When “Equality” is not Everything

Avraham Burg (b. 1955) today is best described as a post-Zionist, or even an extreme anti-Zionist. But he was not always thus. The son of long-time religious Zionist politician Yosef Burg, he served as an officer in the IDF, became Speaker of the Knesset on behalf of the Labor Party, was Chairman of the Jewish Agency, and even served as interim President of the State of Israel for ten days. Always left-leaning, he became more and more extreme, and in 2015 renounced Zionism and joined Hadash, the Israeli communist party. More recently, he responded to the passage of Israel’s Nation State Law by announcing his resignation from the Jewish people.

Burg’s psychological story may or may not be interesting, but he is not lacking in intelligence, and so I feel obliged to consider his arguments carefully. They appear in this interview, by Ravit Hecht in Ha’aretz.

Burg’s objections to the [Nation-State] law itself begin with its very first article, which defines the Land of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish people. “The patriarch Abraham discovered God outside the boundaries of the Land of Israel, the tribes became a people outside the Land of Israel, the Torah was given outside the Land of Israel, and the Babylonian Talmud, which is more important than the Jerusalem Talmud, was written outside the Land of Israel,” he asserts. “The past 2,000 years, which shaped the Judaism of this generation, happened outside Israel. The present Jewish people was not born in Israel.”

He is correct in detail, but he ignores the content of the Torah itself, which – whether or not one is an observant Jew – must be seen as the “charter” of the Jewish people. The narrative of the Torah, which describes the entry of the people into the land of Israel and the conditions under which they earn (or lose) the right to stay there, is nothing if not an assertion of the connection of the people to the land. And the 2000 years of diaspora was characterized by the combination of Jewish alienation from alien surroundings with a yearning to return. Religious Jews prayed every day for the rebuilding of a Jewish Jerusalem.

Unsaid but implied is that the Palestinian Arabs are the true owners of the land. But their historical connection to it is much shorter than that of the Jews, since almost all of the population is descended from migrants who arrived in it no earlier than 1830; the majority only goes back to the early 20th century. Most did not even identify as “Palestinians” until the 1960s. The Palestinians are aware that their claim to being long-time “natives” that were dispossessed by colonialist European Jews who had no connection to the land is tenuous. That’s why they go to such lengths to try to destroy evidence of ancient Jewish habitation here, and why they make fanciful claims of descent from Canaanites or Philistines.

Burg is committed to the idea that the most important (and the most Jewish) of political principles is that of equality. The simplest way to understand it is that the rights and obligations of a citizen are invariant over ethnicity, religion, race, sex, and numerous other characteristics, the number of which has been increasing recently in Western societies. There is no doubt that any definition of a Jewish state must violate the principle.

In a recent article, Burg argues that the demand for equality invalidates the concept of a Jewish state, which the Nation-State Law explicates:

Every supporter of [Israel’s political] parties is prepared to swear that their issue is the most important in the world: Gender, ethnic background, orientation and religious beliefs – everyone seeks equality for themselves and are committed to preferential treatment for their community and its interests. Just theirs. They aren’t capable of rising above, of uniting and running together in this election for the greatest idea of all: a state of all its citizens, committed to true and meaningful equality for all Israelis. The real, profound election campaign is one that is pitting the secular perception of the civilian State of Israel against the zealots of Jewish supremacy, who are prepared to sanctify discrimination, distinction and exclusion to preserve this tribal power.

Burg is wrong about “Jewish supremacy,” which is not essential to the idea of a Jewish state. One is not required to believe that Jews are superior to anyone else in order to understand the need for a state that – admittedly – must practice some form of “discrimination, distinction and exclusion” in order to guarantee the continued existence of the Jewish people.

There are numerous “states of all of their citizens” in the world, mostly Western democracies, although there are none in the Middle East. The USA is a an example of one that was founded on the very principle of being such a state, although it took some years and a civil war for full citizenship to be granted to former slaves, and even longer for female citizens to obtain full rights. But Israel is different, and the reason is that Israel was founded according to the principles of Zionism, and not on the Enlightenment concept of the Rights of Man.

The Jews of the West expected that the principles of the Enlightenment would apply to them. It seemed at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, that they might. But as time passed it became clear that the promise of equality would not be extended to the Jewish people. Herzl and other Zionists realized that the only way to ensure that Jews would be able to live normal lives without needing to choose between persecution or assimilation would be in a state in which Jews were the sovereign power. And for Jews outside of the West, in the empires of Eastern Christianity and Islam, there was not even the glimmer of the Enlightenment.

The fundamental idea of Zionism is that there must be at least one state in the world that is not a state of its citizens, but which is defined as the state of the Jewish people. This is why there is a Law of Return for Jews to Israel, and not one for descendants of Palestinian refugees. This is why the state’s holidays, and calendar are Jewish, and why the Hebrew language has a special status. Although the state can and does have a commitment to providing equal political rights to all of its citizens, it does not pretend to treat them all equally in every respect. One way to express this is to say, as the Nation-State Law does, that “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”

This means that non-Jewish citizens of Israel must compromise. Like Jews throughout diasporic history – although with more rights and privileges – they must come to terms with living as an ethnic minority in someone else’s nation. In return, they have the advantages that come with living in a stable, prosperous, and democratic country in the midst of failed states and vicious dictatorships.

Most Arab citizens of Israel understand this, even if Avraham Burg doesn’t.

One final word: yes, I know we have just had an election. It looks like there will be some form of coalition led by Bibi. But the results aren’t clear as I write this, and small movements one way or another could result in a big change. Tune in next week for more. Meanwhile, have a happy and kosher Pesach.

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1 Response to When “Equality” is not Everything

  1. Pinchas Baram says:

    Burg is more than the classic renegade priest or turncoat or lefty writer for haaretz, he is pure poison and a P.O.S., in the big leagues of Jewish Jew-haters and Jewish kapos along with Chomsky, Finkelstein, Gideon Atzmon. I hope he dies or gets killed (with the others), the sooner the better.

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