Could Avraham Burg Be Israel’s Future Barack Obama?

by James M. Wall                 burgweb

Avraham Burg is the former Speaker of the Israeli Parliament and former Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization. Winding up a recent book tour in the United States, Burg was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.

Burg was in the U.S. to discuss his new book, The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes.

In the 2008 English foreword to his book, which was initially published in Hebrew in 2007, Burg wrote:

I wrote this book in order to open up the heart, mouth, and eyes for a new vision. I have tried to touch on our [Israel’s] maladies and afflictions and to offer preliminary directions of cure and recovery on the road to a new national and global vision for the Jewish people. . . .

Now, the book has been published in other languages and I am once more ridden with anxiety. Can a foreigner understand Israeli intimacy? Is it possible for someone who is not part of the Jewish family to perceive the loving tension that characterizes family members who sometimes do not see eye to eye with one another and yet remain whole? Will there be people who take my words, distort them and use them as weapons against me, against my nation? Probably.

In an answer to a question from Goodman, when he appeared on Democracy Now, Burg spoke of his earlier years:

I was for many years a kind of a strange bird. I was born to a father who was the leader of the National Religious Party. And he was, for many, many years, a member of each and every cabinet of Israel, from ’48 to ’88—that’s the year I was elected to the Knesset and he retired. And actually, I knew something about Israeli politics, but my position was different than my father’s. It was always more humanistic and less introverted. It was always more universalistic and less nationalistic, etc., etc. I was the founder—one of the founders of the protest movement against the war on Lebanon in ’82, and then I walked into public arena and became whatever I became, a young promising promise.

In his transformation from a promising politician from a leading Israeli political family–his father escaped from Berlin in 1939–Burg became a pariah to many of his fellow Israelis. The thesis of his book is that the post-1967 Israel is not working. The primary reason: “the grip of the Holocaust over our life.”

“Never again” is central to the Jewish understanding of the Holocaust. But for Burg, “never again. . . cannot be the only sole prism through which we see the world.” 

. . . whomever is the victim today needs the help of yesterday’s victim to prevent his or her own victimization, be it a battered woman, be it Darfuri, be it somebody in the inner city of Detroit, be it whoever it is. Victims are all over the place. And the Holocaust is not mine only to say, “I have a monopoly over suffering, and that’s it.” Oh, no.

The contrast between treatments of Burg’s book that appeared in the New York Times and the London Independent expose the dangerous chasm between the U.S. mindset and that of the rest of the world. Dangerous because the U.S. government sponsors Israel’s continued use of the Holocaust to justify its treatment of the Palestinian people.

Read the two articles  here and here and make your own comparisions. Here, meanwhile, are samples:

Donald McIntyre wrote in the London Independent:

The implication of Burg’s analysis, one that perhaps only an Israeli would have dared promote, is that the fostered memory of the Holocaust hovers destructively over every aspect of Israeli political life – including its relations with the Palestinians since the 1967 Six Day War and the subsequent occupation. “We have pulled the Shoah out of its historical context,” he writes, “and turned it into a plea and generator for every deed. All is compared to the Shoah, dwarfed by the Shoah and therefore all is allowed – be it fences , sieges … curfews, food and water deprivation or unexplained killings. All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave.”

There is none of this candor in the analysis from Ethan Bronner, the New York Times Middle East correspondent. Instead, Bronner adopts the pro-Israel line by, among other things,  misconstruing Burg’s own description in the English-language foreword to this book of the different titles he had in mind for his book.

Mr. Burg has shifted the title of his book over the years. When he was writing it, he called it “Hitler Won.” When he published it in Hebrew he called it “Defeating Hitler.”

Partly, he said in the interview, his thinking is evolving, and partly his American editors made some smart cuts and suggestions. But 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.

Book titles change during the process of creating a book. And different audiences require different titles. That is called marketing, Mr. Bronner. But how is the threat of marriage laws in Israel an “alarming assertion”?

Such laws are already in practice in Israel in devious ways that discriminate against non-Jewish residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza who are married, or want to marry, Arab Israeli citizens who live inside of Israel.

Could Avraham Burg become Israel’s future Barack Obama? I think he could, and here’s why:

Burg has deep roots within Israel and an equally deep dedication to the Jewish people. He is a frequent speaker today in Israel. Most of his speeches are delivered before young audiences. The old guard, the generation that elected Israel’s current right wing government, is, as Burg argues in his book, grounded in its need for the Holocaust to justify what Israel does in its role as an occupying military power.

Young people who love Israel and embrace their Jewishness are a potential voting bloc who could embrace Burg in much the same way younger American voters embraced Barack Obama.

Donald Macintyre concluded his Independent article:

What has most encouraged [Burg] about the book’s reception is its impact on younger Israelis, groups of whom he is still invited to address 18 months after its publication. “All those who wanted to kill me are Labour centrists, 50-plus, secular, well-off economically, and they said, ‘Well Avraham now that we’ve made it, you come with your stupid questions. Stop it immediately.’ I lost many of my classical supporters in the centre. On the other hand I gained very interesting new ground among the younger generation who understand that something is not working in this kingdom.”

So would the politician-turned-prophet, who was once the great Prime Ministerial hope of the Israeli left, turn back to politician again? Burg, who at 53 is currently a partner in running a labour-intensive agriculture business, acknowledges there is pressure – “I won’t say a lot, but some” – to do so. He is, he says, no longer “obsessed” by the idea as he once was. But “if the situation happens, maybe I’ll say yes.” What’s more important, he insists, is that “if people today ask me, Avrum, why don’t you come back to politics, for me it’s a huge, encouraging statement that the day will come when my views might be represented in the Knesset, that someone who was only a year ago the national pariah is perceived as an alternative to so many problems here. That’s amazing.”

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA anti-terror expert, was a debate partner with Avraham Burg at Georgetown University last month. The Doha Debate was under the auspices of the Qatar-Based Doha Foundation. Scheuer and Burg took the affirmative side in addressing the Oxford Union-style question: “This house believes that it is time for the U.S. administration to get tough with Israel.”

Arguing on the negative side were Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and former Israeli foreign ministry adviser Dore Gold. The audience at Georgetown voted at the conclusion, 67-33, in favor of the affirmative argument given by Burg and Scheuer.

Scheuer later gave his impression of the experience for He gave this evaluation of his partner’s performance:

The most impressive of the debaters was Mr. Burg. The former Knesset speaker and current peace activist is an eloquent and to-the-point speaker who successfully used humor to puncture the sanctimony of several of the “no” team’s well-worn bromides. For his part, Mr. Burg clearly and concisely argued that the best chance for an equitable two-state solution was for the U.S. government to take a strong, almost parental hand to cajole and, if necessary, coerce both Israelis and Palestinians to reach an equitable agreement.

I found Mr. Burg’s position logical, thoroughly informed, and poignant, but ultimately unconvincing. If the U.S. government had a policy on the Israel-Palestine issue that was based on protecting genuine U.S. national interests, it just might be able to play the role Mr. Burg suggested. But Washington does not have such a position; under leaders of both parties the U.S. position is that of the Likud, and they are held to mark by the anti-American Israel-Firsters in the media, the Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and AIPAC. Ultimately, Mr. Burg’s campaign for an equitable two-state solution will be defeated by pro-Israel U.S.-citizens, who are also likely to be the agents of Israel’s demise.

“An eloquent and to-the-point speaker who successfully used humor to puncture the sanctimony of several of the “no” team’s well-worn bromides”? As a debater Burg was “logical, thoroughly informed and poignant”, filled with the idealism of a pre-election Obama.  

Sounds a lot like the younger Barack Obama. Burg, like Obama, is an optimist. He is also an experienced politician, and it is certainly possible that at some point in the future, he could apply that optimism and political acumen to rescue Israel from itself. With help, of course, from an optimistic American leader like Barack Hussein Obama.

In his book, Burg concludes his chapter on “Remembering the Weimar Republic”: “I cannot end such a sad chapter without thinking of something optimistic. I reflect on the question in Psalms: ‘Where from will come my helper?'” Sounds like a translation of the 121st Psalm to me: “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills. From whence does my help come?”

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to Could Avraham Burg Be Israel’s Future Barack Obama?

  1. Pauline Coffman says:

    Thanks for spreading the word about Burg’s timely book. As an insider in Israel, he has access to hearts and minds there. It is encouraging to know he is speaking most frequently to the young Israelis.

  2. Dominica says:

    The book is powerful and staggeringly great. I recommend it warmly! I had the pleasure of hearing Avraham Burg speak to promote it and his mind is as razor sharp in person as on paper. Burg’s courage knows no bounds and he’s provoking a debate that Israel must have if we are ever to move closer to authentic and sustainable peace.

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