As a Zionist, you will not like what Avram Burg has to say. I didn’t, and most of the people listening to him one evening this week didn’t either. But he’s smart, cogent and worth hearing nevertheless.
The New Israel Fund sponsored Burg in a series of speaking engagements in Los Angeles this week, and I was offered the role of questioning him in one living-room discussion.
Burg, 61, is the son of the National Religious Party founder, Yosef Burg, who served in every Israeli government from 1949 to 1999. Avrum is an activist in left-wing Israeli organizations, was a member of the Knesset in a number of left-leaning Zionist parties, served as Chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, was Speaker of the Knesset, and for 20 days served as President of the State of Israel after Ezer Weizmann resigned before the next President could be elected and installed by the Knesset.
Burg has now left the Zionist movement altogether declaring that “Zionism was the scaffolding that facilitated the transition [of the Jews] from the Diaspora to sovereignty. This scaffolding is superfluous now…Zionism is over.”
In the last Israeli election Burg made it official and voted for the Israeli Arab-Jewish party Hadash, now part of the joint Arab List, the third largest bloc in the Knesset. This next week he will be publishing an op-ed in Haaretz taking to task Hadash for its ties to Hezbollah.
He explained why he will not vote for a Zionist party again, that it’s taken him a long time to reach this point, but that he believes his thinking represents the future of Israel and the Palestinians. In 1948, he declared, the Zionist movement fulfilled its raison d’etre to rescue Jews from oppression in the Diaspora, and that it’s now the next stage in the Israeli evolution.
“In 20 years, the country will be in one of two places – either it will be a fundamentalist religious republic … or it will recover from the wars of the Jews over religion and state, and between the Jordan and the sea we will see the establishment of an Israel-Palestine confederation with open borders….Palestine will be ruled by a party that has managed to eradicate the occupation by means of a non-violent civil uprising, and the two countries will share a constitution. Both will also be part of a regional union that will include Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus. Israel’s police, defense and foreign affairs ministers will come from the Arab community.” (Ynet News, January 15, 2015 – http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4615046,00.html)
Burg said to us that it was time to eliminate the “Law of Return,” that those who wish to live in Israel “should get in line and apply for citizenship just as you do in America. People fleeing anti-Semitism and oppression can apply for political asylum.”
Burg emphasized that the future must bring a new constitutional government with church-state separation. Jewish religious nationalism, he asserted, is by definition exclusionary and anti-democratic. It treats one class of citizens (i.e. Jews) differently than another (i.e. Arabs). Every individual in the new confederation must have equal rights, with one person having one vote. “The biggest injustice in the State of Israel is the civil injustice vis-à-vis Jews and Arabs,” he said.
Burg had supported a two-state solution, but he now believes that settlement expansion throughout the West Bank has made a contiguous Palestinian state nearly impossible, and he doesn’t believe that Israeli and Palestinian leadership have the will to come to a two-state agreement.
I asked Burg what he thought of the recent Pew Research poll showing 48% of Israelis supporting the policy of transfer of Arabs to other Arab countries. He said that he wasn’t surprised because this is what has come after all these years with Bibi at the helm. But, sounding an optimistic note, he noted that an equal number of Israeli Jews rejects authoritarianism.
Though he expressed deep concern about the anti-democratic trend in Israel, he said, “Look – this is what happens when you have one people oppressing another for almost fifty years.”
I asked him how he imagined security being handled in such a confederation with terrorism and instability all around Israel. “There’s no security now,” he said. “We have everything – a fence, iron dome, drones, and the most powerful military in the Middle East, but we can’t maintain security, nor stop the bombs and knifings.” He argued that when everyone, Arab and Jew, has a stake in a new political order, security will be handled.
Burg also told us that we American Jews have no real stake in Israel. “The only people who have a stake are the citizens and residents of Israel. Yes, I know you care about Israel. I care deeply about the United States. But I have no stake here, and you don’t there.”
Most of us were stunned by Burg’s views. We were, by and large, liberal American Zionists, advocates for a two-state solution, and for democracy for all citizens of the Israel, ala President Ruvi Rivlin and Likud MK Benny Begin. We believe that American Jews do, indeed, have a large stake in Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state not only because Israel is the greatest accomplishment of the Jewish people in 2000 years, but the greatest opportunity our people has had to put into practice within the context of Jewish sovereignty our ethical tradition. Most in the room, I believe, thought that his idea of a new confederation is unrealistic and unworkable, given the region’s violence and political instability and other examples where this has been tried and failed – i.e. Bosnia.
Burg concluded by confessing that he’s actually an optimist and that one day a new political configuration will take hold for Israel because, he said, “there is no other way.”