Enough with the Holocaust, says ex-speaker of Knesset

Life has gotten a bit lonelier lately for Avraham Burg.

The former speaker of Israel’s Knesset says he lost friends after publishing his book with the oh-so-provocative title “The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise From Its Ashes.”

Burg will soon bring the controversial topic to the Bay Area, making an appearance Nov. 2 at the JCCSF’s Bookfest 2008. He will discuss his book in an interview with KQED’s Michael Krasny.

According to Burg, the Holocaust is more than just the third rail in Israeli politics. It is, he believes, one of the central organizing principles of Israeli life. And, he adds, that has to stop.

“You cannot overstate the omnipresence of the Holocaust in our life,” Burg says by phone from Israel. “It is the cause of all causes, the reason of reasons, the explanation of all explanations. Yes, we had a horrible Holocaust, but in the 20th century many millions were killed. If we say, ‘But we suffered more,’ we actually become deniers of other peoples’ Holocausts.”

Not that he is in any way a Holocaust denier. His father fled Nazi-occupied Europe for pre-state Israel, and he served with distinction as an Israel Defense Forces paratrooper before entering Israeli politics.

But his left-leaning views have gotten him into hot water before. In 2003 he wrote an article for a British newspaper titled “The End of Zionism.” And in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz last year, he said defining Israel as a Jewish state was “the key to its end” (though he later retracted the statement).

In his new book, Burg directs his attention toward the Holocaust and its place in the Jewish psyche.

“The day will come when the Jewish and Israeli world will wake up and there will be no more living witnesses,” he says. “It will be a historic experience. To that day I aim my writing.”

He decries how Israel overdoses its youth with Holocaust history, even criticizing homegrown programs similar to March of the Living, which bring Israeli youth to tour Nazi death camps in Poland.

So what’s wrong with that? Among other things, Burg says, it gets youthful blood boiling just before the teens begin their military service.

Burg also theorizes that two of the most significant events in Israeli history — the 1961 trial of Nazi mass murderer Adolph Eichmann and the triumphant Six-Day War in 1967 — in some ways set the country back.

“The Eichmann trial pushed us back to the ’40s, and the Six-Day War pushed us back to biblical times,” he says. “When the world moved ahead, we moved backward, and we’re still there. When you listen to the [West Bank] settlers, they are still in the ancient biblical bulls—.”

In his book, Burg writes extensively on the Eichmann trial, which he feels contributed to Israel’s ongoing fears of another Holocaust. This, he argues, is unlikely given the strength of Israel’s military arsenal and to overall lower levels of global anti-Semitism compared to eras past.

Yet, in Burg’s view, self-delusion and hypocrisy persist in the Jewish world. For example, with Hebrew and Arabic as Israel’s two official languages, he wonders why Arabic is nowhere to be found at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and why Yad Vashem remains the first stop for all visiting foreign dignitaries. “The high-tech industry, the absorption centers, the theatersshould be much more the showcase of Israel,” he says.

Burg would go a step further and cease marking Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. Instead, he would fold it into Tisha B’Av, a doleful holiday that has been on the Jewish calendar for more than 1,000 years.

For all the pushback Burg has experienced, he still reveres the free and open debate so typical of Israeli society. He believes Israel’s argumentative ways actually enhance democracy there.

“For me, polemic or disagreement is a tool of creation,” Burg says. “It may be the most classical Jewish tool of creation. If you agree and I agree, then the world is castrated, boring, infertile. Nothing happens. But if we disagree, we sharpen our disagreements and create a new world between us.”

Burg fully expects those who disagree with him being ready to rumble, but he will stick to his guns. To illustrate the point, he relates what a Holocaust survivor once told him.

“He told me two kinds of Jews came out of the Holocaust,” notes Burg. “One said ‘Never again to the Jews,’ and the other said ‘Never again to any human being.’ The most important lesson is that yesterday’s victim should be the guarantor that nobody else should suffer. If I say I am the ultimate victim and no one else is a victim, then I actually do not fulfill my role as a Jew.”

“The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise From Its Ashes” by Avraham Burg (248 pages, Palgrave Macmillan, $26.95)

Avraham Burg will be interviewed by Michael Krasny at 3:45 p.m. Nov. 2 during Bookfest 2008 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F.

Paging all readers: Bay Area JCCs celebrate Jewish Book Month

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.