by Avraham Burg
November 16, 2008
Reporting from Nataf, Israel
Even today, when economic storms are shaking
markets around the world, posing a threat to the stability of entire
countries and societies, Israel continues to conduct its business far from
the turmoil, as if swimming in a private ocean of its own. True, the
headlines are alerting the public here about the crisis, and the politicians
are hastily recalculating their budgets.
But none of this is dramatically changing the
way we think about ourselves.
To Israelis, these issues are mundane. What really matters here is the
all-important spirit of Trauma, the true basis for so many of our
country's life principles. In Israel, the darkest period in human history is
always present. Regardless of whether the question at hand is of the future
relations between Israel and our Palestinian neighbors in specific and the
Arab world in general, or of the Iranian atomic threat and Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, it always comes down to the same conversation.
Every threat or grievance of major or minor
importance is dealt with automatically by raising the biggest argument of
them all -
the Shoah - and from that moment onward,
every discussion is disrupted.
The constant presence of the Shoah is like a buzz in my ear. In Israel,
children are always, it seems, preparing for their rite-of-passage
"Auschwitz trip" to Poland. Not a day passes without a mention of the
Holocaust in the only newspaper I read, Haaretz. The Shoah is like a
hole in the ozone layer: unseen yet present, abstract yet powerful. It's
more present in our lives than God.
It is the founding experience not just of our national consciousness but of
more than that. Army generals discuss Israeli security doctrine as "Shoah-proof."
Politicians use it as a central argument for their ethical manipulations.
The Shoah is so pervasive that a study conducted a few years ago in a Tel
Aviv school for teachers found that more than 90% of those questioned view
it as the most important experience of Jewish history. That means it is more
important than the creation of the world, the exodus from Egypt, the
delivering of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the ruin of both Holy Temples, the
exile, the birth of Zionism, the founding of the state or the 1967 Six-Day
The Shoah is woven, to varying degrees, into almost all of Israel's
political arguments; over time, we have taken the Shoah from its position of
sanctity and turned it into an instrument of common and even trite politics.
It represents a past that is present, maintained, monitored, heard and
Our dead do not rest in peace. They are busy,
active, always a part of our sad lives.
Of course, memory is essential to any nation's mental health. The Shoah must
always have an important place in the nation's memorial mosaic. But the way
things are done today - the absolute monopoly and the dominance of the Shoah
on every aspect of our lives - transforms this holy memory into a
ridiculous sacrilege and converts piercing pain into hollowness and kitsch.
As time passes, the deeper we are stuck in our
Auschwitz past, the more difficult it becomes to be free of it.
What does the primacy of the Shoah mean in terms of our politics and policy?
For one thing, it becomes virtually impossible
to find a conversation carried out with reason, patience, self-control or
restraint. Take Iran as an example. With regard to Iran, as with any other
security matter that has potentially existential consequences, we have no
thoughts at all - only instincts and trauma-driven impulses.
Who has ever heard of alternative approaches to
the Iranian issue, of strategic arguments underlying the passionate
emotions, the old fears and violent rhetoric?
Few people in Israel are willing to try to perceive reality through a
different set of conceptual lenses other than those of extermination and
defensive isolation. Few are willing to try on the glasses of understanding
and of hope for dialogue.
Instead, the question is always: Is a second
Shoah on the way?
This is one of the strongest reasons why I voluntarily withdrew from
political life in Israel. I couldn't help feeling that Israel has become a
kingdom lacking in vision and without a prophetic horizon. On the surface,
everything is in order; decisions are carried out, life moves on, the ship
But where is this movement heading? No one
The sailors are rowing without seeing anything;
the lower-ranking officers are holding their eyes up to the leadership, but
the leaders are not capable of seeing past each coming, rising, tumbling
wave. No one is looking ahead, searching for a new continent. Instead, we
are looking backward, held hostage by memory.
I cannot be an accomplice in such a way of life, with no spiritual compass
or moral direction. Never - or so I've been taught from infancy - have the
Jewish people existed only for the sake of existence; never have we survived
only in order to survive; never have we carried on for the sole purpose of
carrying on by itself.
The Jewish existence was always directed upward. Not only toward our king
and father in the heavens, but also our gaze upward was an answer to the
great call of humanity; an answer of liberty in the times of enslavement
in Egypt, an answer to the need of a righteous and egalitarian law in
the days of Sinai when we wandered through the desert, an answer to
the call of human universalism manifest in the Scriptures of the
great prophets, and finally, an answer to the cry opposing unjust and
imperial occupation throughout late antiquity.
Even the Zionist idea was not merely an attempt to rescue the Jews
from violent anti-Semitic prosecutors, but rather was a heroic attempt to
establish a model society. Zionism meant to create a society that
avoided any form of discrimination or oppressive policy toward non-Jews, of
the kind under which Jews had suffered for more than two millenniums.
This utopian vision has fallen silent in Israel. Concerns for personal
survival and well-being, as well as fear about the ongoing bloodshed and
security emergencies, about Gaza and Iran and the realities of demographics
and population, have silenced the moral debate and blocked the horizons of
vision and creative thinking.
I believe Israel must move away from trauma to trust, that we must abandon
the "everything is Auschwitz" mentality and substitute for it an impulse
toward liberty and democracy.
I fully understand that this will require a slow process of change. It will
take more than one or two years for a new Jewish humanism to be accepted,
allowing Israel to become a less traumatic place, a country in which school
trips do not only present Israel's high school students with extermination
Israel must rethink its strict law of return
(which defines Jewishness the same way Hitler did), its relationship
with Germany, and it must reaffirm its commitment to being a democratic
state of the Jewish people, a state that belongs to all of its citizens, in
which the majority decides on its character and essence, with the utmost
sensitivity to all the "others" - and especially the Arab non-Jewish
I have a vision of Israel as the driving force behind a global peace process
and worldwide reconciliation and as a society guided by a deep sense of
responsibility to world justice, but it's difficult to accept this vision
when we are confronted every day with the hardship and perpetual bloodshed
My hope is for a Jewish people that insists
"never again" - not only for Jewish victims but for anyone who
suffers around the globe today.