The iconoclast: Avraham Burg confronts the Holocaust

Like his biblical namesake, Avraham Burg has a predilection for smashing idols. In his latest book, “The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise From its Ashes,” Burg takes aim at Israel’s so-called cult of Holocaust trauma and Jewish victimhood, and denounces the sectarian politics they are used to justify.

Burg argues, instead, for a refoundation of Israeli society on the wider lessons of the Holocaust: the universality of human rights and the Jewish imperative to uphold those rights in the world. Perhaps this courageous book, like the earlier Abraham’s destructive act, will mark a new beginning for Israel.

aburg_331Throughout the book, Burg draws on his knowledge as a former government insider — among other posts, he was the speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003 — and personal experience as the child of a German refugee. However, his message is sometimes occluded by repetition, disorganization and a slavish translation by Israel Amrani. Rather than attempting to summarize a wandering narrative, the argument of the book can be better conveyed by focusing on one of its most provocative themes, the comparison of Israel to pre-Nazi Germany.

As Burg is quick to point out, Israel is not the Third Reich. Nonetheless, he identifies disturbing parallels between contemporary Israel and the period of ascendant German nationalism in the late 19th century that set the stage for Hitler’s rise.

Then, as now, militarism pervaded society and former generals filled the ranks of the political leadership. The nationalist obsession with the unification of “lost” German territory, realized in the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine in the 1870s, is like the Israeli anschluss, as he calls it, of the Gaza and the West Bank. In the exclusion of Jews from high military and government posts in Germany, Burg tells us, we should see the Arabs excluded from similar positions in Israel.

Even more provocative is Burg’s comparison of the Weimar-era German right wing and the Israeli extreme right. Then, as now, the far right moved from the fringes of society to its political center; this is evidenced, if in nothing else, by Israel’s most recent elections.

 As Burg points out, even the manipulation of language is the same: The German right’s calls for the prosecution of the “November Criminals” who signed the treaty of Versailles is eerily reminiscent of the Israeli right’s accusations against the “Oslo Criminals.”

 How, Burg asks, is the graffiti “death to Arabs” any different than writing “Juden Raus”? And most alarming of all is the similar indifference of the silent majority, which allows racism and worse crimes to be carried out in its midst and in its name.

 The point here is not the accuracy of the resemblances.

Rather, Burg is arguing that the Israeli embrace of the Holocaust paradigm, according to which Jews can only be victims, makes Israel blind to its own aggression.

Israel, and the Jewish community at large, can only heed the warning inherent in Burg’s parallels if we cease to cry “anti-Semitism” at every accusation, comparison and rebuke.

“The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise From its Ashes”
by Avraham Burg, translated by Israel Amrani (272 pages, Palgrave Macmillian, $26.95)