to Israeli life than mere survival. Mr. Israeli abandoned his relation to the past and the tradition into the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox, and left the responsibility for connecting to the place (Heb: Hamakom) to the messianic fundamentalists—the settlers. So the hopeful energy shifted to the Ultra-Orthodox, on the one hand, and the modern Orthodox settlers, and they became perceived as the holders of Jewish authenticity in regard to our religious, national, or peoplehood identity, the guardians of the Holy Grail. The fact that they are, in a way, a kind of retarded expression of Judaism is irrelevant. The fact that these forms of "orthodoxy" are as new as the Reform Movement and as new as the Zionist movement became irrelevant. In the eyes of many, the Ultra-Orthodox or the Orthodox settlers are the most authentic element in the relationship between Jews and their past.

The second element is that the relations of the connections between us and the place (the Land of Israel) were abandoned by Mr. Israeli—the secular founder of the state—into the hands of the settlers. The agenda of the settlers is a Messianic, eschatological, fundamentalist ideology, and that of the Ultra-Orthodox is just as fundamentalist. So now, Mr. Israeli, who came back to Israel 120 years ago as a modern element, out of an almost-stagnated Judaism, abandoned his or her identity to the ends of the Israeli Army. Not to moderate, to dualistic, or to humanistic elements did they surrender the flame of Jewish identity, but to the most reactionary elements of the Jewish people. So now, my connection to the past is the ultra-Orthodox, it is not a humanistic one; my connection to the place is the settlers, the Messianic elements. Ben Gurion sanctioned the negation of the Diaspora but I believe Israelis need to develop a totally different attitude toward the Diaspora. If we want to continue here we have to extend our Judaism, not inside through becoming like the settlers and the Ultra-orthodox, but by creating a new alliance and dialogue with Diaspora Jewry. My punch line is that in our lifetime, Babylon and Jerusalem are no longer geographical places; they are two states of mind. If you are a confined, ghettoized Jew, you are stigmatized. If you are universal, humanistic, part of the universal message of Judaism, you are Babylonian, so Jerusalem can be in Muncie and Babylon can be in Tel Aviv.

TIKKUN: Tikkun has been talking about the development of a global Judaism, a Judaism that overcomes not just the division between Israel and Diaspora, but Jews and all other peoples. We claim that in the twenty-first century, in order to save the planet from destruction, all of the peoples in the world need to overcome any part of their cultural, religious, or national heritage which keeps them from identifying with the common project of the human race to save the planet from ecological destruction and from endless wars and killings. My question is, in your worldview, what's the change that is needed in Jewish consciousness to make it possible for the Jewish people to be part of the world instead of against the world or feeling eternally committed to a nation dwelling by itself.

BURG: The first question is: can we accept fully and absolutely that the definition of who is a Jew is a genetic one only? When Jews say that a Jew is one who is born to a Jewish mother, that is a genetic definition. Is that enough? Is that acceptable? Of course not. For me Judaism is less and less a genetic definition, it's an acceptance of a value system.

Let's say I'm walking down to the river and see two people sinking and I can save only one of them, like the classic Talmudic moral dilemma. One of them is Rabbi Kahana and the other is the Dalai Lama. Who do I save? Unequivocally I would save the Dalai Lama, because although Rabbi Kahana is my genetic, fellow Jew, he is my spiritual rival and my moral enemy. The Dalai Lama shares the same value system that I do. So, consciousness-wise, he is my fellow Jew.

There were hardly any times in the life of Western civilization, when it struggled for its identity and its future, that the Jews did not take a very active, significant, and positive role in shaping its direction. We Jews gave Western civilization Jesus Christ and his Mishnaic morality. You cannot understand the transformation of Europe from Medieval darkness to Enlightenment without the radical enlightening input of the Marranos who moved from Spain to Amsterdam and opened up Europe. You cannot understand modern Europe without Spinoza, without Mendelssohn. You cannot understand the twentieth century without Freud and Marx.

But now, facing the twenty-first century, are so many problems, and for the first time in so many years, the Jews are not positive contributing players.

So I want Jews to expand our definition of the self, and this expansion would include people who have the same moral destiny and the same value system that I do. A value system about the Other, about equality, about justice, about the environment, about the world.

TIKKUN: So how do you imagine one could foster that in Israel or in the global Diaspora?

BURG: The problem currently facing the Jewish people here is that we do not have a Jewish vision for the world today. Maybe we never had this, but we did have an external enemy. In our lifetime we don't have a language of shared values.

The overwhelming majority of the Jewish people are living, for the first time in our history, within the democratic realm. That's a new phenomenon. And even with Ahmadinejad and Hamas and all of that, the physical stress on the life of Jews is much less than it was sixty years ago or 600 years ago. In a situation like this, there's only one question we can ask ourselves. It's not about Occupation, and you know how much that troubles me; it's not about the growing gap between haves and have-nots, which also troubles me. It's a very simple existential question. Can the Jewish people survive without an external enemy? If the answer is no, then we must raise two other questions. The first one is: is this the reason why we did not put forth the maximum effort to get free of external enemies? And the other is: if someday, help us God, there will not be an external enemy, how then shall we survive? What we have to develop today from internal, objective, self-definition will help us to continue as a Jewish people without the external definition. The Occupation, as much as it troubles us, is not really the issue.

TIKKUN: Well, if Israel had something to contribute to the moral or spiritual consciousness of the world it might be a much different situation.

BURG: I agree with you. Maimonides taught this: there is nothing between our very days and those of the Messiah but the oppression of nations. Nations will not oppress nations, people will not occupy people, people will not oppress people—individuals and whole peoples. That's the code of Jewish people from thirteenth century of Maimonides up until today. I do not know any other people who have this code. Yes, we violate this code, yes we do not usually listen to it, and yes, there are many of us who really need a spiritual cure for our attitudes towards life. But eventually, I believe, this will be the backbone of Judaism: no oppression.

TIKKUN: I totally agree with Maimonides, and in the historical period when that happens, I'm not sure we will need Judaism. In other words, Judaism is a religion that is for the pre-Moshiach (Heb: Messiah), but once all class oppression has been eliminated, new forms of spirituality and connection to God may be more appropriate. But for many of us who are currently attempting to develop a Global Judaism that transcends the ethnic chauvinism, small mindedness, and fear-based insensitivity that has, in the post-Holocaust period, taken over many of the major institutions of Jewish life, we may need to put our primary energy into building alliances with what you call the "Jews of other nations." Tikkun agrees with you—we have more in common with the spiritual progressives in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and "spiritual but not religious" atheists and agnostics than with many Jews who have let fear of the Other shape their worldview. That is the basis of our organization, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and that is the direction for the twenty-first century. And I see you, Avrum, as one of the inspiring voices that can best represent the spiritually progressive voices in the Jewish world—and hence you are our deep ally.

Avrum Burg served as speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003 and formerly headed the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut). Now retired from politics, he is the author of God is Back and Defeating Hitler.

Source Citation

2007. A Zionist Changes His Mind. Tikkun 22(6): 53.

tags: Avrum Burg, Israel/Palestine, Israeli Perspectives, Zionism  
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