Three ‘Rabbis’ for Israel’s Independence Day

Continuing my series on the 50 “rabbis” (teachers) who most influenced my understanding of being Jewish in the world, I offer up three more to coincide with Israel’s Independence Day .

9. Avraham Burg
Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg was a decorated paratrooper and the son of a prominent conservative cabinet minister before he played a prominent role in Peace Now and the anti-Lebanon war movement. But what got my attention was Burg’s passionate denunciation of the state of contemporary Israel from the perspective of a left-Zionist idealist: “The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice… There may yet be a Jewish state here, but it will be a different sort, strange and ugly… The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or anti-missile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed. It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive.” And so on — read it, it’s a powerful piece. I don’t share Burg’s belief that Zionism itself can be redeemed. But I do share is conviction that Jewish identity is meaningless unless it serves a higher purpose, the purpose of universal justice. And he seems to feel the same way, writing in Haaretz last year that he finds Diaspora Jews who are committed to justice his natural allies rather than fellow Israelis who have turned their backs on it. Exactly. That’s the interesting conversation.

11. Uri Avnery
On Yom Kippur in 1979, as a young Zionist of the socialist (and atheist) persuasion, I didn’t go to shul; instead I stayed home and read a book I’d found in the shelf of one of my madrichim (older leaders of Habonim): It was Uri Avnery’s “Israel Without Zionism,” and the effect it had was profound. My misgivings about Zionism had been growing, not only because its narrow nationalist concerns seemed at odds with the universal justice that I saw as its purpose, but also because I was better acquainted with its history. In Habonim we knew about events like the Deir Yassin massacre, and didn’t try to hide from them. They were the work, after all, of the Irgun/Likud/Betar, whom we deemed dangerous fascists. But we clung to the idea that our side, the Haganah/Labor side, had remained pure and noble. The Betarim laughed at us; how did we think Israel would have had a Jewish majority were it not for events like Dir Yassin scaring the Palestinians into fleeing? And here came Uri Avnery recounting the same stories, and more, giving the lie to the “miracle” in which 700,000 people simply walked away from their homes in response to Arab radio broadcasts urging them to leave. Avnery chronicled the ethnic cleansing activities of his own unit. And he offered a vision of a union with the Arab world, which later inspired him to be one of the founders of the Israeli peace movement. Definitely more useful than a day spent in shul watching the alte kakkers sniffing snuff to keep themselves awake… Avnery established, for me, the principle that to recognize the truth of Israel’s history, and to renounce Zionism, was not somehow to betray my Jewishness. He was the first Israeli I read saying Israel could not deny the pain it had inflicted on others; facing up to it and acknowledging it was, in fact, the Jewish thing to do.

20. Martin Buber
The early Zionist philosopher who moved to Palestine in 1938 was one of the most prominent advocates, in the years immediately before Israeli statehood, of the idea of a single, binational state for Jews and Arabs founded on the basis of equality. The partition of Palestine, he said, could only be achieved and sustained by violence, which he abhorred. For Buber, the Zionist idea was premised on it fulfilling the Biblical injunction to be a moral “light unto the nations.” But he could already sense that the dominant strain in the Zionist movement was the opposite, and would have the effect, at great moral cost, of simply trying to make the Jews a nation like any other. In this schema of “normalization,” the Jews simply had to acquire a territory and a common language, and the rest would take care of itself. He saw this as a reflection of a longstanding tension inside Judaism: The powerful injunction to make the pursuit of truth and justice the very purpose of Judaism, and he wrote, “the natural desire, all too natural, to be ‘like the nations.’ The ancient Hebrews did not succeed in becoming a normal nation. Today, the Jews are succeeding at it to a terrifying degree.” He advocated Jews and Arabs creating a single democratic state in Palestine in 1948. And he warned that those who pursued sovereignty for a Jewish majority state of Israel were making war inevitable. Referring to the Arab population of Palestine, he asked, “what nation will allow tiself to be demoted from the position of majority to that of a minority without a fight?” He warned that the the path taken in 1948 would extinguish the progressive potential of his idealistic Zionism. Which it did. The moral idealism at the center of the old left-Zionist ideology did not survive contact with the living, real population of Palestine. Buber had the courage and prescience to recognize that and warn the Zionist movement of the moral cul-de-sac down which it was heading.

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24 Responses to Three ‘Rabbis’ for Israel’s Independence Day

  1. FurGaia says:

    These posts are very interesting and I am learning a lot from them. Thank you!

    On a related note, I just happened on this page about Rabbi Aaron Tamaret. It is very inspiring too.

  2. Mytwords says:

    This is a great series. I too am learning a lot and it is a real antidote to the nasty Likuudnik mentally that dominates US political mainstream discussions. Thanks.

  3. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Yes, great choice.

    For those haven’t read the latest by Avnery… as usual
    thoroughly depressing and completely indispensable:

  4. Nonpartisan says:

    Tony, consider yourself tagged.

  5. Danny says:

    A few comments on your choices:

    Burg is a bit of a light-weight, owes his claim to fame in anti-Zionist circles to that single article written which left little impact in Israel. If you would like to choose a relatively mainstream Israeli politician, I would suggest Shulamit Aloni, who has much more of a record fighting the good fight.

    Buber, despite living some 30 years in Israel, and despite his name and reputation, didn’t make much of an impact in Israel as a public intellectual. I’m not sure he knew Hebrew – I don’t think he wrote anything in the language. I believe he advocated a binational state before 1948. After ’48 he advocated the 2-state solution (not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned). The Naqba, which bien-pensants today are so horrified by, was achieved at the time without a murmur and without very little guilt. Anyways, I don’t think Buber fits any list of sages/rabbis unless one is drawn to his mystical religious philosophy (I’m not).

    I would suggest instead Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Israel’s gadfly-general for some 45 years, and one of the fiercest and earliest critics of the occupation. On the other hand, he was no bleeding heart liberal, he wasn’t the type to seek the easy answer.

    Uri Avnery is indeed a great man, at 83 years old he is still razor sharp, and he looks great (always has), I hope he stays with us for a long time yet.

    I have to take issue with your ‘Zionism cannot be redeemed’ . For all its faults, I have a hard time viewing a bunch of refugees carving a homeland on a very small patch of land, building democratic institutions, forging a nation – in such malevolent terms. If my two Zionist grandparents had not left Europe for Israel in the 30s, I would not be alive – that is, for me, redemption enough. In any case, Zionism is not a proper ideology – it is solely a form of nationalism, which most Jews, having ties of kinship , naturally enough respond to at one level or another. Discussion whether any type of nationalism – Irish Nationalism, Italian Nationalism, Vietnamese Nationalism, whatever – fulfills progressive ideals or is damned – misses the point. Nationalism merely is.

  6. Max says:

    Hey Tony

    This is a great series.

    I agree that Burg does not quite make it – he is never very clear on what he is proposing or what he stands for.

    Some other suggestions for your series:

    1. Joe Slovo – even though he proclaimed his atheism he was without a doubt South Africa’s greatest ever Jew and definitely the most influential. His shift from No MIddle Road to leading negotiations show a deep humanism.

    2. Judge Richard Goldstone – his detailed reports to the UN on the effects of the Israeli occupaton show great courage and humanity.

    3. Uri Davis for his work steadfast position on Israel as a colonial situation.

    4. Leopold Trepper – the greatest spy of the Second World War, who ran the “Red Orchestra” network in Nazi occupied Europe, and was captured by the Nazi’s and then transfered to a Stalinist jail after the war.

    5. Chomsky

    6. Einstein

    BTW your counting of your Rabbis is similar to that of the Israeli’s counting victims of terror attacks, not that maths was ever your strength!



  7. Tony says:

    You’ll see from my May Day installment that I had JS, and a couple of others. Einstein is on my list, I’ll consider Trepper… Someone else recommended Count Bernadotte, who saved Jews just like his Swedish diplomatic colleague Raoul Wallenberg, but Bernadotte was murdered the Likud because he cared about Palestinians too…

    Chomsky? Hmm… Given that I have to narrowit down to 50, I’d be inclined to skip him — for many reasons, I don’t find him a particularly inspiring voice of the left. From his analyses of the media to U.S. policy in the Middle East, I often find him politically antiseptic and way to determinist…

  8. Tony says:

    Sorry, did I say “antiseptic”? I meant to say “anaesthetic”

  9. Max says:

    Having read the following

    I formally withdraw my objection to Burg being one of your Rabbis.

    End the Occupation!


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  11. Bean Macathy says:

    Nice story of your detailed tony karon.

  12. Buber, despite living some 30 years in Israel, and despite his name and reputation, didn’t make much of an impact in Israel as a public intellectual. I’m not sure he knew Hebrew – I don’t think he wrote anything in the language. I believe he advocated a binational state before 1948. After ’48 he advocated the 2-state solution (not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned). The Naqba, which bien-pensants today are so horrified by, was achieved at the time without a murmur and without very little guilt. Anyways, I don’t think Buber fits any list of sages/rabbis unless one is drawn to his mystical religious philosophy (I’m not).

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