Avraham Burg, 'A Protestant Jew,' Presents an Alternative to Today's religious-Zionism

Burg tells his personal story, and through it the Israeli story. His father’s ‘Yekke’-style Judaism turns out to be a hidden treasure universal values.

Olivier Fitoussi

“Hinei Yamim Ba’im” (The Coming Days), by Avraham Burg; Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing (Hebrew); 285 pps.; 69 shekels

Abraham Burg’s new book, “The Coming Days,” combines ideology, politics and autobiography. Though Burg’s political stance is for the most part familiar to the Israeli public, some truths should be repeated. The author’s aspiration to present a complete and consistent outlook for the Israeli left is important in an era in which the left in this country and elsewhere is struggling to put forward an alternative to the existing order. Similarly, Burg’s political vision for the two peoples who cohabit in this land is important at a time when Israel’s official policy is to preserve the current gloomy situation indefinitely.

Burg would like to see a country in which all citizens possess total equality of rights, and two states in which two peoples, Jews and Arabs, can each achieve self-determination. However, contrary to the devotees of separation, on both the right and the left, Burg speaks in terms of two states living in confederation. In this way, the “we are here, they are there” fantasy will not be permitted to perpetuate the conflict, and true cooperation between the two peoples will create a foundation for a new reality.

Burg interweaves his ideological viewpoints with his personal story. A Jerusalem-based autobiography, “The Coming Days” joins a number of earlier works, while adding another piece to a distinctly Jerusalem mosaic of diverse communities. The book’s literary quality does not bear comparison with autobiographies by such great writers as Amos Oz (“A Tale of Love and Darkness”) or Haim Be’er (“The Pure Element of Time”). Nevertheless, Burg, who like them grew up in the center of a pre-1967, provincial Jerusalem, as the son of one of the leading representatives of the religious-Zionist movement, Dr. Yosef Burg, offers a different coming-of-age experience and offers a distinctive voice among the typically Jerusalem tangle of ideologies.

This list also includes Haim Baram’s interesting “Red Yellow Black,” from 2004. Baram also grew up in central Jerusalem, he too is a politician’s son and he too distanced himself from the political doctrine in which he was raised. Indeed, we can cross the municipal line and mention also the excellent autobiography by Palestinian leader, activist and professor Sari Nusseibeh, “Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life,” which sets forth a personal story of coming to maturity that becomes a political creed. Another example is Haim Sabato’s most recent memoir, “Beshafrir Hevyon,” about a new immigrant from Egypt who grew up in the transit camp of Beit Mazmil in Jerusalem (in the present-day Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood). Sabato, like Burg, attended Netiv Meir, a high-school yeshiva, but the manner in which each of them experienced those formative years is radically different, hence the divergent ideological paths they subsequently followed. Today Sabato heads a yeshiva in the West Bank.

The early chapters of Burg’s book, which recount the author’s adolescence, family and his time in Netiv Meir are among the finest. They are marked by a personal voice that is easy to identify with, particularly for readers who followed a similar educational track and also felt alienated from the dominant voices of the religious-Zionist world in the late 20th century.

In this sense, Burg’s story is also the narrative of a generation in the religious-Zionist movement. The difference is that, while most of his generation (he turned 60 last January) rebelled against the supposedly compromise-inclined conservatism of their parents by joining the messianic settlement movement – Burg rebelled against his father via his activities in Peace Now and a struggle to separate religion from the state.

Avraham Burg veered away from his father’s ideological path, and despite his respectful remarks about the elder Burg in the book, it’s discernible between the lines that there were also unresolved issues between father and son – inter-generational misunderstandings, love that did not always find the right path to manifest itself, and anger at the father’s restrained conservatism, which was far from the son’s values.

Enlightenment roots

But Burg goes further: He tries to tell his personal story and through it the Israeli story as a whole. In his father’s Yekke (German) Judaism, the son discovers a hidden treasure. The Israeli public by and large had disparaged German Jewry. In the eyes of secular Zionists of Eastern European origin, German Jewry was often perceived as the nation’s assimilating branch, while religious Zionists viewed the Yekke-style Judaism as a superficial, depleted Reform.

Burg chooses to locate his roots precisely in the German Jewish Haskalah (Enlightenment). He writes in praise of Germany’s Jews’ call to distinguish between being a Jew in one’s private realm and a human being like any other in the outside world. Whereas religious circles perceived this separation as demonstrating the shame felt by assimilating Jews for their Jewishness, Burg views this worldview as the expression of a deep understanding that universal values exist, and that in this regard the exteriorization of the differences between people is of no importance.

The idea of religion as the individual’s choice, and not as the affair of the community or the kingdom, is central to Western liberalism, and Burg proclaims the existence of those roots strikingly when he writes, “I am a Protestant Jew.”

This is a complex point. Post-colonialists could argue that the values he perceives as universal are imaginary, that they are in fact European, Christian values, and that true equality should leave room for the full expression of particular identities in the public domain, too, and not force them to remain within the private realm.

Burg identifies the aspiration for universal values with the young State of Israel. For him, David Ben-Gurion’s state-oriented approach, which dominated the country’s first 19 years of existence, and the author’s father’s German-style religious Zionism, reflected the belief that Jewish identity must not overshadow a human identity and universal values. From this point of view, Burg displays a dichotomy that characterizes many in the Israeli left. These people want to “save” Israel by demarcating 1967 as the watershed, before which Israel was a just state, or at least one amenable to correction, whereas afterward Israel became something completely different.

Following the Six-Day War, the religious-Zionist movement swerved sharply rightward and redefined the pioneer ethos; instead of universal values coexisting with religious or secular Jewishness, totalistic messianic tendencies became the dominant element in the country’s way of life. Burg’s approach does indeed take note of the different and contradictory trends that existed in the diverse forms of the Zionist movement. However, to reach the deep roots of the issue of Israeli identity, we need to go back to even earlier periods, to the encounter of the Jewish communities in the East and the West with modernity – to Eastern Europe of the early 20th century and its ideological ferment, and to the first waves of immigration to Palestine and the later mass migrations to Israel in the 1950s.

The book can be seen as Burg’s journey of coming to terms with his father. He presents his movement away from classic religious Zionism as a reconnecting with the movement’s original intentions. It was Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful,” the post-Yom Kippur War movement that championed the settlements) that distanced itself from religious Zionism, whereas Burg is continuing along the path of his father – the German Jew who appreciated the achievements of European culture and was faithful to universal values, even when he insisted on preserving his religious-Jewish identity in the traditional form.

This approach, which sees Germany Jewry as a more successful version of Jewish identity, marks the chapters that follow as well. Burg describes his visits to the United States and Europe, and articulates his personal journey toward a better understanding of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. He views the European Union as the harbinger of a new world, and Europe’s ability to overcome the bloodshed of the past and forge a new multicultural reality as a cardinal source of hope. His father, he writes, was just such a multicultural European and could have gone on in the same way, “had it not been for that accursed war and this country, which suffers from the metastases of World War II.”

Burg takes certain remarks made to him by his father in his final years as expressions of tacit agreement with the son’s political choices, and thereby tries to build a bridge to an alternative – and neglected – Jewish identity. In the current paralyzing Israeli reality, we need alternatives like that as we need air to breathe.

Yaad Biran is a graduate student in the Yiddish department of the Hebrew University.