Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book Review | In Days to Come: A New Hope for Israel by Avraham Burg

Walking Away from Zionism

Book Review | In Days to Come: A New Hope for Israel by Avraham Burg

Walking Away from Zionism
January 12, 2018 in 2018 January/February, Arts & Culture, Featured
3 Comments

In Days to Come: A New Hope for Israel
Avraham Burg
Nation Books
2018, 336 pp, $18.99

Zionism has always been a fiercely ideological movement. Socialist Labor Zionism gave rise to Israel’s Labor Party and to many of Israel’s best-known leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Once Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism

(which would eventually create the Likkud Party) and Menachem Begin broke away, secular Zionism was divided into two often-warring factions. Yet there were also religious Zionism and communist Zionism. Some major Zionist figures, such as Ahad Ha’am and Judah Magnes, were cultural Zionists—they sought a revitalization of Hebrew and Jewish culture in what was then Palestine, but they did not believe that Jews ought to get into the state-making business.

The State of Israel, like the movements that produced it, is also a passionately ideological country. We witness these passions when ultra-Orthodox protesters block the entrances to Jerusalem, or “hilltop youth” arouse the ire of mainstream Israel as they establish small settlements in the farthest outreaches of the West Bank. When thousands of mostly secular youth pitched tents on Rothschild Boulevard several years ago protesting the cost of living, they, too, reflected the long tradition of ideological fervor begun in Zionism and continuing in the country it created.

In the early 1990s, another ideological movement came on the scene. Known as post-Zionism, it was prompted mostly by a few Israeli historians whose research cast doubt on some elements of Israel’s classic narrative (such as the claim that Arabs who left had fled of their own accord and were never pushed out). The movement was home to a small number of Israeli intellectuals and included in its ranks well-known academics such as three of Israel’s leading historians—Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim—but then faded relatively quickly.

One of the main causes of its rapid demise was the Second Intifada (2000-2004), which reminded Israelis that whatever their political leanings, they were surrounded by millions of people who refused (and still refuse) to recognize Israel’s right to exist. That bitter realization led to the collapse of Israel’s political left, which has never recovered. Whatever popularity the post-Zionist critique may have had withered along with Israel’s left-leaning politics; some of its most fervent adherents, such as Pappé and Shlaim who now live in Britain, have left Israel permanently.

A few remain, however, none better-known than Avraham (Avrum) Burg, once a rising star in Israeli politics and now a lone voice self-exiled to the far left. Burg hails from Israeli royalty. His father, Dr. Yosef Burg, a Holocaust survivor and deeply learned Jew, was a member of the Knesset for nearly 40 years, and for much of that time, was a leader of the now-defunct National Religious Party. Burg’s mother’s family had lived in the small Jewish community of Hebron for seven generations before it was destroyed in the Arab riot of 1929. In his early years, Avraham Burg seemed to be following in his family’s footsteps. He served as a member of Knesset, speaker of the Knesset, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and, briefly, even interim president of Israel.

Burg has every right to walk away from the Zionist dream. Those who believe in the value of a Jewish state for the Jewish people’s future, however, also have a right to walk away from him.


Yet Burg began to sour on Israel, and in 2007 essentially renounced his “privilege” by declaring that defining Israel as a Jewish state would lead to its demise; he publicly advocated that every Israeli seek to obtain a foreign passport. Israelis should prepare to abandon ship, he was implying, and abandon the Zionist ship as he has. In January 2015, Burg, who had been a member of Knesset as part of the mainstream Labor party, announced that he was joining Hadash, a joint Jewish-Arab party that had its roots in Israel’s Communist party. His rejection of his family’s Zionist roots was complete; he had willed himself not just out of politics, but into political exile.

Burg’s newest book, In Days to Come: A New Hope for Israel, a translation and slight emendation of a Hebrew version that appeared a few years ago, is an autobiography that (only marginally coherently) interweaves Burg’s personal odyssey with his shift in politics and his vision for Israel. His political vision is quickly laid out in a handful of pages. He advocates not two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, living next to each other, but rather, “a confederation of Israel and Palestine” that will function as essentially one state, integrating two sub-states, one Israeli and one Palestinian. How integrated would these states be? “There does not need to be a difference between streets and roads in Nablus and Netanya, just as there are no such differences between New York and California.”

Given the scant space allocated to his political vision, the thrust of his book is less a plan for the future than it is a critique of the past and the present. That critique is scathingly directed at both his father and the state, the two seemingly interchangeable at times. So unremittingly harsh is the vitriol directed at his father that the psychological dimension of the book is inescapable: In Days to Come is essentially Burg’s lashing out at a man who passed away long ago (and to whom he can therefore no longer speak directly) and at the state Burg’s father helped create. One example: He writes that when his older sister was undergoing serious surgery, “Dad went to plead for mercy…at the Kotel. I don’t know what he achieved there, because apparently his prayer was rejected outright. My sister passed away after great suffering, and yet he carried on with his cultish customs.” Ridiculing one’s father for praying when his daughter is deathly ill requires no small dose of ongoing fury.

Burg’s assessment of Israel is no less venomous. Reflecting on 1967 and the beginning of the occupation, Burg writes, “I lived through twelve of the nineteen first—and last—sane years of Israel’s existence.” It is one thing to oppose the occupation (which many Israelis do) and another, entirely, to label the country as “insane.” What is wrong with Israel? Almost everything. He laments “racist Israel, the shrill xenophobia here, the malignant occupation that seems irreversible, the repellent aggressiveness and collapse of the supporting pillars of democracy.”

If Israel is so hopelessly flawed, what is the alternative? It’s a bi-national state, as noted above, a world almost without borders or states. Why? For Burg, the European Union, with borders disappearing and peace spreading, is the ideal model. “Europe is not just a geographic place; it is also a value system that I am trying to expand.” In fact, “the future of liberal democracy is not local…but global. And the Jews don’t need a state anymore: Most of our achievements as a people, as a culture and as individuals are linked to the [period of our] non-sovereign existence.”

Yet since Burg wrote the Hebrew version of his book several years ago, the gleam of the European Union has tarnished. Anti-Semitism has metastasized across the continent, Britain has jettisoned the EU, and some Catalonians are clamoring for independence. A state-free world is an age-old dream, but the challenge facing the Jewish people is to survive, not in a world we might imagine, but in the world that actually exists. Most Jews still believe that toward this end, sustaining Israel as a Jewish state is a paramount, even sacred, value.

Avraham Burg knows Israel intimately, and he is intelligent and insightful. It is thus no surprise that many of the ills he points to are real and, if not addressed, could become existential threats to the Jewish state. He is right that too many Israelis are unwilling to compromise for peace. He is right that Israel has not done enough for its own Arab population. He is right that religion in Israel is too often coercive and even medieval.

Where Burg and most Israelis disagree is how to respond to these challenges. Burg has decided to give up on the Jewish state, to forgo the dream for which his father and his father’s generation toiled. Many of us, conscious though we are of Israel’s many imperfections, refuse to give up. We believe that given the extraordinary accomplishment that the Jewish state is, with the right leadership, equally profound accomplishments could be possible in the future.

Burg has every right to walk away from the Zionist dream. Those who believe in the value of a Jewish state for the Jewish people’s future, however, also have a right to walk away from him.


Daniel Gordis is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.”

3 Comments
  • Frances Weingarten 11:08h, 11 February Reply

    I’m sure that some of what Avraham Burg says is valid but I don’t agree with most of his thinking, especially with the concept that we are destroying ourselves by the way we choose to live.
    I definitely don’t believe we should even consider compromising for peace. The Arabs here don’t want peace with Israel, they want Israel without Jews. They’ve declared this concept time and time again yet there are still those who believe that we will one day live in peace together.
    This is our state and our country and if the Arabs don’t agree with this, they are welcome to seek homes in more appealing areas. They are free to stay here if they choose but they must live under the laws, mores and values of Israel, just as any other group would be expected to do.

  • Sheila Novitz 11:28h, 11 February Reply

    Burg is insane, not Israel, if he thinks we are so safe in the world that we no longer need a state for the Jewish people.

  • David L Kline 15:04h, 23 February Reply

    “the value of a Jewish state for the Jewish people’s future” Is this to be the essence of the Zionist dream? If so, your commitment seems every bit as grounded as my mine to the two state solution.

Post A Comment