Shortly before Martin Buber emigrated to Palestine from Germany in 1938, he was hailed by the Zionist Union of Germany as a scholar who “taught us that to be a Zionist, to be a Jew, and to be a human being are a single unity.” Avraham Burg, who seeks to emulate Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel in his confrontation and critique of Israel, could well be described in similar terms: He is a Zionist who sees in Judaism a responsibility for the welfare of all humankind. “Never again” must not be limited to Jews but extended to all suffering victims in the world.
The publication of this book in Hebrew prompted a tidal wave of criticism not only because of its content but equally because of the impeccable Zionist credentials of its author. Burg’s father, Yosef, was a longtime Israeli cabinet minister under David Ben-Gurion. In 1988 Avraham Burg was elected to the Knesset, later appointed head of the World Zionist Organization and of the Jewish Agency and then named Speaker of the Knesset. In 2001 he came within a few votes of winning the leadership of the Labor Party. Yet in all of this there was a gnawing discontent. His decision to leave politics in 2004 came when he realized that despite all its success, Israel was “a kingdom without prophecy,” with no compass and no direction. Zionism, Burg thought, should offer to the world an alternative political model, a rejuvenated Judaism with a universal appeal that would make Israel a “light unto the nations.” Scarcely anyone in Israel is talking in these terms, and one major reason for this is that Israeli society has become a prisoner of the Shoah.
Burg traces the wavering of the Zionist ideal to the 1960s, beginning with the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of Hitler’s Final Solution. The trial became an “all-Israeli” affair, and for Burg a turning point both personally and collectively. Eichmann was convicted of genocide against the Jewish people and executed by hanging in May 1962. Voices calling for an international tribunal and judiciary and for a wider participation of non-Jewish witnesses went unheeded. Instead of recognizing the Shoah as a crime against all of humanity and linking Jewish suffering with all other innocent victims of racial fanaticism, Israel embarked on the road to exclusive possession of the Shoah. Instead of seeing its horrors in a more meaningful, universal light, Israel made it a source of its isolation from the world, reinforcing the idea of perpetual victimhood.
Burg points out that since the Shoah has become Israel’s exclusive property, no other people may lay a claim to it. It has become at once a weapon in the service of the Jewish people but also the source of their imprisonment. Monopolizing the Shoah, he argues, has been a disaster for Israel and for Judaism. Security has become Israel’s primary goal, and everything done in the name of security is condoned. Burg makes clear that Jews should be at the forefront to protest and struggle against mass killings, violations of human rights, and injustices wherever they occur—in Rwanda or Darfur, Tibet or East Timor, in the United States, in Palestine or in Israel itself.
Monopolizing the Shoah has led to a state of hysteria, leading Israel to brand its opponents with the Nazi swastika. From the Palestinian Liberation Organization to Hamas to Iran, every threat to Israel is perceived as a threat to its existence. In the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Menachem Begin described Yasir Arafat as the “two-legged beast,” the same term he had earlier used to describe Hitler. Begin told the Israeli cabinet that Israel had no choice but to fight because the alternative was Treblinka. The P.L.O.’s National Charter was likewise likened to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, prompting the Israeli novelist Amos Oz to point out the danger of recreating Hitler in order to kill him again and again. Yet after the Hamas victory in the 2006 election, Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel was confronting a new tzorer, the term used to describe enemies like Hitler. Burg deplores these and similar efforts to reincarnate “the Nazi spirit into the Arab body.” And one can scarcely glance at an Israeli newspaper without seeing remarks about the threat of annihilation posed by Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, a nuclear Iran is a threat not just to Israel but to the whole of the Middle East and beyond. Such policies and attitudes are another compelling reason for Israel to free itself from the prison of the Shoah, which falsely connotes to Israel that “the whole world is against us.”
The most disturbing aspect of this intellectual imprisonment is found in the similarities Burg perceives between the Weimar Republic and contemporary Israeli society. Those were the years when the German people were deceived and misled by the beginnings of National Socialism. They did not take Hitler and his provocations seriously until the disaster was upon them. Burg fears that Israelis are also turning a blind eye to what is happening in their midst. The use of the term Arab in Israeli parlance is often derogatory, signifying something or someone that is inferior, as was the German word Jude in the pre-Hitler years. Are the wall scribblings in Israel, Arabs Out or Transfer Now, any less sinister than Juden Raus? Will the most recent stories coming from Israeli Defense Forces soldiers about their actions in Gaza, or the ever more frequent claims by Israeli settlers as they appropriate more properties in the West Bank that they must “redeem” the land, or the policies of population transfer openly advocated by Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Liebermann, give any more validity to Burg’s concerns about racism in Israel? There is no clear answer to that question. But Burg warns his readers: “It happened to the Germany of Schiller, Goethe and Mendelssohn,” and it can happen “also to us.” He pleads with his fellow Israelis to open their ears and eyes and hearts.
There is a vast treasure of unfulfilled potential represented by the State of Israel. Yet the author is fearful that what was possible in the land of poets and philosophers is possible “here too, in the land of the prophets.” A chilling thought indeed.