Review: The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes
Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg has outraged much of Israel. With his new book, he may fare similarly in the UK
Avraham Burg: From the “very heart of the Zionist project” to criticism striking at the core of Israeli society
By Avraham Burg
Palgrave Macmillan £15.99
Avraham Burg was once at the very heart of the Zionist project. He is a former Knesset Speaker and a former head of the Jewish Agency. His late father, Josef, was a cabinet minister and chairman of the National Religious Party.
So when the Hebrew version of this excoriating attack on modern Zionism and the Israeli establishment was published, it created outrage.
Its very title is clunky, didactic and crude, and Burg unfolds his thesis with often brutal directness: Jewish life and the state of Israel has become obsessed with the Holocaust and the culture of victimhood to the point where it has become both moribund and aggressive.
In Israel, argues Burg, the Arabs have replaced the Nazis as the collective enemy. “We will never forgive the Arabs for they are allegedly just like the Nazis, worse than the Germans. We have displaced our anger and revenge from one people to another, from an old foe to a new adversary, and so we allow ourselves to live comfortably with the heirs of the German enemy — representing convenience, wealth and high quality — while treating the Palestinians as whipping boys to release our aggression, anger and hysteria, of which we have plenty.”
Perhaps most controversially, Burg finds comparisons between Germany in the pre-Nazi era and Israel today. While not equating Zionism with Nazism, he points out the dangerous places that a paranoid, over-militarised and unequal society can reach. He also makes much of the over-tired “abused child becomes abusive father” analogy.
But what saves Burg from predictable, clichéd commentary is the historical knowledge and personal experience he brings to his argument. The book is also part memoir, and includes in its narrative intensely private family histories. Throughout it, too, runs a clearly expressed, if somewhat embittered, love for his country and hope for its future.
In his more restrained moments, it is hard to disagree with him, for instance when he contends that “the Shoah has become a theological pillar of the modern Jewish identity”.
At the heart of the book is a call for a new, more humanistic Judaism, focused more on social justice for all, and an Israel able to leave the “mental prison” of Auschwitz. And his writing often has flair and acuity: “The constant presence of the Shoah in my life feels like a buzz in my ear.” But Burg is not without his own arrogance: “My opponents were not always careful to present my arguments in full,” he says airily in his foreword to the English edition. “Perhaps the book and its argument were too much for them to bear.”
Indeed, more frustrating than his controversial politics is Burg’s tendency to veer off into highly strung emotional tangents — at one point, he fantasises about an “International Court of Crimes Against Humanity” built in the Yad Vashem complex that will become the Third Temple, “a moral temple for the whole world”.
But for the reader who can resist both Burg’s eccentricities and his inability to leave any sensitivity unprobed, The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes is a provocative, thoughtful, passionate book.
Avraham Burg will be speaking on Sunday March 1 at Jewish Book Week 2009