On the Eve of Destruction

He caused a furor - so does Avraham Burg regret his harsh, apocalyptic remarks on the failures of Zionism? Not one bit: 'I am directing all my energy to the central effort of saving Israel from the occupation, of saving Zionism from itself.'

By Ari Shavit

Suddenly, at the end of the summer, the Israeli left reappeared. After three years of dormancy, after three years of shock and paralysis and losing its way, the Israeli left awoke - upon the collapse of the hudna (cease-fire) - to new life.

Avraham (Avrum) Burg, too, awoke to new life. Two years after losing the contest for leadership of the Labor Party and half a year after losing the comfortable position of Knesset Speaker, Burg woke up one morning in August and, after a dawn conversation with his wife Yael, a radical, decided that it was impossible to go on like this any longer. That something had to be done. To be said. That it was time to shake up the world. At 5:30 A.M. he went into his office, which overlooks the Judean Hills, and within less than an hour, typed into his laptop 1,000 words that would generate a furor in the Jewish-Zionist world in the month that followed.

In Hebrew the article was called "Zionism Now." In English [in the Forward on August 29, and in The International Herald Tribune on September 6] it was entitled "A failed Israeli society is collapsing." In French and German, too, it reads as an extraordinarily harsh indictment of the Zionist state, one written by the person who until not long ago was the head of the Zionist movement.

He's a very energetic fellow, Avrum. At 48, he is light of foot, sometimes light of mind and a bit hyperactive. He's a quick study and is quick with responses, and he possesses a great deal of the charm of Israeli directness. He's an articulate politician of devastating sound bites. However, unlike the past, when Burg's sound bites helped him chew his way into the top echelon of the Israeli establishment, into the heart of the sated elite that tilts a bit left of center, his sound bites are now trenchant and acerbic and almost apocalyptic. They're the sound bites of someone who is returning from power to protest. From the political to the moral. From the grays of the complex to the black and white of what brooks no argument.

Does he want to retract the harsh things he said? Is he bothered at the use that inveterate Israel-haters made of his remarks? Not in the least. Sitting in the pleasant dining area of his home in the community of Nataf, Burg says he is at harmony with himself as he has never been before. Only now does he understand how much he disliked the person he became within the political grinder. Only now does he understand that the establishment fluff that pampered and warmed him also deadened him morally and distanced him from his inner truth. So now he is basking in a feeling of great tranquillity. Of mental peace. And he goes on to say the harsh things that he says about Israel without any hesitation and without flinching, a smile on his lips.

Your article generated a furor in the Jewish world. Many people had the feeling that the former chairman of the Zionist Movement had crossed the lines and become a post-Zionist.

Burg: "Even when I was chairman of the Zionist movement, I was unable to say what was Zionist and what was post-Zionist. My worldview does not allow me to accept Orthodoxy - of either the Jewish or the Zionist variety. Therefore, if Zionism today means Greater Israel, not only am I a post-Zionist, I am an anti-Zionist. If Zionism is Netzarim and Kiryat Arba, I am an anti-Zionist. I do not accept the type of Zionism that took Judaism, with all its dazzling beauty, and turned it into the worship of trees and stones. When I look around today, my feeling is that Netzarim has become an altar, God has become a Moloch and our children have become sacrifices: human sacrifices to terrible idol worship."

In your article you describe Israel as a dark and cruel nationalist state. Do you feel that Israel is becoming a new South Africa? That the Israelis are the new Afrikaners?

"We are living in a country that is undergoing a process of moral decay. What frightens me the most is that we are not paying attention to the process that we are going through. Without noticing, we are continually distancing ourselves, a little more and then a little more, from the place we were. Suddenly an F-16 warplane is about to attack a building in which there are innocent people, and some army commanders say that despite this, they sleep well at night. What is happening is that we are increasingly coming to resemble our enemies. We are losing the feeling and the sensitivity that were our conscience.

"In the streets of our cities, especially Jerusalem, I see slogans calling for `Death to the Arabs' that the municipality no longer bothers to erase. I see terrible graffiti - racist and Kahanist - that we accept offhandedly. We don't even take note of them. The cancerous process is devouring us. The Zionist perversion embodied by the settlers and the right wing has terminally affected every fabric of our life and hasn't left any place that is not affected by the nationalist consciousness. If our last remaining healthy cells do not rise up and stem the virus, we will no longer exist. We will simply no longer exist."

Have things gone that far? Do you see a process of destruction? Does the former chairman of the Zionist Movement really believe that Zionism is dead?

"The current channel is taking us to that. Maybe we will be Israelis. Or Jews. But we will not be Zionists who are continuing the Zionism that created the state. Consider two simple tests. Does the State of Israel fit the contour lines envisaged by Theodor Herzl? No. Does the State of Israel meet the criteria and the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence? No. That is the truth. That is the basic truth from which we have been fleeing for the past 35 years."

I find two dimensions in what you are saying: a dimension of moral outrage and an apocalyptic dimension.

"That's right. That is my frame of mind. I think nationalist Zionism has taken us to terrible places from which it will be very hard for us to extricate ourselves. Look, I go through agony every time my children go out to the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem [where the suicide bombing at Hillel Cafe occurred]. On the other hand, what really scares me is the day, which is not far off, when the Palestinian baby will be born who will turn the Jews in this country into a minority. What are we going to do then? What are we going to do when we no longer have the excuse and the strength of being a majority?

"I think every generation has its formative truth. And the formative truth of this generation is that between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the Jews are going to become a minority. That is what we have to cope with. But the government of Israel and Israeli politics are not succeeding in coping with that truth. In the past three years we have reached a state of mute shock. A situation of no words. There is nothing to say. That's why I wrote the article. Because I reached the conclusion that for the past three years, we have said nothing."

Throughout your political career you have projected a certain energetic optimism, which has sometimes been a bit immature and at other times frivolous. Do you want to tell me that you have really become a pessimist? Are you really all that gloomy?

"When you ask Israelis today whether their children will be living here 25 years down the road, you don't get an unequivocally positive answer. You don't hear a booming yes. On the contrary: Young people are being encouraged to study abroad. Their parents are getting them European passports. Whoever can checks out possibilities of working in Silicon Valley in California; whoever has the wherewithal buys a house in London. So that slowly but surely, a society is developing in Israel which isn't certain that the next generation will live here. A whole society is living here that has no faith in its future.

"What is actually happening is that the leading Israeli class is shrinking, because it is no longer ready to pay for the caprices of the government. It is no longer willing to bear the burden of the settlements and the burden of the transfer payments. But what we're getting in the meantime is not a revolt in the streets, it's a quiet revolt of people leaving, getting out. It's a revolt of taking the laptop and the diskette and moving on. So if you look up and look around, you will see that the only people who are staying here are those who have no other option. The economically weak and the fundamentalists are staying. Before our eyes Israel is becoming ultra-Orthodox, nationalist and Arab. It is becoming a society that has no sense of a future, no narrative and no forces to maintain itself."

Okay. That's a reasonable concern. But your article, which was disseminated all over the world, used terms that are almost hostile. You described Israel as a building that exists on a foundation of human insensitivity. You described it as a country lacking justice. You talked about the Palestinians being trampled under the Israeli boot. Those are terrible expressions - expressions of a person who has himself undergone a process of complete alienation vis-a-vis the society he is supposed to represent.

"My words come from a place of pain, not a place of hostility. They are words of trenchant self-criticism. When I write about Israel I write not about others, but about myself. But I truly feel that we do not see what is happening outside our window. In the morning, when I travel in the hills around the community where I live, I see children of 8 and 10 and 12 walking in search of work. And when a Border Police Jeep arrives, these kids hide under bushes and rocks, scared. So I don't think we can go on saying that we are beautiful and moral because we went through a Holocaust 60 years ago. I don't think it's possible to go on saying we are beautiful and moral because we were persecuted for 2,000 years. Today we are involved in a horrific reality. We look bad. Truly bad."

Do you think Israel has become a state of evil?

"No. We are not a state of evil or a society of evil. But we have lost the sensors of evil. We are obtuse. We are blind. We do not feel and we do not see. Just last week I visited a well-known high school in Jerusalem. A good many of the students I spoke to told me appalling things. They said: When we are soldiers, we will kill old people, women and children without giving it a thought. They said: We will expel them, we will put them on planes and fly them to Iraq. We will fly hundreds of thousands of them. Millions. And most of the students in the audience applauded those opinions. They supported them even when I pointed out that that is how people talked 60 years ago in Europe. So I am really worried. I am even alarmed. I think that we are internalizing a normative approach that is not ours. We are coming increasingly to resemble our enemies."

One of the criticisms of your article was that you crossed the lines and thereby served Israel's enemies.

"That criticism is immaterial to me. I didn't see one Israel-hater in Damascus or Malaysia who became anti-Semitic because Avrum Burg said so-and-so. The unfavorable attitude toward Israel that exists today in the international community stems in part from the policy of the government of Israel. So if Israel-haters used me, that's fine as far as I am concerned. I am a lot more worried that, because of the fear of what Israel-haters will say, we will not wash our laundry outside, and then we stop washing laundry altogether, and then things start to stink. Look around and see how much things stink."

When you write in your article, "Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism," you are, after all, justifying terrorism. When you write, "They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites, because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated," you are in effect justifying murder.

"I am not justifying terrorism. As a citizen of Israel and as a citizen of the West, terrorism is my enemy. But amid the tremendous noise of the explosions and the investigations and the despair, we no longer hear anything. We are unfeeling. And I tell you that I can't sleep nights because I feel that I am an occupier. I tell you that no serious war against terrorism is being waged here today. Because Israel is now fighting terrorism in terms of tons. How many tons did I drop on terrorism today? And tonnage of bombs is not a war on terrorism. It is the expression of a policy of revenge that is out to satisfy the base instincts of public opinion.

"I want you to understand: It's clear to me that we have to wage war on terrorism. But a war against terrorism is quiet, daring, crafty and mute. It is not a festival of declarations to hit them again and again. Nor can a war on terrorism succeed if you don't open windows and allow the other society to breathe a little air of hope. Therefore, as long as Israel only uses brute force, without generating any hope, it is not confronting the true infrastructure of terrorism. The time has come for us to understand that not all the Palestinians are terrorists and not all the Palestinians are Hamas, and that some of the people who are fighting us are doing so because of Israel's insensitivity."

If that's so, Israel bears the responsibility for a suicide bomber blowing himself up in Cafe Hillel and a woman terrorist blowing herself up in Maxim Restaurant in Haifa.

"I go to Cafe Hillel with my family. I visit the owners of Maxim restaurant every New Year's. So when a suicide bomber blows himself up in places like that, he is out to kill me, too. He doesn't distinguish between good and bad; when he blows himself up he is attacking all of us. It's clear to me that from the moment a terrorist straps on an explosives belt it is my duty to kill him. At this late moment he is the person whom you must kill before he kills you.

"But what I am saying is that this terrorist attack should be thwarted long before this, and what I am asking myself is whether Israel did enough to prevent the attack in the two years that preceded it. What I am asking myself is whether Israel is doing enough so that a child who is now two years old will not blow himself up in another 15 or 20 years. We have responsibility in this area. Even if 60 percent of the responsibility devolves on the Palestinians and only 40 percent on us, we nevertheless have 100 percent responsibility.

"After three years of war I cannot ignore our part in preventing peace. I cannot ignore the fact that in our cabinet today there are ministers of war. One of them wants a war in Damascus and another wants war with the whole Arab world and a third just loves war. I feel a duty to create some sort of alternative to the politics of despair and violence. I think it is very dangerous to entrust our fate to those who do not understand that peace is in our benefit. Peace is the best security means that exists."

The attempt to create an alternative led you to Geneva. But when you and your friends formulated the Geneva Accords, you effectively gave in to Palestinian terrorism. You agreed to give the Palestinians what they did not get before the intifada - the Temple Mount, for example.

"It took me three weeks until I agreed to accept the draft of the Geneva Accords. It was hard for me because in the past, I was in fact critical of [former prime minister] Ehud Barak for his concessions in Jerusalem. But the truth is that I changed. My anxiety about the destruction of Israel is so palpable today that I am ready to make more concessions. I am directing all my energy to the central effort of saving Israel from the occupation; of saving Zionism from itself.

"I found two proper things in the accords themselves. One is that we are giving up the symbol of the Temple Mount while they are giving up the symbol of the right of return. That is a huge exchange of symbols with tremendous meaning. The second thing is the expansion of the suffocation belt around Jerusalem in return for the expansion of the suffocation belt around Gaza. In the end, then, my thinking was that this was a proper move of symbol vs. symbol: Jerusalem vs. Gaza."

What you are saying is very nice, but inaccurate. According to the Geneva draft document, Israel explicitly forgoes the Temple Mount, but the Palestinians do not explicitly forgo the right of return.

"We must not confuse dreams with practicalities. Just as no Palestinian will forgo the dream of Greater Palestine, so I have not abandoned the dream of building the Temple. But the decision we took jointly is not to allow those dreams to become concrete policy. We decided that in the realm of concrete policy, the Jews will not build the temple in this era and the Palestinians will not return to Jaffa. That is the essence of the deal: dream in return for dream, practicality in return for practicality."

Still, if we take the Geneva document together with your article, it's clear that you have undergone a process of political radicalization. Two years ago you ran for chairman of the Labor Party on the basis of an almost centrist platform, and now you are at the farthest extremity of the far left. Have you really changed that much or have you conducted a totally cynical public campaign since then?

"Both. After the contest in the Labor Party I looked within and analyzed what happened to me. One of the things I found was that I ran a tactical campaign, but fled from addressing substance and essence. My working assumption was that [U.S. President George] Bush was elected without saying anything and [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon was elected without saying anything, so maybe it would work for me, too. So when I took stock after being defeated, I reached the conclusion that for too many years, I was geared too much to the political side and too little to my inner truths. My campaign was wrongheaded because it was a campaign of personal popularity without genuine content.

"My attempt to seize the center and my refraining from going all the way to the end with my views made me a cosmetic candidate lacking true positions. So in the final analysis, the lesson I drew was that in such a difficult period, I have to speak my truth unvarnished. If there is no other choice, I prefer to lose over truths than to be elected for emptiness."

You are playing a double game, Avrum, isn't that right? On the one hand, you are a cunning politician who is adept at navigating the turgid waters of Israeli politics, but at the same time, you insist on playing the prophet. On standing up against the state and the government and the Zionist movement and uttering an adolescent cry of moral outrage.

"I don't think my politics is adolescent. The Israeli adolescent escapes the Israeli challenge by going off to India and South America. I am doing exactly the opposite. I am taking the bull by the horns and refusing to let it go. I am not putting a knapsack on my back and running away from the battle. I think these are truly terrible times. I think we are at a watershed. On one side is destruction, on the other side salvation and renewal. But the space between the two options is getting constantly narrower. The threat of destruction is more concrete than ever before. In this situation, even if it's not pleasant and even if it's not popular, I am no longer willing to remain silent. I am obliged to do everything in my power so that Israel will return to itself; so that Israel will come home from the occupation."