Avraham Burg spoke last Tuesday at Temple Israel in Brookline, Massachusetts, on a tour to promote his latest book, In Days to Come, sponsored also by the New Israel Fund. The night before, he was at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan (see this recent summary of that event on this website). I didn’t go so much to hear what Burg would say — years ago, I had read his book, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes, and I didn’t expect to be surprised by his opinions. My real curiosity was about how he would be received.
I came away from the evening at Temple Israel thinking that Burg expressed values and political opinions that I agree with, but that he was no longer a political force, and was not really trying to be. The evening was not structured and did not unfold as a political event. It was, first and foremost, one stop on a book tour. I expected a greater political urgency, but what took place seemed almost irrelevant to the dominant and even oppressive contemporary currents of policy and opinion in the Jewish community and in the world at large.
Temple Israel used to have a big sign in front that said “We Stand With Israel In Her Quest For Peace”. It is mainstream Reform, and Reform synagogues often compensate for a lack of theological mindedness by a compensatory emphasis on historical, political, secular matters—the Holocaust and Israel being principal examples. What kind of welcome would they extend to Avraham Burg?
The answer is: it was entirely without incident, without raised voices or tempers. An affable, attentive gathering of sixty or eighty alte kakkers (me included), worthy of an Edward Koren cartoon in the New Yorker, gave a warm welcome to Burg. There wasn’t an iota of discord. Like the B’nai Jeshurun evening, Rabbi Suzie Jacobson led the initial conversation with him, and questions were then taken from the audience. As in New York, comfortable passages from his book were read.
No one found it necessary to disassociate either themselves or Temple Israel from what Burg had to say—in New York, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen said, “the position of the speaker does not necessarily reflect the position of the congregation of B’nai Jeshurun.” Rabbi Roly Matalon may have called Avrum Burg a “troublemaker” at B’nai Jeshurun (Burg responded, “I’ve no clue whether he welcomed me or not tonight”), but one can easily imagine that word serving as a backhanded compliment—political critics are supposed to be provocative. If they aren’t, something is probably wrong. That’s pretty much what motivated me to write this essay.
Avraham Burg was avuncular and good humored. He told gentle political jokes and said nice things about his parents—his optimist mother, for example, who would say “Today really is better than tomorrow!” He was engaging and funny and narcissistic as only a nice Jewish boy can be—I know how that music goes, and can do a version of it myself. He talked about his grandson in a Hebrew-Arabic primary school (yes, he said, with Palestinian Arab classmates), and his complete acceptance if his grandson ended up being married to a Palestinian woman with good and decent values.
In short, he expressed the epitome of what I believe are quintessential, core American values: of the Pledge of Allegiance to “one country, under God, with liberty and justice for all”, and Woody Guthrie’s “This land is your land, this land is my land… This land was made for you and me”, which I sang often when I was in elementary school. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, I “hold these truths to be self-evident”, not only in the United States, but in Israel: that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” So, I’m pleased to say, does Avraham Burg.
Nothing even approached whatever tensions unfolded in New York, where a woman in the audience insisted that Israel needs to be there if things go bad for Jews elsewhere who then need a Plan B. (Burg evidently did not take kindly to the idea.) The questions asked by those who attended the evening at Temple Israel were gently lobbed matzo balls, lacking substantial analytical engagement. Avraham Burg wasn’t put on the spot.
I did not sense political urgency in Burg, his audience, or the New Israel Fund, apart from a consensus discomfort that the political state of things in Israel and the Occupied Territories is bad—for reasons often described at this web site and elsewhere. Rabbi Jacobson’s first question to Avraham Burg was “Why did you write this book?” He answered: “I’m a runner, and I’m a writer. I get up early in the morning, I go running, and then I sit down and write.” He joked that he was an Israeli “Boston Brahmin”, from a storied family, and with a well known political career of his own, now largely past. And as a consequence, there are people who have wanted to read what he has to write, me included.
The audience was accommodating and receptive. There were no protesters inside or outside, no JVP or CodePink raising the temperature of discussion. No major donors to the synagogue made publicly visible political waves, threatening to withhold financial contributions unless the event was cancelled, and so on. Is this calm civility, where we can engage in a benign left-wing discourse, a good thing? I think—maybe not. Here’s why:
About ten years ago, I was the chair of the Faculty Senate at Brandeis University, where I am a professor of computer science. I played a significant part in bringing ex-President Jimmy Carter to speak at Brandeis about his controversial book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The book and the visit were together a major event, certainly for me. The President of the university left town, unwilling to welcome or be photographed with Carter, knowing what the blowback would be from the donors he cultivated. The entirely predictable array of well-known political trolls, whose names do not deserve mention or correct spelling, wrote in major newspapers that President Carter was an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathizer, and a man of loose personal morals. Their words and actions were raw and revolting. Any mud that could be thrown, was.
But in an odd way, there was a silver lining in all this. Yes, it was mean-spirited, mendacious, and without a shred of derech eretz, but it conveyed a fundamental respect: it was an implicit admission that Carter—yes, surely imperfect like the rest of us—was a principled man whose opinion had the potential of changing many peoples’ minds. He was relevant, and his opinions mattered. The truth of this relevance was reflected in the caricature of what he was made out to be, but clearly was not: he had to be stopped, sidelined, smeared, and taken down. Drive up that guy’s negatives by starting the requisite, verbal food fight. Everybody was rolling for real marbles. I sensed nothing even remotely resembling that urgency at Temple Israel the other night.
I respect Avraham Burg and what he’s been through. He was a real politician. Politics is a blood sport that makes your stomach churn when you’re doing it. If your stomach isn’t churning, then it likely isn’t politics. I also respect Avraham Burg if it came to a point where he’d had enough of that political conflict, and wanted to do something else with his life. None of us really wants to end up like Captain Ahab—smashed to bits by Moby Dick, that unstoppable force of nature—and even worse, with nobody watching.
Furthermore, maybe he decided, at some level, that it was someone else’s turn. That continuity is important—to paraphrase President Kennedy, the torch really does have to get passed to a new generation. Otherwise, you have too many old people running everything, with not enough younger people prepared to step up (Democratic Party, please take note: a generation of Clinton entitlement did it no good).
I worry that there was no pushback at Avraham Burg because the political winds are blowing in such an opposite direction right now that those who object to what he thinks and says didn’t believe that he was even worth pushing back at. Similarly, what’s often even more significant than an event is how it is reported, and how its message is amplified. This event wasn’t politically relevant enough to be newsworthy.
This evening did not feel like a political event. It was part of a book tour. It was an enjoyable evening. Now what?