This review originally appeared at Feministe. It’s taken me forever to haul it over here, as usual.
The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes by Avraham Burg
When liberals and radicals discuss the occupation of Palestine, two soundbites tend to emerge: “How can Jews persecute Arabs when they themselves were persecuted? They know better!” and “It’s like when an abused child grows up to abuse their own children. It’s just something that happens.” There are elements of truth to both assertions, but each one shaves off so much of the complexity behind Israeli aggression that neither one is very useful in understanding how to end it. Auschwitz survivor Ruth Kluger, in her memoir Still Alive, addresses the idea that “Jews should know better” in a scene where she takes a group of university students to task for comparing Israel to the Nazis. “Auschwitz was no instructional institution,” she scolds them. “You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance.” And it’s true. When you experience violence, you learn violence. The idea that genocide turns people into enlightened beings is preposterous.
However, the opposite assertion – that Israel is like an abused child – can be shallow and insulting. A human being operates on emotion and impulse just as much as logic and rationality; we forgive individuals for acting without thinking. A government, on the other hand, must be held to a higher standard. To say that Israel is just an abuser and that’s all there is to it is to give up on Israel’s capacity for good, and to give up on that is to dismiss the possibility of a Palestinian state and peace in the region.
Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, doesn’t flinch from the complex web of trauma, pride, anger, sadness, and paranoia that has led Israeli citizens to condone the slaughter of Palestinians. The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes doesn’t address the manipulation of Holocaust remembrance by Israeli and American politicians, the Christian Zionist movement, global anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiment, or the other external factors that fuel Israel’s various military endeavors; instead, his half-memoir, half-polemic dissects the psychology behind Israel’s preference for violence over diplomacy, and makes the case for why Israel cannot achieve peace and stability until it stops seeing every threat as a potential Shoah.
“Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps,” Ruth Kluger tells her students in Still Alive. “They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.” This is, perhaps, one of the most important things we can learn from genocide – that despite our need to make sense of unfathomable cruelty by pulling narratives and morals out of it, sometimes a dark cloud just doesn’t have a silver lining. Even the idea that the Holocaust led to the creation of a Jewish homeland is partly a romanticization. By the time the first death camps opened, the Zionism movement was well underway. The thousand-year-old Jewish civilization that was disappeared by Nazi death camps and assimilation into other cultures was meant to provide the population for the Jewish state; when David Grün changed his surname to Ben Gurion and started adding modern words to biblical Hebrew, he envisioned Israel as a country into which Yiddishkeyt could be transplanted more or less whole. (We can’t, of course, ignore the multiple layers of racism behind this plan, or the catastrophic effects on Palestinians.) When he and other Zionists found that there weren’t enough European Jews left to build a viable state, they turned to North African and Middle Eastern Jews, who immigrated en masse and now make up the bulk of the Israeli population. Burg contends that while this was a positive move in terms of physical safety for Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, the disintegration of their own cultures, coupled with a governing body that knew barely anything about them, resulted in a haphazard, jury-rigged national character that lacked the history and vision necessary for a healthy culture.
This clumsy beginning is compounded by the deep trauma of the Shoah itself – and the fact that international Jewry was forced to forgive Germany too quickly. Burg does, at one point, use the abused child comparison, but it’s in the context of a much more exhaustive study of the effects of trauma. “The [post WWII] negotiations, agreements, and diplomatic relations were decided on for cold and practical reasons and state interests,” he explains, “but they brought about emotional acceptance.” Israelis were still furious about the Holocaust – and, presumably, older patterns of pogroms and hostility – but since they weren’t furious at Germany anymore, they displaced their anger onto Palestinians. The angrier they became, the guiltier they felt, and the guiltier they felt, the angrier it made them. Meanwhile, no amount of violence brought the six million victims back from the dead. “Germany will never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust,” an Israeli psychoanalyst once said. Similarly, it’s doubtful that Israel will forgive Palestinians for the Naqba.
The other effect of the Holocaust on Israel’s inception is Israelis’ strange resentment of Diaspora Jews. In 1992, during a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech at Auschwitz-Berkenau, Ehud Barak claimed that “we, the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces, arrived here… fifty years too late.” It sounds poetic on the surface, but Burg unpacks the line to find a surprising amount of hostility towards the victims and survivors. “We,” according to Barak, are the tanned and chiseled Israelis. “We” have fighter jets and an army. “They,” on the other hand, are the weak, pathetic Yids who shuffled to their doom without so much as a fight (with the notable exception of the Warsaw Ghetto residents, who surely resembled Israelis more than Diasporaniks). Such posturing doesn’t bring Israelis closer to the Holocaust – it pushes them away. Israelis, it seems, would never have gotten themselves into such a mess.* Yet it’s in Israel where the obsession with the Holocaust seems to be the greatest.
The result of all these factors, according to Burg, is a country that functions more as a refuge than a society, built on panic and mistrust instead of a clear plan for the future. Every hostile neighbor is a potential Hitler; every criticism is a sign that the world hates Jews; every battle is a chance to demonstrate Israeli strength and superiority. “This is catastrophic Zionism at is worst,” he says when discussing Ezer Weizman’s assertion that Diaspora Jews should either make Aliyah or “go to hell;” “what is bad for the Jews is better for Zionism.” And it’s true.** If the sole purpose of a Jewish homeland is to escape persecution, then without persecution, Israel really has no reason to exist. It seems that on some level, Israel is compelled to see Hitler in every Arab child in order to justify itself to itself. In the minds of Israeli policy makers, when it rains it has to pour – only when it rains Qassam rockets, it pours Xyclon-B.
By now I’ve most certainly got many readers riled up, and I’m not even going to get into some of the toughest and most disturbing sections of the book. Many of Burg’s allegations come dangerously close to rhetoric spouted by well-meaning but ignorant activists or even outright anti-Semites. The difference, though, is twofold. First off, Burg doesn’t excuse the myriad other players taking part in the oppression of Palestinians, such as the Arab governments that have done nothing to alleviate refugees’ suffering, and the American war machine that bankrolls every Israeli attack. This book is written by an Israeli for Israelis, and it’s clear that the broader context of the problem is to be taken as a given. Secondly, Burg presents his case from a place of love – love for Israelis and Israeli culture, wounded as he thinks it is, and for Diaspora Jews and Arabs everywhere. Some of the most moving passages are the stories he tells about his family: his father, Knesset member Yosef Burg, the quiet and troubled German Yekke; his mother, Rivka, the Arab Jew who survived the 1929 Hebron massacre; his childhood in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; the deaths of both his parents. These stories don’t contain sweeping descriptions of the Israeli landscape, but Israel is very present in them – and through the tenderness with which he describes his life among both Jews and Arabs, we get a glimpse of the peace and tolerance that’s possible between the two groups. “Please open your ears, eyes, and hearts,” he begs us; his criticism is harsh because he believes that a just, compassionate Israel is worth fighting for.
And as hard a pill as it is to swallow, this type of criticism is better than the alternative: the demonization of Israel and the dismissal of the Holocaust’s imprint on modern Jewish identity. Make no mistake – there’s no shortage of cynical warmongerers milking the Holocaust for all it’s worth. But The Holocaust is Over seeks to sap their power by creating a middle ground between obsessions with the Shoah and demands to get over it. Burg wants to open up a place where European Jews can mourn the loss of our families and culture without succumbing to destructive rage, a place where Israel can confront global anti-Semitism while treating Palestinians with dignity. In fact, in calling for an end to violence and suspicion, Burg mandates the reinvention of what it means to be a Jew. The use of Hitler’s definition, along with Orthodoxy’s monopoly over matters of citizenship, marriage, and identity, are too constrictive to accommodate a people that has been shaped by both Jewish and gentile civilizations. The Holocaust must become the world’s tragedy, not just ours, and we must accept all other genocides as equally important. If we continue to view our genocide as completely different than all others, then we’ll never be able to address the root causes of violence.
Many arguments are overly simplistic, as readers familiar with Israeli and Palestinian history have probably already noticed, and in terms of solutions, Burg’s ideas tend to range from the dippy to the unattainable. But this book peels away the layers of denial and self-righteousness that have infested Israeli politics for too long, while simultaneously reaching out to conservative Jews. A true Jewish hero, Burg reminds us, is one who turns an enemy into a beloved friend, and in that respect, The Holocaust is Over may prove itself to be one of the most ambitious and influential works to emerge from the Palestinian/Israeli debate.