Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Spiritual Sickness of Avraham Burg

First published in The Jewish Press

“Brutal and imperialist, confrontational and insular. A shallow place, thuggish, lacking spiritual inspiration.” That is how Ari Shavit, in his long interview with Avraham Burg published in Haaretz’s June 8 Friday Magazine, describes the characterization of Israel in Burg’s new book, Defeating Hitler. It also captures Burg’s dark, cartoonish depiction of Israel in the interview.

Burg’s indictments range from criticism of what he claims has been Israel’s moral turpitude since the 1967 war to broader attacks against the Zionist enterprise.

Shavit writes, “I was outraged by the [new] book,” and, in the interview, he challenges Burg on many points. Burg responds with a smug certitude about his denigration of Israel. But his retorts to Shavit are almost invariably non-answers and most often incoherent or bizarre and nonsensical.

Examples of the latter in Burg’s anti-Israel litany are manifold.

When, for instance, Shavit questions Burg’s romanticizing of Jewish life in the Diaspora and, more particularly, his “describ[ing] a thousand wonderful years of German Jewry” prior to the Holocaust, Burg - whose father fled Dresden - defends his stance. The reality of those “thousand wonderful years” includes the vast slaughter of German Jews in 1096, at the start of the First Crusade; subsequent mass murders that accompanied later crusades; the annihilation of myriad Jewish communities in the fourteenth century in the context of Jews being blamed for the Black Death; and many lesser slaughters. It includes the Jewish presence in German territories being reduced for centuries to small, remnant enclaves, as those not murdered migrated eastward and provided the foundations of what made Poland, at the start of the modern era, home to perhaps 40% of all the world’s surviving Jews. But such realities apparently mean nothing to Burg as he hails the wonders of the Diaspora, especially in Germany, and denigrates life in Israel.

In the same vein, and similarly bizarre, Burg praises contemporary Europe as a worthy alternative to Israel for Jews. In a period when attacks on Jews have reached a level not seen since World War II and Jew-hatred has won a new constituency across the political and economic gamut in Europe, Burg declares, “I see the European Union as a biblical utopia... It is amazing. It is completely Jewish.”

The details of Burg’s indictments of Israel are likewise nonsensical flourishes. He insists that Israel is a paranoid state, seeing Hitler everywhere, and dismisses any genuine threats as either overblown or manageable by Israel’s adopting more pacifist and less distrustful policies. To the extent that he acknowledges, at Shavit’s prodding, a threat from Iran, he criticizes Israeli policy toward Iran as too militant and solitary: “Would it not be more right if we didn’t deal with the problem on our own, but rather as part of a world alignment...?” But, of course, in reality hardly a day goes by without some Israeli officials declaring that the genocide-promoting Iranian theocracy is not just Israel’s problem but the world’s and should be dealt with by the international community acting in unison.

When, to Burg’s declaring Israel “dead spiritually,” Shavit points out that, on the contrary, “It has energy and vibrancy and diversity and productivity,” Burg has no coherent response. Equally mindless are Burg’s claims that the Jews of Israel have withdrawn from the wider world, when in reality Israel is more engaged worldwide in positive, charitable, life-promoting efforts certainly than any other country of its size and more so than the great majority of larger nations.

One can often hear in Burg’s biased claims against Israel echoes of other voices. For example, he is hardly unique when he attacks the Law of Return as representative of Israel’s supposed racism or, in Burg’s own words, as “the mirror image of Hitler.” The mean-spirited absurdity of such a claim, especially from someone who worships Europe, should be obvious. European states that give similar immigration and citizenship preference to those with ethnic ties to the dominant population include Denmark, Italy, Germany, Greece, Poland and Ireland among others. In addition, as Amnon Rubinstein has pointed out with regard to Germany, “In spite of the existence of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court for Human Rights, Germany has never been called upon to annul its own ‘Law of Return’ on grounds that it harms the universal principle of equality...” Moreover, the legitimacy of state policies of preferential repatriation was affirmed by the Council of Europe in 2001.

But part of the explanation for why Burg is so comfortable with claims against Israel that are divorced from reality is that the details he offers are secondary to him, mere corollaries to an underlying thesis that he embraces as an act of faith. It is a thesis that has a long pedigree, predating the 1967 war and even the founding of the state: The claim by some Jews that the Zionist enterprise is an affront to genuine Jewish spirituality; that it entails an abandonment of that spirituality for the narrow, materialistic, coarse path of nationalism. Or, in Burg’s words, “Israeliness has only a body; it doesn’t have a soul.”

Burg, like others who promote this thesis, seeks to claim for himself a spiritual superiority, a high standard of ethical conduct by which he measures Israel and finds it falling woefully short. Yet his words and actions reveal something very different - what can perhaps best be characterized as an anti-spiritual idolatry.

This is not meant as a reference to Burg’s materialistic excesses, to what Shavit describes as his “problematic” business dealings or to his suing the Jewish Agency - after he had left his post there - for the right to have the perpetual services of a chauffeured limousine paid for by the agency; behavior which - as Shavit points out - “the judge found disgraceful.” (Burg’s response to Shavit’s raising such issues is to attack Israel’s current steps toward clamping down on corruption as “McCarthyism” and to insist that “I am at harmony with myself.”)

No; it is Burg’s embrace of that dark, dishonest and hypocritical, anti-Israel thesis that represents an “anti-spiritual idolatry.” It is anti–spiritual because, while it talks of ethical, moral precepts, it abandons any such principles in its judging of Israel and of the wider world; and it is idolatrous because it ultimately derives its faux morality from the claims and demands of Israel’s, and the Jews’, enemies.

Again, Burg’s thesis has a long, dark pedigree.

Its origins lie in Europe’s besiegement of its Jews and in maladaptive Jewish responses. Within populations under chronic siege, some will inevitably embrace the indictments of their attackers in the hope that by doing so and reforming accordingly they will appease their enemies and win relief. The history of Diaspora Jewry is replete with episodes of Jews taking to heart the defamations of their tormenters. Indeed, there has probably never been an accusation against Jews - however bigoted and absurd - that has not had its Jewish endorsers.

At the dawn of the modern period, as the issue of granting civic rights to Jews was broached in the states of central and western Europe, every objection raised by those opposed to such rights found its Jewish supporters.

One notable objection was that the Jews constituted a separate nation and this in itself rendered them unfit for being given equal rights in their nations of residence. Many Jews embraced this attack and sought to divest themselves and their fellow Jews of whatever smacked of “nationhood.” In the early nineteenth century, for example, as reformist Jewish congregations were founded in the German states, many sought to strip the liturgy of all references to longings for Jerusalem and for Zion, to demonstrate that Jews were now simply a religious community and no longer a nation.

Those within besieged communities who choose to endorse the indictments of their attackers usually do not acknowledge they are doing so to appease their enemies. Rather, like Avraham Burg, they cast their stance as somehow an ethically superior one. Consistent with this, those who sought to strip Jewish identity of any accouterments of nationhood insisted that Judaism had evolved beyond a narrow, national agenda and now comprised solely a universal spiritual message and mission. From this perspective, the insistence by some Jews that the community had a claim to its national patrimony as well as to its patrimony of faith was derided as narrowminded and anachronistic.

The rise of Zionism led many Jews in the West, including in the German-speaking states and among German Jews in America, to fear that a resurgent Jewish nationalism would threaten all the civic gains they had made in their respective countries. And so - once more choosing to give a moral cast to their fears - they, again like Burg, decried Zionism as morally reprehensible. Even among German Jews who supported the Zionist movement, many did so with the proviso that the Zionist agenda must be one of creating a “cultural” or “spiritual” center that would abet Judaism’s pursuit of its universal ethical mission and that it not entail nation-building.

The perversity to which this led can be seen in the response of some German Jews in the Yishuv to Arab attacks in the 1920's and during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39. They blamed the attacks on what they insisted was the misguided pursuit of a Jewish state and demanded abandonment of that goal.

As the Nazi assault on the Jews grew steadily worse, and as Britain raised ever greater obstacles to Jewish immigration to the League of Nations-sanctioned Jewish National Home, Ben-Gurion struggled with shaping a policy that would gain the Jewish leadership in the Yishuv greater control over immigration. As he stated in 1937, his concern was “Through which [option] can we get in the shortest possible time the most Jews in Palestine?”

But some Jews in the Yishuv, particularly the circle of German Jewish academics around Martin Buber, reared in Germany on anti-Jewish attacks against the alien Jewish “nation” and on the supposed ethical superiority of renouncing that nationhood, chose to savage Ben-Gurion for his nation-building efforts and to denounce the promotion of large-scale immigration as serving the “immoral” cause of nation-building.

Indeed, two months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, as German cadres were already slaughtering Jews by the thousands, Buber wrote in Haaretz that “[The Zionists are] performing the acts of Hitler in the land of Israel, for they want to serve Hitler’s god [i.e., nationalism] after he has been given a Hebrew name.” As to immigration, Buber insisted that the Arabs be given a veto over any additional admission of Jews to Mandate Palestine.

Buber and those who shared his views sought to cast their stance as the moral, ethical one. But what was moral about the abandonment of European Jewry? What was ethical about Buber’s circle in effect setting up the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, as the proper arbiter of whether or not Jews should be rescued from Europe?

Their stance reflected a rejection of the moral imperative to save lives in favor of an anti-moral, anti-spiritual idolatry born of the embrace of bigoted, anti-Jewish indictments; it was an idolatry that gave greater weight to supplication of the Grand Mufti than to the obligation to help those being slaughtered.

This is the pedigree of arguments that the Jewish spirituality of the Diaspora has been abandoned for the Zionist dross of nationhood. It is the pedigree of Burg’s all but equating Israel with Nazism.

In its striving to appease the haters and to cast doing so as morally superior, it illustrates the psychology of all those who respond to the persistence of the Arab siege by blaming Israel and insisting Israeli reform will win relief. It illuminates what drives those who choose to pretend that the siege began in 1967 and returning to the pre-1967 armistice lines will win peace. It casts light on the perversity of those who refuse to listen to what Israel’s enemies declare are their goals, who insist on contorting those goals into something more benign, and who pronounce that to do otherwise is being obdurate and disrespectful of the other side.

It provides a paradigm for those whose answer to the genocidal enmity directed at Israel is to turn away from the legitimacy of Israel’s cause, indeed from the Jews’ right to national self-determination, a right routinely extended to, and thought ethically sacrosanct for, others.

It is the pedigree of those who choose to embrace not any consistently applied measure of ethical behavior to judge Israel, but rather to judge her by parroting the indictments of those who would destroy her. It is the pedigree of those whose “ethics” are derived from the demands of Yasir Arafat and Bashar Assad and Ismail Haniyeh and the potentates of Saudi Arabia and their myriad supporters in Europe.

This is the moral pedigree, the idol-worshiping hypocrisy, of a self-satisfied, spiritually hollow, Avraham Burg.