Decades from now, scholars will be able to derive joy from reading Avraham Burg’s latest screed against Israel, which much fewer of us can take today. With the distance of time, and the zeal of historians seeking to explain one of history’s mysteries, they will use his disproportionate, inaccurate, August 4 New York Times op-ed as a proof-text explaining the Israeli left’s intellectual, ideological, moral, and political failure. Burg’s essay reflects the Israeli left’s two blind spots—the inability to see real enemies outside of Israel combined with an equally perverse inability to see much good inside of Israel.
The first blind spot appears in Burg’s first paragraph, when he rants about a “misguided war with Iran” and calls Benjamin Netanyahu a “warmongering prime minister.” This analysis would apply if Netanyahu threatened to wipe Iran “off the face of the earth” and welcomed the opportunity to end the Islamist experiment by sending it into the “trash bin of history”—which is, of course, the rhetoric Iran deploys against Israel as the mullahocracy rushes to build its lethal nuclear bombs. So far, as far as we can tell from the media, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reign has included unconventional alternatives such as cyberattacks, coalition sanctions, and assassinations, rather than bombing raids or battles—a salutary, more subtle approach.
The second blind spot ignores any signs of life, liberty, equality or fraternity in Israel’s polity in order to justify the article’s hysterical title: “Israel’s Fading Democracy.” Combining the self-absorption of too many Orthodox Jews today with the self-loathing of too many modern liberals, and using his own religious family as the weakest form of single anecdotal evidence, Burg caricatures modern Israel as Settleristan, “a religious, capitalist state… defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations” elevating “religious solidarity over and above democratic authority,” becoming “more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world.”
Hmmm. Where do the Start-Up Nation, the People’s Republic of North Tel Aviv, the overwhelmingly non-religious population, the Russian aliyah, the hyper-activist Supreme Court, the super-critical free press, the chaotic, fragmented, can’t-agree-on-much-of-anything culture of argument, the many bikini-clad women and Speedo-wearing men fit in? How come we only hear from Burg about the “exclusionary ideas” of unnamed “rude and arrogant power brokers” as opposed to noble tales about the princes of the Likud, Ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who, through their Beginite and Jabotinskyite liberalism have been fighting the anti-democratic and occasionally racist forces in their own party and coalition?
Such complexities, of course, have no place in what is becoming the dominant caricature among supposed sophisticates, inside Israel and beyond, about the Jewish States and its current prime minister.
I know how annoying it is to let pesky facts disrupt a good tirade, especially when Israel is the target and the New York Times forgets its usual fact-checking and broadcasts the rant worldwide. But as an historian today—not even waiting for the future—I was offended by Burg’s topsy-turvy worldview. His claim that Netanyahu’s “great political ‘achievement’ has been to make Israel a partisan issue,” ignores the neo-conning of Israel that occurred after the Iraq War debacle, when Ariel Sharon, and then Ehud Olmert, were at the helm and George W. Bush critics recoiled from Israel because he gave it his toxic embrace. Burg’s speculation that Israel “will become just another Middle East theocracy” and that Israel “has no real protection for its minorities or for their freedom of worship” ignores the many rights and privileges both non-religious and non-Jewish Israelis enjoy in the real Israel of 2012, which is not his dystopic Settleristan. And his nostalgia for the America and Israel of his childhood in the 1950s absolutely sickened me, considering how much more racist and segregated America was (even in the noble North), how much more unwelcome Arabs—who were then under martial law—were in Israel, and how much more sexist, stultifying, conformist, and authoritarian both countries were.
These factual distortions, and these two recurring blind spots of never seeing any threats to Israel or acknowledging any true progress in the country, explain why Meretz has gone from being a powerful left wing voice to a marginal, unpopular collection of hectoring, irrelevant windbags; why many of us who agree with Burg that Israel needs a constitution and a two-state solution nevertheless recoil from any association or alliance with him; and why Avraham Burg himself spends more time appealing to the prejudices of Israel’s critics outside the country than working on constructive, realistic solutions to the many challenges the country faces—and is frequently solving without his help—at home.