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Avraham Burg speaks at Temple Israel in Boston

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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?

About Harry Mairson

Harry Mairson is a professor of computer science at Brandeis University.

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11 Responses

  1. LHunter
    March 4, 2018, 12:34 pm

    Now What? Continue his speaking tour – don’t you worry the Zionists will show up and take their standard shots – guaranteed. Be nice if Mr. Burg was also invited to non-jewish sponsored/organized events – a wider audience should hear his message and be introduced to his book. Hoping college campus groups would extend invitations.

    I wonder if Mr. Burg would ever do a debate against the likes of Dershowitz

  2. Yonah Fredman
    March 4, 2018, 4:33 pm

    If Larry Derfner or Gideon Levy had come to town, i think that the event would not have passed so peacefully. They are part of the current tense in a way that Burg is not.

    • Mooser
      March 5, 2018, 7:24 pm

      “If Larry Derfner or Gideon Levy had come to town, i think that the event would not have passed so peacefully.”

      I think you are right. Those Boston Zionists would tell Levy and Derfner what is going on in Israel, in no uncertain terms.

  3. JLewisDickerson
    March 5, 2018, 1:45 am

    RE: “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…The entirely predictable array of well-known political trolls…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.” ~ Harry Mairson

    MY COMMENT: If I recall correctly, Carter joked (at least partially) early in his speech that he was certainly thankful he still had Secret Service protection.

    ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂ ✂

    Carter Addresses His Critics

    • Former president defends controversial book on Mideast

    At the invitation of a faculty and student committee, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter spoke in January [of 2007 – J.L.D.] before a capacity crowd at the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.

    There the 39th president discussed his extensive experience dealing with the Middle East conflict and defended the hotly contested content of his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. The book is critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, prompting some members of the Jewish community to denounce its author for what they call an anti-Israel bias.

    Arriving with a Secret Service escort. Carter bypassed about fifty demonstrators who gathered on South Street holding signs that both defended and vilified him. Inside, he addressed an audience of some 1,700 faculty, staff and students and spent forty-five minutes replying to often provocative student questions. The fifteen queries addressed were preselected by the host committee from 178 submitted.

    Moderating the program was Mari Fitzduff, professor of coexistence and head of the Master’s Program in Intercommunal Coexistence.

    Long regarded as a statesman for world diplomacy, Carter, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, said he is concerned over personal attacks that have been made against him since the book’s release. “This is the first time that I’ve ever been called a liar and a bigot and anti-Semite,” Carter said. “This has hurt me.”

    Carter defended the use of the word “apartheid ‘ in the book’s title, saying he chose it because he knew it would be provocative.

    “I realize this has caused great concern in the Jewish community. The title makes it clear that the book is about conditions and events in the Palestinian territory and not in Israel. And the text makes clear . . . that the forced separation and the domination of Arabs by Israelis is not based on race,” Carter said, explaining that he used the word to describe not racism, but the desire to acquire, occupy, confiscate, and colonize Palestinian land.

    Describing a dire situation for Palestinians in the West Bank, the former president suggested that a group of Brandeis students and professors visit the occupied territories for a few days and meet with leaders and citizens “to determine whether I have exaggerated or incorrectly described the plight of the Palestinians.”

    Telling the audience, “Israel will never find peace until it is willing to withdraw from its neighbors’ land and to permit the Palestinians to exercise their basic human and political rights,” Carter called for a negotiations process supported by the United States with the participation of Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. And he said he hopes his book will provide an avenue to “a secure Israel living in peace with its neighbors while exemplifying the principles of ancient sacred texts and the philosophy of Justice Louis D. Brandeis: justice and righteousness.”

    SOURCE –
    https://archive.org/stream/brandeisuniversi2713bran/brandeisuniversi2713bran_djvu.txt

  4. Misterioso
    March 5, 2018, 11:19 am

    For the record:
    Here’s a portion of what former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stated during a meeting of the World Council of Churches in Jerusalem on January 10/05:

    “More recently, we’ve seen an abandonment of the fair and objective and balanced role of the U.S. government in the negotiations between Israel and her neighbours and sometimes enemies. Lately in particular, our president [George W. Bush] has totally complied with the desires of the Israeli Prime Minister to the detriment of the Palestinians and the detriment of their hopes for the future. [Sound familiar?]

    “I personally think that Yasser Arafat did the best he could for peace. Not many of my countrymen agree. I knew him quite well. He took a heroic action in the Oslo agreement for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. For the last 3 ½ years, as the elected President of the Palestinian people, he was kept in prison in disgrace and still expected to command the full authority of his people and he was held responsible for acts of violence.”

  5. Misterioso
    March 5, 2018, 3:10 pm

    http://www.dci.plo.ps/en/article/8331/March-5,-2018-Dr-Ashrawi-condemns-Guatemala’s-decision-to-relocate-its-embassy-to-Jerusalem-in-May

    March 5, 2018: “Dr. Ashrawi condemns Guatemala’s decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem in May”

    “PLO Executive Committee Member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi has condemned the ‘dangerous and provocative’ announcement made by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales at AIPAC’s annual conference to relocate the embassy of Guatemala from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem:

    “’By taking such a step that defies international law, Mr. Morales, also besieged at home by charges of corruption and abuse of power, has partnered with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S President Donald Trump in violating international law and undermining the chances of peace.'”

    “Dr. Ashrawi urged the international community, Arab and Islamic states ‘to intervene and hold the Israeli occupation and its partners to account for such flagrant violations and provocative actions that fuel the flames in an already volatile situation.’”

  6. genesto
    March 5, 2018, 7:41 pm

    This is rather disturbing. If they ignore you, you’re really back to step one!

  7. Stephen Shenfield
    March 5, 2018, 8:25 pm

    I just read Burg’s book “In Days to Come” and would like to share my reactions. Although he says many things that are forward-looking and even inspiring, he is far from taking on board the Palestinian perspective. He is one of those who looks back nostalgically on the period before the 1967 war as the time of Israel’s ‘innocence’ — he has not yet ‘discovered the Nakba’. He places much of the blame for the moral degeneration of Israel on the rising power of the Orthodox rabbinate. The main contrast in his narrative is that between the archaic tribalism of Orthodox Judaism and European modernity, of which he would like Israel to be a part. His orientation toward Europe is so strong that he seems to have no interest in the region where he lives — the Middle East. He talks movingly and at length about his personal interactions with Germans, but not a word about any such interactions with Palestinians. So while he now has an intellectual understanding of the need to create a state together with the Palestinians he himself is hardly equipped to be a citizen of a joint state. Perhaps he will evolve further but this is my impression of his current mentality.

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