Under Avraham Burg’s “anti-Semitic rug”

Former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg has written an article of a Eurocentric bent to the effect that antisemitism shouldn’t any longer be thought of as racism against Jews but as a bad-faith accusation made by Israel’s advocates against honest critics of Israel. He argues that for Jews to give any particular attention to antisemitism is both right wing and falls short of the kind of Jewishness to which he aspires.

Saul responds:

“In Israel, the notion of antisemitism has been utilised by the right – it is reactionary use of antisemitism; see the film “Defamation”.

The trouble is that many progressives in Israel – Burg included (recall he wrote on Israel needing to overcome the Holocaust) – are simply arguing the opposite: “If the right say x, we say not x.”

They lack any critical understanding both of the (contemporary) concept of antisemitism and its use outside Israel.

What would be interesting would be to follow the journey this article makes; that is, see who outside Israel quotes it and uses it.

What frustrates me more than anything, though, is the claim that those of us who raise the issue of antisemitism are nothing more than apologists for Israel or non-critics of the Israeli right. Like large parts of the global left, much of the Israeli left has got that wrong. They seem to think that criticism of Israel and the claim to antisemitism are two sides of the same coin, rather than two phenomena linked together through the situation in Israel.

Burg writes

There is an internal Jewish essence that is not dependent on external circumstances. It is buried deep below layers of historical trauma. But its heart still beats; in the form of humanism, responsibility for the peace of the world, universalism without boundaries. Israel’s establishment ought to enable the realization of this potential. For example, the state of those who were ostracized can do everything in its power to assist the present-day ostracized who have taken their place. It can be a partner in the creation of a world coalition against hatred. Precisely because of its memories.

Arendt traces the history of this sentiment and, rather astutely, calls it racist.

For myself, I think it is deeply Christian. A reworking of redemption through suffering. And, the fact that Jews/Israel have not been redeemed is once again fuelling the idea of a great Jewish refusal. So far, they have had two chances at redemption: Jesus and the Holocaust. They have refused to accept it twice. Jews are truly irredeemable, hence their call to universalism over all particularism other than the particularism of suffering, which they are selfishly clinging onto whilst everyone else has moved on. Once again, the Jews are an anachronism (as was said of post-Christ Judaism).


12 Responses to “Under Avraham Burg’s “anti-Semitic rug””

  1. Noam Yatsiv Says:

    I didn’t read Burg that way at all. I don’t think he argues that for Jews to give ANY attention to antisemitism is right wing. He simply rejects the way right wingers use it. He’s worried about the widespread suspicious, paranoid mentality it creates in Israel. So am I. Perhaps only by living in Israel you sense how common these irrational reactions are.

    His approach is more philosophical. He asks profound questions about how much should Jews let anti-Semitism define their identity. He doesn’t claim it doesn’t exist or try to diminish it. I agree that Defamation is a problematic film in several aspects. I even wrote a whole long mass about it last month, which will probably be published here soon.

    Burg and myself would like Israel to take the Jewish traumas of persecution as a guiding force towards tolerance, equality and humanism. This does not mean he doesn’t expect this of other nations and is applying different standards towards it. But Israel, as well as Germany or any other country that experienced EITHER side of a genocide, should particularly take these messages out of their own history. Accusing him of racism for saying this is outrageous.

  2. Saul Says:

    Hi Noam,
    Interesting comments. Thanks.

    Just to clarify. I am not calling Burg “racist”. I agree to do so would be “outrageous”.

    What I am saying, following Arendt and Jacob Katz is that the idea of the Jews as a “universalism without boundaries”, as the ethical people per se, implies that “Jewish” ethics is somehow superior to other “peoples'” ethical codes. It is a view, of course, that has been perpetuated by many Jews since at least the 18th century and especially since the Holocaust; as if somehow the ethical perfection exists in direct relationship to the “trauma” of suffering. As I noted, a very Christian view of the matter.

    I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say on that point.

    I agree with you (from what I know of the situation) of the Israeli context of the debate that Burg is contributing to. And, despite what I have just said, I am probably more in agreement than in disagreement with him. As a political phenomenon antisemitism is, and I guess cannot but be, instrumentalised by the Israeli right as well as the Israeli left. I am merely saying that as I read it from Europe, Burg’s analysis struck me as “vulgar” as those of the right. But, I take your point about how it plays out in Israel.

    Again, from the perspective of a European and not an Israeli, Burg’s comments are bound to be interpreted by some in a manner that delegitimises our struggle here against antisemitism especially as it sometimes connects with “criticism” of Israel – after all, Burg does say (of the Israeli right – and I am sure he is correct) that antisemitism is “used” to deligitimse such criticism).

    However, in Europe, such views are taken to mean that anyone who raises the question of antisemitism as it relates to debates about Israel is acting in bad faith, is seeking to “deflect” legitimate criticism in the name of an apologetics for Israeli policies or, indeed, for the existence of Israel as a Jewish state per se. In other words, those raising the problem of antisemitism are, as noted in another thread, not simply wrong, but “liars”, “manipulators”, etc. etc.

    Needless to say, I am not in any way inferring that Burg does not have a right to say what he wants when he wants just because his views can be interpreted in a different and harmful manner outside the boundaries of his own country. One should never let antisemitism determine what one says. All I am saying is that there is a fact of interpretation, interpretations that differ according to context.

    Again, I hope this clarifies my points.

    (And, one final point – the internet tends to bring out the worst of people as it relates to civility. Thank you for commenting in such a civil and mature manner. It is now rather rare.
    Regards, Saul)

  3. Absolute Observer Says:

    “Burg and myself would like Israel to take the Jewish traumas of persecution as a guiding force towards tolerance, equality and humanism.”

    Hi Noam,
    It seems to me that Burg and possibly yourself want it both ways. On the one hand, Burg question the role of antisemitism and the Holocaust in matters of Jewish and Israeli identity (and the political fallout of such identity).

    And, yet, on the other hand, Burg wants the same event to be a “guiding force” as a means towards the end of (political) justice.

    In other words, Burg wants “this” (ethical, trauma, liberal) aspect of the Holocaust to be a political influence, but not “that” (ethical, identity, rightist) factor.

    To my mind, he remains caught within the very dichotomy he wishes to escape from. Hence, my agreement with Saul who, if I understand correctly, felt that Burg’s comment lacked critical bite.


    • Philip Says:

      I think you make a good point.

      But I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for him to want to have it both ways. Each of us if free to form an identity for ourselves, and we do so in any number of different ways, and each of us has multiple overlapping and even competing identities sometimes.

      So your notion of being (and I make a huge assumption) male will be different from mine. That’s fine. That’s just diversity of opinion.

      I guess what Burg is saying is that he wants the adversity of Jewish suffering to push Jewish identity in one particular direction rather than another. Saying that it needn’t push Israelis in particular to retreat into a bunker. He might be wrong that this is the correct way to respond.

      I think he’s trying to push a positive view rather than a negative one, though I also realise that this is not an easy distinction to make.

      To pick one of his examples: Jewish culture. Ladino music for example often has lyrics that focus on dispossession, &c. Yet it is a beautiful thing. I suppose that he is trying to ensure that the worst war crimes of the twentieth century result can somehow be used to create positive and beautiful things, painful though that might be. I think most people would probably agree with that sentiment.


    • Noam Yatsiv Says:

      That’s true, AO. I indeed see the contradiction in wanting it not to shape his identity to nationalism but he’d like it shape it towards humanism.

      But as Saul said in his last comment, as a political phenomena, one cannot approach it without his own politics. I guess we all find ways to fit things in with our basic values, even if unawarene of it.

      But that would mean no political person could ever say anything 100% objective about antisemitism. So maybe my values dictate what I think should be learnt from the Holocaust. I plead guilty to that. I still think I’m right about it. 🙂
      I Hope you get what I mean. I didn’t want to slide away into a postmodernist debate. Perhaps the point is not whether to politicize things, because maybe everything is political. Then the question remains towards which ideals you aim.

  4. Absolute Observer Says:

    Hi Noam
    Thanks for your response.

    I am not sure that my position leads to not being able to say anything 100% objective about antisemitism. Far from it. Indeed, it is one of the illusions of antisemitism that it is nothing but an “opinion”, nothing more than a subjective attitude.

    It seems to me, rather, that what is at issue is the question of the “legacy” of the Holocaust, both in Israel and elsewhere.

    Such a legacy can lead to both a nationalist and humanist response.
    The nationalist response is that following the genocide the lesson to be learnt is that Jews need a state, and one that is ready and able to look after itself,
    The humanist response is the idea that such suffering should lead to a heightened awareness of injustice wherever it may occur.

    The fact that both of these views are entirely legitimate (at least to the extent that such nationalism does not turn into domination and that such humanism does not turn into an denial of self) seems to be to question the assumed distinction between “nationalism” and “humanism”.

    Whilst many of us hope for better, the question of humanism for the past couple of centuries has always been expressed within the context and confines of the nationalism (at least since the French Revolution).

    Until something better comes along, all we can do is ensure that nationalism does not dominate humanism and that humanism (in its abstract or romantic form) does not come to dominate “nationalism”.

    It is this sense of balance that is necessary and which, as far as I understand it, is expressed in the notion of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; that is, striking the right balance inherent the contradictions inherent in any nation-state, including, of course, Israel.


    ps I think your essay on Defamation is excellent, Thanks for it.

  5. Absolute Observer Says:

    “I suppose that he is trying to ensure that the worst war crimes of the twentieth century result can somehow be used to create positive and beautiful things, painful though that might be. I think most people would probably agree with that sentiment.”

    Yes, Philip, all those ashes in the sky and all those bones in pits will suddenly turn into blossoms of carnations. Then we can all rest easy with the thought that out of evil comes good. Jews die so we may live, and the gas chambers themselves become the instruments of salvation and redemption for such “positive and beautiful things”

    And you talk about “humanity”.

    You disgust me.

  6. Comment is not free Says:

    “There is an internal Jewish essence that is not dependent on external circumstances. It is buried deep below layers of historical trauma. But its heart still beats; in the form of humanism, responsibility for the peace of the world, universalism without boundaries…….The memory of being slaves in Egypt and the memory of the Amalek trauma are the basis of our national reservoir of memories, which has never been erased. But if we do not stop reenacting the past instead of remembering it, the future will look equally gloomy………….By means of this approach, we are obligated to prepare for “the day after the goy,” the post-anti-Semitic era in our lives. For the day on which our children will ask us why they should go on being Jews and we will have an answer that emanates from within. We not only have the obligation to prepare for that day, we also have the ability.”

    Reading these comments, I was reminded of Marx’s comment in arguing for Jewish emancipation that the point is not to turn political questions into theological (or, one can add now, psychoanalytic) questions, but, rather, to turn theological (and psychoanalytic) questions into political questions.

  7. Mira Vogel Says:

    Burg is writing very narrowly against certain political uses of the Holocaust, while ignoring others entirely – and his writing is taken up and used in turn. The first time I encountered his writing it was being brandished by an antisemitic speaker my institution’s student union brought in to tell us that Jews were a Holocaust-abusing disgrace, the most hated people in the world today, and the only genocide to worry about was by Jews against Palestinians. This time it’s one or our regular commenters who posted it in a thread to make us feel stupid for worrying about antisemitism.

    I agree with Saul and AO that if we believe that the Holocaust was a learning experience for Jews, we had better be prepared for Jews to learn self-defence as well as compassion.

    This is above all a British blog and we are entitled to our local concerns. There are plenty of people who are not Jewish, not philosemitic so far as I can tell, not very interested in Israel, but nevertheless increasingly worried about antisemitism in their organisations. I’m guessing that they too have learnt a lesson from the Holocaust – a very straightforward lesson about the destructive potential of antisemitism, from which they can deduce the threat when a singular and avid hostility to the world’s only Jewish state is permitted to fester in a trade union or a political party. Does it change their views about the occupation? Not at all. That is a different question – their vested interests are with the health of their own organisations only, and for them there is no “antisemitic rug”.

    Burg has nothing to say to these people, nor to people who have left their Jewish background far behind, have no interest in growing a Jewish identity themselves, but who reserve a sensitivity for this particular bit of history and an empathy with those affected by antisemitism. People who are shocked at the appearance of antisemitism on their local scene which was until recently free of it. Burg abandons these people. On the subject of antisemitism I find him parochial at best.

  8. Imshin Says:

    Here in Israel, we watched in amazement and disbelief a few years ago when Avrum Burg, a previously widely popular, moderately left-wing politican (or so we thought), suddenly “came out” as an anti-Zionist (and moved to Paris, taking French citizenship). The transformation in his rhetoric at the time was so striking, one couldn’t help thinking that the man had taken leave of his senses.

    One wonders what Burg’s late father, a much admired government minister, member of Knesset for forty years, and knowledgeable scholar, would think of his son’s spiteful interpretation of “the situation” or about the sweeping generalisations he makes about Israel and about how we Israelis perceive our Jewish identity.

  9. Post-Zionist Avram Burg claims he is a Zionist – and defends settlements boycott | Anne's Opinions Says:

    […] British site Engage, who monitor racist antisemitism, also excoriated Burg for another Haaretz article of his: Former […]

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