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Former Speaker of the Israeli Parliament Avraham Burg: “The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes”

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As Israeli leaders continue talks on assembling a coalition, we’re joined now by a former Israeli politician who’s emerged as one of his government’s biggest critics. Avraham Burg is a former Speaker of the Israeli Parliament and former Chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. His new book is called The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re moving to Israel, where political leaders there continue negotiations over forming a new coalition government. The general election ended in a near draw, with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party in first place with twenty-eight seats and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a close second with twenty-seven seats. But Netanyahu will have an easier chance at assembling a coalition government, following a strong showing by minor parties that are even more right-wing.

The differences between the two leading candidates are slight. Both support attacking and blockading Gaza and the continued takeover of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

On Wednesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said any Israeli government must end the occupation.

    PRIME MINISTER SALAM FAYYAD: These expectations can be summarized in one sentence: steps have to be taken — tangible steps have to be taken to end the occupation that began 1967, namely, again, ending the occupation that began in 1967 and establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. That’s been the goal since the start of this peace process. It has not materialized. And what has materialized are adverse facts on the ground inconsistent with the viability of the solution, with the need to attain that goal. These are our expectations of the next Israeli government, whichever — however it might be formed, and I hope that will be also the expectation of the international community of the next government in Israel.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Some Israeli dissidents have suggested that a Netanyahu government might be preferable in the long term. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy says, “Netanyahu’s election is likely to bring the curtain down on the great fraud…the lie of ‘negotiations’ and the injustice of the ‘peace process.’ Israel consistently claimed these acts proved the nation was focused on peace and the end of the occupation. All the while, it did everything it could to further entrench the occupation and distance any chance of a potential agreement.”

AMY GOODMAN: As Israeli leaders continue talks on assembling a coalition, we’re joined now by a former Israeli politician who has emerged as one of his government’s biggest critics. Avraham Burg is a former speaker of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. He’s former chair of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. His new book, though, is called The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

AVRAHAM BURG: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re headed back to Israel today, but we’d like to talk about another journey: how you went from where you were, as head of the Israeli parliament in the Labor Party, to where you are today. Talk about your trajectory.

AVRAHAM BURG: Next question, please.

It’s not easy, but at the time, I felt that political walls are closing on me. I had a feeling that Israel became a very, very efficient kingdom, but no prophecy. Deeds are being done. Decisions are being executed. But the ocean liner got no captain, no vision, no direction. Where is it going?

So I started digging into it and looking into it. And the way I know — the way I think for myself is by writing. So I wrote the first book, which was God Is Back. It’s about the religious dimension of world conflicts and the Israeli conflictual reality. And then when I finished the book, I read it, and I realized that I didn’t write about the other items which supports our identity, and this is the only presence of the trauma in our life, which is the Holocaust, which prevents us to trust anybody — to trust ourselves, to trust our neighbors, to trust the world — and therefore creates this kind of a reality. And the minute I realized that this is my inner truth, just published it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you talk in the book about how the Holocaust continues to hold so much power and influence over the thinking of Israelis. Could you talk about that some more?

AVRAHAM BURG: Holocaust was such a trauma that it takes, for individuals, years, if not more than years, to overcome. And not everybody who was abused as an individual at a young age can overcome and come out of this inner limbo. And for a while, I was not at all sure that Israel, Israel and the Jewish people, can go out of it. I mean, it happens. And then, the long —-

AMY GOODMAN: Your parents were [inaudible] -—

AVRAHAM BURG: My father escaped from Berlin in September ’39, which is the very, very last moment. And my mother, who’s a seventh — was a seventh generation Israeli, was born in Hebron and is a survivor of the — by an Arab family, by the way — of the massacre there. So we were born into a kind of a traumatic reality, but we were a trauma-free family.

And the more I think about it, the more I thought about it, I understand that it is not about “yesterday we remembered, and tomorrow we are different people.” Oh, no. It’s a process. And the process, the importance of it is that the generation of my children will be the first generation without any living witness. That will be the generation in which the personal experience becomes a memory. What will be the shape of the memory? A cloning of the trauma or a beginning of the road from trauma to trust? I offer the beginning of the beginning in my book.

AMY GOODMAN: But I’d like you to go back further. I mean, you were the speaker of the Israeli Knesset. You were the head of the World Zionist Organization. Explain that, how you rose to power within the Labor Party and as head of the World Zionist Organization — what it is.

AVRAHAM BURG: I was for many years a kind of a strange bird, OK? I was born to a father who was the leader of the National Religious Party. And he was, for many, many years, a member of each and every cabinet of Israel, from ’48 to ’88 — that’s the year I was elected to the Knesset and he retired. And actually, I knew something about Israeli politics, but my position was different than my father’s. It was always more humanistic and less introverted. It was always more universalistic and less nationalistic, etc., etc. I was the founder — one of the founders of the protest movement against the war on Lebanon in ’82, and then I walked into public arena and became whatever I became, a young promising promise.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you in that protest movement?

AVRAHAM BURG: First, I protested. And then, during this protest, among other things that happened to me, I was wounded in a hand grenade thrown on our rally in Jerusalem, which killed Emil Grunzweig at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened.

AVRAHAM BURG: There was a demonstration against the war on Lebanon and for calling for the impeachment of the foreign minister, Ariel Sharon. And there was a hand grenade thrown from the political right side of the map into our rally, killed one of my colleagues, Emil Grunzweig, at the time. I was wounded then.

And then, slowly, I walked into the political arena, became an active member of the Labor Party and rose up the political ladder. And at the time, I had a feeling that I’m doing the right thing. I’m fighting for peace. Oslo arrived, and I was part of the Israeli euphoria. I was part of those who made it possible, but supported it, and then Oslo evaporated. Then I was one of the signatories and initiators of the Geneva Accord, and again, it was a civil society effort to push the stone up the hill, and again it fell down on our heads.

And then I said, “Why isn’t it working? So many efforts, and it’s not working, doesn’t bear fruits.” And the reason for me is the — a primary reason, before the ’67 reason, and this is the grip of the Holocaust over our life. And if we will not get a little bit more relaxed about it and understanding, as difficult and as painful as it is, it cannot be the only sole prism through which we see the world.

And then I came to the inner realization that never again for me, it’s not never again for Jews only and therefore we should have the thickest walls around us and the deepest shelter on top of us, but never again is never again for whomever needs my protection. Never again — whomever is the victim today needs the help of the yesterday’s victim to prevent his or her own victimization, be it a battered woman, be it Darfuri, be it somebody in the inner city of Detroit, be it whoever it is. Victims are all over the place. And the Holocaust is not mine only to say, “I have a monopoly over suffering, and that’s it.” Oh, no.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, you were still a leader of the Labor Party in 2000, the last major peace negotiations. The myth that has come down from those days is that the Palestinians walked away from the best possible deal that they could get with Ehud Barak. Could you talk about that time and that period and the assessment that is still so widespread, especially here in the United States?

AVRAHAM BURG: It will be very, very difficult to undo the past. And yes, I understand that this is how people remember this period. I’m not at all sure it is right. When you read the memoirs of Bill Clinton and the memoirs of all the people who were involved in the process, you know that it, Camp David, the second Camp David, was an ill-prepared summit, and the sides were not ready for it. And it was Yasser Arafat who said, “I cannot. I cannot. It’s not yet ready.” And to say Israel offered everything and then a couple of weeks or a couple of months later went to Taba and offered even more, so how can you offer everything and then offer some more?

And I’m not into this. I’m not into the game of “You were first, and I was second. You started it. You are to blame.” I’m not into the blame game. I say the past is finding out who is first, I am not into the blame game. I say the past is painful. Let’s draw a sand in the line [sic.]. Let’s move forward. Let’s create a better tomorrow. And then one day we shall revisit the past. I don’t want to argue about the past so much, because I become hostage of the yesterday’s genies, rather than becoming a liberated person or liberated nation or liberated region. And that’s what I’m looking for.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the Israeli government should speak with Hamas?

AVRAHAM BURG: No doubt. I have no doubt about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken with them?

AVRAHAM BURG: I’m speaking with everybody who’s available, both in the region — both in the region and around the world. I cannot go to Gaza, because it’s impossible now, but I see them in the West Bank, I see them in Israel, I see them in London.

And I have one thing —- I have two things in mind. The first is, I don’t remember even one funeral who came out of a dialogue. I remember many funerals coming out of no dialogue, and shootings. The second is, look at Middle East history. Every time we rejected somebody, we were missing him or her a couple of eras later. Today’s extremist is tomorrow’s moderate. And I ask myself, when will -—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

AVRAHAM BURG: When will be the time in which we’ll look back and say, “Ah! We missed the opportunity to talk to Hamas?”

Here is ’67. We conquered and we occupied the West Bank. The first thing we did, we kicked out of the Occupation Territories all the king’s — King Hussein — Jordanian supporters. Then the PLO walked in, and we said, “Where are the supporters of the king when we need them?” But they were not there, because we were the ones expelled them. Then we said, “We shall never talk to the PLO, never talk to them.” So we didn’t talk to them and didn’t talk to them and didn’t talk to them. Now Hamas is there; we say, “Where is the moderate PLO we missed so many years ago?”

Now, a day will come, I don’t know when, al-Qaeda will be there in Gaza. It will be the global Islam front, and some of the Palestinians will be disconnected from their national political reality and become part of something else. Then I’ll say, “Where is Hamas?” And I say, as difficult as it is, it is there. What will happen? You build a higher wall? You go for more unilateral, arrogant, but still escapism policy? It’s not right. You’re here, Amy. I want to talk to you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The question of the role of the Jewish community in the United States — there are those who say that it’s even less nuanced in its approach and more emphatic in its opposition to the Palestinians than in Israel. Could you talk about the dynamic there?

AVRAHAM BURG: American Jewry is an unbelievable Jewry. In the last 150-some years, the Jewish people actually created two political entities: the sovereign state of Israel and the semi-autonomous American Jewry. It is less of sovereignty, but very influential. Never did we have such an influential diaspora in our entire history. And I love it, because I, as an Israeli, express the national dimension of myself, and world Jewry, especially American Jewry, expressing the universalist interface between us and the rest of the world, inside-out and outside-in.

But when I see so many of my colleagues and friends making and trying to portray and to lead American Jewry into a single-issue Jewry — Israel and that’s it, no domestic coalitions, no minorities, no responsibility for other social and universalistic affairs — I’m concerned about it, very much so. And when I look at some of the AIPAC’s, OK, activities, I have a feeling that sometimes we’re having three political entities: the United States of America, the sovereign state of Israel, and the independent state of AIPAC, which has its own policy, whatever it is, not working for the best interests of Israel, according to the way I understand it and Yitzhak Rabin understood it, and not according to the best interests of the United States of America. This is a kind of a filter which filters only darkness through it, rather than light through it. And I would like to see the alternative American Jewry, which is expressed through the liberalism and humanism and civil rights and a total commitment toward peace, as the one which expresses me.

AMY GOODMAN: As you speak right now, Avraham Burg, just down the road outside the World Zionist Organization here in New York and the Jewish Agency, the organizations you used to head, there is a twenty-four-hour protest that is being led by Jews against these organizations.

AVRAHAM BURG: This is the answer; what is the question? OK? What do you think about it, right?

First, I love people to express themselves. I mean, politically or democratically, when people go out of their homes and they’re not passive and not just watch the TV, zap to the next station, and that’s it, but if they do something, I’m happy about it. But it takes more than a protest movement. It should go into a much deeper conversation between us and us.

And I’ll give you an example, OK? We look at the outcome of the last elections in Israel. Everybody is horrored by Avigdor Lieberman, who bases his — the foundation of his movement on two very infamous American Jews who made it all possible, Rabbi Kahane and Baruch Goldstein . So there is something wrong with some quarters and some neighborhoods of the Jewish philosophies and Jewish thinking that we have to address internally and not just politically.

AMY GOODMAN: He beat Ehud Barak, right?

AVRAHAM BURG: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Came in third.

AVRAHAM BURG: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And will make the coalition. What does he represent? What about the asking Israeli Arabs to sign loyalty oaths?

AVRAHAM BURG: Lieberman — Lieberman expresses for me — actually, he’s iconizing for me two kind of phenomena. The first is what happens all around the world, which is very xenophobic. I heard it in the elections here just a couple of months ago. I hear it in Europe with Haider and Blocher and Jean-Marie Le Pen and other. And this is one thing which troubles me a lot, because it is about racism, it’s about xenophobia, it’s about hatred – this time, Jewish hatred and Jewish xenophobia. And I have to fight it. I have to face it personally and collectively.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the US government and what’s happening now? The US House and Senate passed resolutions in support of the Israeli attack on Gaza.

AVRAHAM BURG: A mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your thought on that?

AVRAHAM BURG: A mistake.


AVRAHAM BURG: Because this is still the energy of the ocean liner of George W. Bush, that “Never mind what Israel is doing. Never mind what my beloved child is doing. I’ll never say no.” Now, it is wrong for the world, it is wrong for American interests, and it’s wrong for Israel, that Israel will do 200 meters from our window what America permits itself — wrongly so, but permits itself to do in Tora Bora, because by the end of the process, America will withdraw from these places, but I have to live with the impacts of all of these unrestrained and unconstricted aggressions. And therefore, what I’m expecting from the White House, what I’m expecting from the new president, what I’m expecting from the new Senate and the Congress is to reintroduce dialogism rather than violence, to reintroduce conversation rather than continue with the cowboy policy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In the past few weeks on Democracy Now!, we’ve had both former President Carter and also one of his top aides at the Carter Center talking about the potential for a road for peace between Israel and Palestinians. I’m sure you’re probably familiar with President Carter’s proposal. What do you think of it as a realistic possibility?

AVRAHAM BURG: Politics and realistic possibilities are kind of oxymorons, OK, even here and especially over there. But it must be peace. Will it be peace out of hope, or will it be peace out of despair — it’s just a departure point. But eventually, it will be there.

Now, since the archenemy of the region is the Shiite revolution regime in Iran — revolutionary regime in Iran, and all the others are ready to have a different kind of conversation, so all of the sudden the Saudi king — Prince Fahd formula, which is the Arab League policy, saying let’s talk about a comprehensive coalition between Israel and Egypt and Jordan and Syria and Lebanon and the PLO and the Occupied Territories, and all of us together, more rationalistic, more Western, rather than the Shiite devil — that’s the way they see it — that’s an opportunity. There is an opening there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the proposal of President Carter, specifically to trade land connecting Gaza and the West Bank for some of the land on which current settlements are on?

AVRAHAM BURG: These are details. These are details, because by the end of the day, everybody knows what will be the bottom line. The bottom line will be ’67 lines, and whatever cannot be resolved according to the exact geographic line will be land swap.

AMY GOODMAN: Should Israel pull out entirely from the West Bank and Gaza?

AVRAHAM BURG: Tomorrow morning. No, actually, yesterday, yesterday evening. No doubt about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Pull out all the settlements.

AVRAHAM BURG: Yeah, it pollutes our morality, and it contaminates our policy. And we became hostages of the messianic and eschatological policy of the settlers, which actually leads Israel into a de facto one-state solution, which discriminates one people over the other people. At the same time, the Palestinian society was kidnapped and held hostage by the hands of the eschatological fundamental —- Hamas fundamentalists. And both societies must get rid of their prisoners, get rid of these kidnappers and get over this Stockholm syndrome that I’m in love with my kidnapper. And only then we will be able to talk to each other.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, do you support the divestment movement here? You just heard -—

AVRAHAM BURG: The what? I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: The divestment movement. You just heard in our headlines that Hampshire College in Massachusetts has become the first college to divest from companies that are doing business with the Israeli military.

AVRAHAM BURG: It stands against my values system to boycott. OK? If I said earlier in this program and earlier in my life, I’m totally committed to conversation, even with my worst enemy. So boycott is not a tool for me. Boycott is an expression of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Avraham Burg, I want to thank you very much for being with us. He is the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, former chair of the Jewish Agency, former head of the World Zionist Organization. His new book is called The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes.

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