by Rori Donaghy/ Middle East Eye
On Wednesday evening, 12 torches were lit on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, marking the beginning of Israeli celebrations for the 68th anniversary of their country’s establishment in 1948.
The lead-up to the event, which for Palestinians marks their expulsion and mass atrocities, has seen the country awash in Israeli flags. Nearly every car, lamppost and building was adorned with at least one blue-and-white striped Star of David in Jerusalem this morning.
At 11am, sirens rang out across the country, bringing it to a standstill. Drivers stopped their cars and got out to stand in the streets, in memory of Israeli soldiers and civilians who have died in their conflict with the Palestinians.
Shortly after the silence, Middle East Eye sat down with Avraham Burg in the pristine white building of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, where academics study philosophy, society, culture and education.
While Burg may feel at home writing books and articles at the institute, for most of his life he was a stalwart of the Israeli establishment, serving as a Labour Party MP in four different Knessets over 30 years.
During his high-profile political career, he was the speaker of the Knesset, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and even acted as Israel’s president for 20 days in 2000 after the resignation of Ezer Weizman.
His father, Dr Yosef Burg, was a German-born Holocaust survivor who founded the National Religious Party, while his mother, Rivka, survived the 1929 massacre in Hebron.
But for all his establishment credentials, after retiring from politics in 2004, Burg has been on a political journey that saw him join the communist Israeli-Palestinian Hadash Party last January.
The author of five books, including the acclaimed The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise From its Ashes, Burg is now, among many things, a founder of Molad, a think-tank that aims to renew Israel’s democracy.
He spoke to MEE about the state of Israel’s politics and set out the policies he would support in what he described as a “one-state reality”, while taking time to comment on the British Labour Party and its recent
crisis around anti-Semitism:
MEE: In 2003, you wrote in the Guardian that if Israel didn’t change direction, it would end up being “strange and ugly”. On the 68th anniversary of Israel’s establishment have we reached this point?
AB: Yes – but not completely. The Israel of 1948 was a secular state. Its economy was socialist/social democratic. And it had more of a democratic understanding of itself.
The Israel of 2016 is not secular at all. Its economy is hard neo-con capitalist. And its concept of democracy is the rule of the majority, rather than the more sophisticated, developed mature democracies of our time, which is that of being sensitive and containing other voices, especially of minorities.
Israel today is in a lower place than it was 15 years ago or 50 years ago. But it’s not alone because the West is ugly as well. Israel’s family name of being a Western democracy is not in a nice place. When I see all the nationalists with all their phobias – xenophobia, homophobia, Judeophobia, Islamophobia, you name it – the world is in a bad place. The world of 2016 is uglier than the world of the 1990s.
MEE: You have said you want all settlements in the occupied West Bank to be dismantled. What would you say to the West Bank settler who argues that you, living in Jerusalem, and that the whole of Israel, is one big settlement?
AB: For me, history is clear. In 1948-49, Israel got its international legitimacy. Israel was not established because of the Bible or because of prayers. Israel was established by the international mechanisms that establish states – UN resolutions and so on. And there is a legitimate, legal Israel, of which the borders are the ones prior to the 1967 war. It is legal. It is not based on anything which is biblical, eschatological, or redemptive.
Within this Israel, Israel has committed some unbelievable, not-to-be-done deeds – like erasing all the previous memories of the Palestinians. Israel must deal with the Palestinian component within it – with equal histories and equal fairness. And it does not do it, but it will do it one day.
Beyond the 1967 borders, the land is not part of the legal Israel. It is not part of the international norm. It does not belong to us. That’s a fact of life. Therefore the settlers are criminals against peace. The settlers are criminals against the Palestinians. And the governments who sent them there are collaborators, including Labour, which started the whole process.
MEE: You used to be a big supporter of the two-state solution, but now your desired position is a confederation of two states in one. Why the change?
AB: The two-state solution died the day Bibi Netanyahu adopted it. Up until then, it had a chance. The minute he gave the Bar Ilan speech, it was a death kiss to the two-state solution. It’s not a product on the supermarket shelf that has no expiration date – it expired.
I could love something that is dead, but that would ignore the one state that exists, which has two regimes: one full of privileges for Jews and one full of discrimination for the Palestinians. I have chosen to compete with this one-state reality with an alternative one-state formula. This is where my support for a confederation comes from.
MEE: Right-wing nationalism in Israel has risen in step with increasing levels of poverty. Where are the Israeli leaders offering a different vision for society? Where is your Bernie Sanders?
AB: Our Bernie Sanders is in America. It is correct to say that the forces of Western liberalism and progressivism have not succeeded in undoing the bond between poverty and nationalism.
Poverty in Israel is not a five-hour drive from home – it is around the corner, it is your relative, your friend, someone you know who is struggling to get by. And it is in the interest of the leadership to allow all the tiny groups [in poverty] to fight each other. And the more they fight each other, and the more they are angry with each other, the less the government is responsible for the issue.
But in Israel, there never was a left. The classical concept of the left is that it says all humans are equal, the state is secular, public resources should be fairly distributed, and it is blind to differences of gender and so on. In Israel, being left is one thing only: whether you say yes or no to a settlement with the Palestinians. This has created an artificial division of the political forces.
For instance, take [Zionist Union leader] Isaac Herzog, who is a personal friend of mine, but who I recently took to task in Haaretz. He is supposed to be the flagship of the progressive movement in Israel. But what did we find (when he distanced himself from “loving Arabs”)? A bigoted politician.
We have a fragmented political system. The prime minister’s party only won 30 seats [out of 120 in the 2015 election], which was only achieved after a huge effort. We only have medium to small parties which create ad-hoc coalitions – this means the political system is very unstable.
MEE: You have said you want to end the law of return, which allows Jews from around the world to immediately have the right to citizenship in Israel. Why?
AB: In 1948, when Israel was established, the majority of Jews were either post-trauma [from the Holocaust] or lived in dangerous places where their physical existence was threatened. There was a need for the rescue citizenship plan. But we are now living in 2016. Seventy-eight percent of Jews are living between Israel and the United States. Do we still need a collective fast-track law of return? My answer is no.
I would like to amend the law of return for it to say whomever would like to seek citizenship in Israel should get in the queue. However, if one individual, or community, should be persecuted because of their Jewishness, I would have a safety net for this kind of situation. This is how I want to change the law of return to make the naturalisation process in Israel more natural, rather than ethnical privilege and discriminatory.
MEE: If you were to change the law of return, would you implement a law of return for Palestinian refugees so they can resettle in what they see as their own country?
AB: One of the reasons I was so in favour of a two-state solution was because I felt issues overwhelmingly affecting Palestine (including the right of return) could be sorted out by the Palestinians and issues affecting Israelis could be sorted out by Israel. But since the settlers do not want to leave, the one-state reality means [we must have] equal rights for all – it means if there is a right of return for the Jews, there should be a right of return for the Palestinians.
You cannot run away from this problem. Well, you can run away, but you cannot run away if you want to resolve it.
MEE: You believe strongly that it is down to Israelis and Palestinians to sort out the conflict, but what is your opinion on campaigns such as Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS)?
AB: It is in my nature, both philosophically and ethically speaking, to be a dialogist. I believe in conversation, so no boycott is a measure that I would be willing to adopt. But if you ask me is it (BDS) kosher? Of course it is kosher.
What are we saying to the Palestinians? First, let’s kick you out of the state. Then, let’s occupy you for a few decades. Then, let’s negate every right you have because we have a monopoly over resources and power. Then, we say we don’t want you to do [BDS] because it is not nice and it makes us feel uncomfortable. Come on. BDS is a legitimate act of civil disobedience. Are there some anti-Semite voices in it? Yes, but so what? Instead of fighting the mosquitoes, we have to look where the swamp is.
MEE: In 2003, as well as saying Israel risked becoming ugly, you set out the case for the end of Zionism. What is Zionism now, and does Israel still have a need for it?
AB: There is no one definition of Zionism by which all Zionists define themselves. There are those who come from a territorial point of view; there are those who are nationalistic; there are those who are being pushed away by the anti-Semites. There is no one school of thought, but there is no doubt that this ambiguous unclear definition is being transformed.
Israel has redefined the notion of the Jewish national, making it a fusion of four components: territory, religion, power, and sovereignty. This does not necessarily represent all Jews – be it a liberal or conservative Jew in Golders Green or in Washington, DC. But from an Israeli point of view, being an Israeli Zionist – whatever it is – is being very ethnical, driven by religion, very power thirsty, and very possessive over territory.
Zionism in a historical sense was a necessary movement to transform the Jewish people from an exilic governance structure to a sovereign one. I define Zionism as the scaffolding which enabled the Jewish people to restructure themselves. What happened in 1948 was the completion of the restructuring. We, finally, after millenniums of waiting, we had the structure in place (a state). Now it’s about time to remove the scaffolding (Zionism). But people are reluctant because they are addicted to the secondary benefits of getting sympathy from everybody and so on. Zionism is still the support system of Israel even though it is not needed at all.
MEE: If you take away Zionism would this mean that the Jewishness of Israel is potentially lost?
AB: First, there is a total misunderstanding about the nature of the place. If you walk in France, which is a secular place, do you know it’s France? Yes, immediately you know. If you walk in Germany, which is a secular place, do you know it’s Germany? Yes, immediately. How do we do it? I don’t know, but you just do.
My argument is that the culture of the place is not decided by the state structure, but it is the common cultural behaviour of the people in it. When you rely on the state structure to impose identity, this takes us to places where we will not like the definition of the state. But the people here [in Israel] do not invest much time in political philosophy.
They want the state to be Jewish, the street to be Jewish, the man to be Jewish, the enemy to be Jewish – everything should be Jewish.
We even want the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Who are they to recognise us? Why do we have to give them the power to define us?
MEE: In Britain, there has been a big debate about what constitutes anti-Semitism, because of stories alleging anti-Jewish prejudice in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Have you been watching this unfold? What is the view from Israel on this?
AB: For issues like this to erupt in the Labour Party, it is an expression of weakness in leadership. The leader is responsible for keeping an equilibrium of views in the party. Where are you, Mr Corbyn? OK, you’ve opened this investigation into anti-Semitism, fine, but I’ve been in parties all my life – I know how parties wish-wash everything. Take a position. Go to the parliament. Come to Israel. He should stand up and shout “stop it”.
MEE: I think he has done that to some extent…
AB: He has said “Stop it, please.”
Let’s open it up a little bit. Up until around a century ago in the West, hating Jews was the main channel of hatred in society. The Jew was the main Other. This culminated in the Second World War. But the reality of the world today is that hatred of Jews is not number one on the list of who is hated. There is so much hatred in society – be it Islamophobia, xenophobia, Judeophobia, homophobia, you name it. But if you allow one segment of hatred to raise its ugly head again, by the end of the day, you’ll find yourself legitimising all the other kinds of hate. This is the problem. There should be a coalition led by the left against any hatred in society.
What drives me crazy is that I look at Jews here, including the government, and they are saying “let’s get together with the Islamophobic elements in Europe” because all of a sudden, those people said they are Jew lovers in order to hate Muslims. It’s stupid. The same criticism I have for my own people I have for Mr Corbyn – and with him I also have a problem with the fact he thinks Hezbollah is fine. To ally with these kind of groups who are fuelled by hatred is a kind of politics that doesn’t and shouldn’t work.
MEE: You were once a stalwart of the Israeli establishment. Now you’re an outlier, someone who has travelled left, when most of Israel has travelled right. Are voices like yours relevant anymore in Israel?
AB: Listen, an Israeli poet once wrote that only dead fish swim with the stream. If there is something very Jewish about my identity, it’s not my universalism or my compassion for my fellow human beings. It is the way I believe Judaism sanctified the opinion of the minority in the way that the voice of today’s minority should form the basis of tomorrow’s majority strategy. I swim against the stream and I’m very much alive.
The year I left politics, I published my first book and I ran my first marathon. They were both very slow and long-term processes. I have a lot of patience to wait for the pendulum to come back.