In a new book, the Israeli writer and politician Avraham Burg has come out for a one-state solution entailing federated Jewish and Palestinian political entities, and on Monday night he was hosted by the progressive New York synagogue B’nai Jeshurun and the New Israel Fund to talk about his ideas.
The most significant element of the evening was how much discomfort the two liberal sponsors had with Burg. Here is a true aristocrat of Israeli society (Burg has religious, Ashkenazi and political pedigree out the yingyang, he was an interim President of Israel) offering the most reasonable answers to Israel’s problems– Palestinians are our equals, there is no such thing as a Jewish democracy– and his hosts needed to distance themselves from him.
Rabbi Roly Matalon, the guiding spirit of the synagogue, praised Burg as a great friend who has come “again and again and again” to his synagogue as a voice for peace, and given him advice over 30 years “in difficult times and in easy times and in times when I have needed to develop some vision and find some inspiration and some answers to difficult questions.” Then he put a disclaimer on the talk. Burg is a troublemaker.
We are very honored that you’re here… He is someone whom I have admired for many many years… I am very very happy that he is here again…
What I really admire about Avrum is his truth-telling. Many people don’t like that he has a big mouth…. He says it as he sees it. He may understand that there are many other people who have a different understanding and different perspective. But he tells his perspective knowing that it’s not the only truth, but this is what he believes and he shares it, and he’s a troublemaker– you know, everybody, every family, every community, every country has an official story. And then there are people who challenge the official story and bring up all sorts of questions and search for a deeper truth and this is what his business is. It’s been his business as a politician, his business as an educator and a writer. “
Burg said he wasn’t sure what to make of Matalon’s introduction: “We’ve known each other for so many years, and I’ve no clue whether he welcomed me or not tonight.”
Later moderator Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of the New Israel Fund also distanced herself from Burg’s comments. After he had laid out his post-Zionist vision for a state of all its citizens, not a Jewish state, she said, “If we were watching this on TV, right now’s when we’d see the asterisk with the crawler under the screen: the position of the speaker does not necessarily reflect the position of the congregation of B’nai Jeshurun.”
Cohen had done everything she could to put off Burg’s ideas. She had focused on safe sections of Burg’s book, the 1967 War and the 1929 massacre in Hebron. Not till an hour had passed and the question period arrived, did audience members eagerly ask about Burg’s one-state fare. Then Cohen distanced herself, saying Burg was a difficult voice to listen to because he pushed “all the buttons.”
And she said: “This is a conversation that when it gets real it gets hard.”
She’s right, and that’s the discourse in the Jewish community. Official American Jewry, which is tied to richer older Jews with a Holocaust frame of reference, doesn’t want to hear about Israel’s central problem, the persecution of Palestinians. Even when a bona fide Israeli Jew with a long official resume and a yarmulke is bringing them the news that the two-state solution is dead and there’s no need for a Jewish state, they don’t want to hear it. Though some members of the congregation applaud him.
And you wonder why these same halls never give the podium to anti-Zionist Jews and Palestinians…. And by the way, Matalon justified the invitation by saying that Burg’s ideas are rooted in Torah. As if that’s the only path into the realm of wisdom.
Here are some of Burg’s comments.
On the two-state solution being dead, and the necessity to give Palestinians equal rights.
People don’t realize that the two-state solution is not a product with no expiration date…. I’m afraid that it expired. I’m not at all sure that it is still there on the shelf. Maybe one day it will come back. But under the current state of affairs, I’m not at all sure that a two state solution is still valid. That’s why I ask myself … OK, if the two-state solution is not there because of this reason or that reason… so it is one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean with two regimes– one full of privileges for the Jews, and one full of discrimination for the Palestinians– versus a one-state formula with a fairer and more equal regime for all.
So the competition is not one state versus two states. But it is the current state of affairs, of one state with two regimes, or a better one-state. This is what we have today.
The Jewish state doesn’t work because of the lack of separation of church and state.
We are in love with the Jewish and democratic formula. It’s a great offer, it’s two for the price of one…. Jewish and democratic is a problem, because no state, no society, no company, no family can function with two sources of authority. The democratic, human, here-and-now one, and the theocratic, divine given one. Impossible!
There’s light at the end of the tunnel for the Israeli left:
People are tired of the fatigue. I’ll explain. This despair is so good. You don’t have to do a thing. Why bother? It will never change, Netanyahu is here forever. After the moshiach [messiah] he will still be there. Despair became very very comfortable. I think that people are tired of being exhausted by their despair. I feel that people more and more in various corners are assuming responsibility…. People are coming out on the street. People do not stay at home anymore…. I do not know what will be the outcome of it… I pray for one thing. I pray for a different political system, in which courtesy is a common language, and there is not incitement any more. Not inflicting this or that against the other.
BTW, Burg said that leftwing civil society organizations aimed at working in the courts had drained a lot of the energy out of leftleaning political life, allowing it to be “castrated.”
Now here is the fun part. At the end of Burg’s talk, an older woman named Deborah said, “I have one final question. Is Israel a place at the end of your scenario where there will be a home for a Jew who doesn’t have one?”
Burg sparred with her. “Who is a Jew who needs a home, who doesn’t have a home today?… So you’re talking about the Holocaust again?”
Deborah said, “I’m talking about history repeating itself. It may be fiction to you, but it’s history repeating itself.”
Burg expressed anger at her.
If I listen very carefully to what you say–… “I need you to suffer over there just in case if one day I will need a home from the upper west side.” You have to tell me how long– how long I have to suffer over there?… Forget about it. What am I, a shelter? I’m not there for you… I’m not living my life for you to come there just in case of an emergency….”
Burg then questioned the need for Jewish sovereignty.
I’m 4000 years old Jew and most of my history, I didn’t have airplanes, denied nuclear bombs, denied paratroopers, denied a state, and I survived nicely. Israel, you are 70 years old, and you have the mightiest army ever in the world and every day you are afraid the state of Israel will perish. What is wrong with you Israelis?
Sovereignty has very little to do with guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people…. The survival of the people is a very important thing to think about… The issue is, Why survive? Survive for what? What for? If the Jewish people is 14 million Rabbi Kahanes, I say, Perish the people. If the Jewish people is one individual Dalai Lama, I say, Bring UNESCO, preserve this individual. Because for me the Jewish people is about a values system not about genetics. [Applause]…
And therefore don’t talk to me about having a shelter. Talk to me about having shelter for what. I’m not about demography, I’m not about numbers… My solidarity is not going to the genes of my cousins, if they are bad guys…I know, it doesn’t sound nice.
Deborah asked why he called his cousins bad guys. Burg said:
Listen, if cousins of mine literally speaking are racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, OK, a few other phobias, and I can give you the whole of it. But racists– they are from my point of view, they are genetic Jews but I don’t have any partnership with them. If somebody, my next door neighbor, might be an Arab, might be the educator of my grandchildren, who is pluralistic, tolerant, humanist, who comes to her position from her Islam not Judaism– she is my partner. [More applause]
He went on to say that the nation state had two competing models, the French one, the nation is a common denominator of cultural and civil understandings, versus the German one, based on blood.
When you ask today a Jew in Israel, what is the nation, unfortunately too many of my cousins will say it is about the Jewish blood. To me being Jewish is not about blood system. So for me the idea of shelter for the like-my-blood brothers and sisters is not valid.
Deborah said, “You need to think about the majority of the people– how you are going to explain it.”
Burg shook his head. “I’m sorry, Deborah, I’m a minority. I’m not trying to explain anything, I’m telling you what I feel.”
She said, “It’s not going to make it easy.”
And she’s right.
P.S. Burg said that Israel has only ever executed one person, Adolf Eichmann, in 1962. Many human rights groups would dispute this claim.