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In Days to Come
A New Hope for Israel
By Avraham Burg
Translated by Joel Greenberg
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So begins Avraham Burg’s authoritative and deeply personal inquiry into the ambitions and failures of Israel and Judaism worldwide.
Born in 1955, Burg witnessed firsthand many of the most dramatic and critical moments in Israeli history. Here, he chronicles the highs and lows of his country over the last five decades, threading his own journey into the story of his people. He explores the misplaced hopes of religious Zionism through the lens of his conservative upbringing, explains Israel’s obsession with military might while relating his own experiences as a paratrooper officer, and probes the country’s democratic aspirations, informed by his tenure in the Knesset.
With bravery and candor, Burg lays bare the seismic intellectual shifts that drove the country’s political and religious journeys, offering a prophecy of fury and consolation and a vision for a new comprehensive paradigm for Judaism, Israel, and the Middle East.
AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER A QUESTION HAS accompanied me: what would your father say? Rarely is it the curious question of someone who really wants to know; mostly it is a taunt from someone who wants to win an argument without having a conversation. Many times, I ignore the question and the questioners, if only because they have no interest whatsoever in what my mother would say. Her comments were no less sharp and incisive than his. Our togetherness, she and he and a bit of me, brought into the world the baggage that I offer my children to adopt.
Between my parents, who have passed on, and my children, I am a link that awoke one morning a few years ago with great anger. It was during the bloody days of the second Palestinian uprising. A great silence and greater bewilderment enveloped the country. Death took its toll on both peoples, and we were its emissaries and victims. All the atrocities, killing, and bereavement had no meaning or purpose. Day after day. Terrorist attacks and retaliation, revenge and counter-revenge. That morning everything burst inside me. When I asked myself why, I realized that of all the people I was angry at, I was angry at my beloved and missed father most of all. He had been dead for a few years and the Palestinian uprising and Israel’s responses were no longer his responsibility, and still all my arrows were aimed at him.
For weeks I continued the examination—why? Why the anger, and why toward him specifically? I reached the conclusion that I was angry with him because he, who was so important to me as a father and teacher, did not leave me anything written, no guide to the perplexed or a spiritual will about his conception of the roots of Israeli reality or its future directions. In our imagined conversations, I asked him again and again what he would have thought had he been with us. But from the book he did not write for me there were no answers.
In those days, I wanted to leave something for my children, wherever life may take them, and I began to write. I don’t know what challenges they will have to face, and I have no idea what decisions they will make in the moments of truth in their lives. But wherever their winds take them, I want to leave them materials from which they can always stitch sails of thought and content that will fit their size. I have no property to leave them, just some insights as provisions for the journey of life, raw materials for shaping their lives. So that they will at least have an answer to the question: what would your father say? Despite the confusion of the times, do your utmost not to err like many do in distinguishing good from bad. And despite the nationalistic wave, which presents itself as the calling card of contemporary Israel, never forget the values of our home, the all-embracing humanism that is our safe haven. Never despair about the political and social reality. Fight it and change it. And never flee your inner truth, even if it means periods of loneliness and living as a minority. Because truth will out, and ultimately many of the truths of the minority became the majority’s strategy for salvation. These are important and defining lessons that my parents drummed into me. But alas, they are not being passed on to the next generation, to Israel’s grandchildren, who need them more than ever.
These days of the early twenty-first century appear to me as days of profound change against the background of global, local, and personal upheaval. That is why this book ultimately is a personal document, written at a stormy time as I perceive it, as an individual Israeli. Around the time of this book’s publication, Israel, the region, and the international community will mark fifty years since the Six-Day War. That is a very long period in a person’s life, but very short in the annals of history. There are few chapters of the past like this one, in which we as individuals and as a collective achieved so much, while making so many mistakes. Years in which greatness and folly were intertwined. This duality requires a great deal of soul-searching, of which this book is a part. I had the privilege of living and acting in this chapter of the history of my people, the Jewish people, and I have a few thoughts, insights, and reflections on the time, as well as about myself and others.
I’ve already written a few books. Each one has moved me a bit closer to the next, and given me another measure of courage to reveal myself to myself, and become almost entirely revealed to my readers. “Why on earth are you summing up your life? You’re only halfway there,” many people told me while this book was being written. They were right. I really did not try to write an autobiography. With all due respect to my public career, I’m not important enough to thread an entire period of history through the eye of my needle as a writer. All I wanted to do was to find and share the lost Israeli places between current affairs and history. Therefore, this is just a reflection and expression of what my eyes have seen. My personal experiences are just a means to help me decipher some of the riddles of Israeli existence. In this book I open parts of my personal life to the public in order to add another dimension of meaning to what is happening to us. Mine is an Israeli voice that tries to be different from the formal, shrill voices blaring from official Israeli loudspeakers. I’m trying to add another sound to the few heard from my generation, the generation that followed the establishment of the state and has not found enough expression, and the generation of religious Zionism that reshuffled the whole deck here and also is rather mute and very deaf.
I have anger and consolation, but I am not a prophet and do not come from a family of prophets. I just see history and current affairs as prisms through which I can prepare for the future. The following pages are therefore reflections of this sort, about current affairs that became history, and events happening right now, and those still to come. Brexit and Trump, the populist movements and the contemporary setback of liberal democracies are details, important but fragmentary. So here is my modest attempt to comprehend the larger frame, the “gestalt of the zeitgeist,” the way it is perceived through Israeli, Jewish, and liberal lenses.
In Days to Come is the fruit of profound gratitude. First and foremost to Noa Manheim, a friend and study partner, my Hebrew editor and critic, and to Alessandra Bastagli, editorial director at Nation Books. Many great thanks to the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna and to Gertraud Auer Borea d’Olmo, who gave me a home and a fellowship, a social network and circles of warmth and wisdom that few have the privilege of having in their lives. To the wise Ivan Krastev and Anna Ganeva, who involved me in the activities of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria. Their invitation to the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna enabled me to broaden my horizons and gave me time to write. To the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, in whose quiet and enveloping library the book took shape, and to the people of “Molad” for the lessons they have taught me.
And above all, my relatives who are around me and in me. To Yael, my incomparable companion. To my wonderful children, their families, and Hillel and Talila, who are always with us. To Lucian and Janine, my parents-in-law. To my sister, brother-in-law, and my nephews and nieces, who took the trouble to read, weed, and plant. They turned the feelings into words and a melody. When I think about you, my parents gather in me and sing along with us the song of our life.
MENORAH OF BULLETS (1955–1968)
THE FIRST CHILDHOOD MEMORY I HAVE OF MY FATHER IS linked to the destruction of empires—the collapse of a world order that had once seemed eternal. Dad, whose life spanned nearly 90 percent of the twentieth century, was born before World War I. He spent his childhood in the seemingly stable but actually decaying reality of nineteenth-century Europe. From the window of his childhood home in Dresden, Germany, at Zerre Straße Nummer Zwei, he, the Jewish boy born in 1909, saw the revolutionaries calling for the overthrow of the king of Saxony. With his particular smile reserved for especially vulgar words, he quoted the Saxon king, with a heavy Saxon accent, lashing out at the rebels, “Mach deinen Scheiss allein” (Go deal with your own shit). A continent away, Mom’s childhood was also shaped by terrible upheaval and destruction, wrought by the massacre of Hebron’s Jews in 1929.
My parents’ first and momentous memories are imprinted on me, while my own first memories are small and very personal, much like any child of my generation. The slats of my crib were already loose. My crib was old. My parents bought it used, and then it served my sisters before it became my first bed. The three of us shared a room, and the furniture, like our clothing, schoolbags, and pencil cases, was all hand-me-downs. That crib is my very first memory, in which—like in many moments to follow—I was entirely alone. It was 1957, and I was a year-and-a-half, maybe two years old.
I squeezed out of the crib and walked around the house, beyond the permitted boundaries. I went from my room to my parents’ room, which was a sacred space and not always accessible. In the middle was the tall kerosene stove, warding off the “draft” for Dad. A piece of beautiful cast iron, whose wick only Mom knew how to change and light without creating soot. A large pot with boiling water stood on the stove, to humidify the air and to prepare tea. And I, the fugitive from the crib, bumped into it with full infantile force. The boiling water spilled and scalded my tender back, the first burns of my life.
In those days, I probably attached little meaning to the crib slats and the escape, the fire and the water, the pain and the scar, the deposed kaisers and slaughtered Jews that launched me into the world. My childhood was mundane, not particularly heroic. I lived through twelve of the nineteen first—and last—sane years of Israel’s existence, and although in those distant days of my childhood some vestiges of the excitement of 1948 still lingered, I didn’t know we were making history.
In the sixties, from time to time, new children would join my class, from Morocco, France, or Poland. Children, not waves of immigration. I knew how to mock their foreign accents, but I failed to understand that I was being insulting and not welcoming. Aunt Bertl sent us packages from America full of used clothing that Tziona the seamstress altered for us on Mom’s oversized sewing machine. For me, as I grew up, the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Appeal were embodied in those packages my family received. Nobody even noticed that there were kids in class who did not have uncles and aunts in America, or uncles and aunts at all, and no one imagined that my worn and fitted striped American pants were actually the start of the social inequality gap. All these small childhood events flowed like tiny tributaries until they became, during the war that changed our universe, a big waterfall that has not stopped cascading since.
During the Six-Day War (June 5–10, 1967), I was neither a brave fighter nor an involved civilian—at twelve, I was barely a concerned citizen. I was just a little Jerusalem boy in transition from childhood to adolescence. Still without whiskers, but with some underarm sweat like the adults. I had a pair of Ata factory jeans and “a real cowboy’s” holster belt and toy gun that Aunt Bertl had sent me in a package for Purim. In June 1967, I had long used up all the caps for my gun, but I still sat for hours on a punctured water tank left in the yard, riding bravely on the tin horse, galloping toward the enemies and driving them off. In that fashion, over many days, I saved Mom and Dad and my two older sisters, Tzvia and Ada, time and again. All by myself, like the cowboys and Indians who were both my father’s childhood superheroes and mine. Our daily routine, Mom’s and the kids’, continued as usual, but nothing was really in order.
Slowly, patiently, the tension grew and became stifling. Fathers went to the army, and vehicles we had never seen before—command cars, light armored vehicles, and other bulky trucks—were on the streets. Private cars were commandeered and covered with mud as camouflage. Occasionally a plane was seen overhead—despite the ban on flying over the city—and that caused a sensation. We, the Jerusalem kids, hardly ever saw planes before and never up in “our skies.” Every day after school we took to the streets to fill bags from the piles of sand left by government and city trucks on every street corner. We painted car headlights blue for a blackout “like in London,” adults said, recalling the blitzkrieg days of World War II. In Mr. Heller’s grocery store Mom bought a little extra toilet paper and some canned food. But she said, “I’m not stocking up, because if they see me stocking up on food then everyone will think they need to prepare.”
I was a sixth-grader in Mrs. Blumenthal’s English class when, on a Monday morning, war came. It began just as they had explained it would: a siren, the lesson came to a halt, and we huddled next to the walls, under windows that looked like woven fabric, crisscrossed with the brown masking tape we had pasted on them with our saliva and little hands. Hundreds of children and a few dozen teachers—female teachers, to be precise, because almost all the male teachers had been called up to the army—waited tensely. Explosions reverberated through the city, Jordanian legionnaires fired sniper shots, there were explosions of shells and mortars from both sides, and the thunder of jets repeatedly broke the sound barrier as they headed beyond enemy lines. It was the first time that I had heard such sounds. The automatic machine-gun fire rang in my ears like a giant metronome. Then there was silence for a few minutes, as if the conductor of an orchestra had ordered all the musicians to stop playing and listen for a moment.
In one of those moments I drummed my fingers on the school’s old wooden table. We all practiced different games to train our fingers to be nimbler. Who knows if it was just a game or an effort to release tension. Nothing I heard until that moment was as frightening as the shouts that followed. That petite and stern-looking teacher, Mrs. Blumenthal, took out her stress on me, venting the terrible anxiety I was protected from as a child, caused by the days of waiting in which we labored to fortify our homes and classroom and endured the absence of the men, including her partner. Poor woman, all her favorite disciplinary measures were denied her. She couldn’t eject me from the classroom and endured because there was shooting outside. She couldn’t send me to the principal because he too was sitting with us in the makeshift shelter. So she made do with a heartfelt groan: “How dare you? Don’t you understand anything?” And the truth is that indeed I did not understand, though not necessarily the things she had in mind.
We went home with the mother of one of my classmates, Yisrael, who at that moment was for me the mother of all Israelis. As a young kid, I had no idea about defense systems, military powers, or diplomatic shields. She—this mom—symbolized for me, then, the fragile protection against the eruption of war evilness and the deepest of fears. We didn’t walk on the main roads to avoid the fire from the Jordanian snipers in red-checked head-scarves who were posted at the top of David’s Citadel. Suddenly everything that had been regularly forbidden to us became temporarily permitted. In those days, parental authority was supreme. A parent spoke, and the child obeyed. But in that moment the roles were reversed, and suddenly I became Yisrael’s mother’s guide. I told her “this way,” and she obeyed. I showed her how to jump over fences, and she followed me silently. In those moments with her we were allowed to vault over roadblocks and go through courtyards that were forbidden to us all year. We passed through the Reform Har-El synagogue and the Baptist church on Narkis Street, which our parents and teachers shunned: the former because the Judaism practiced there was not ours, and the latter because of its missionary Christianity. But in that first time of trouble in our lives, everything was forgotten, and they—the Baptists and Reform Jews in the heart of Jerusalem—became our temporary refuge; the walls and fences of the church and Temple shielded us from the hostile fire, becoming the backroad safe way home, the one we hardly ever dared to take during peace time. That’s life sometimes; places we find terrifying in times of peace can suddenly become safe havens in times of trouble and hardship.
We crossed the yard of the Ratisbonne Monastery, which was usually locked shut. I had always been haunted by the fear that if I passed by the place the priests in their brown robes and rope belts would seize me and send me to the Christian orphanage. But in the face of the demonic Arab enemy, the terrifying Jordanian Legion, everything unfit to eat became kosher, and all the fears became momentary security. The teacher, Yisrael’s mother, and I did not know then that this was the essence of the Six-Day War for Israelis: turning the unacceptable into the appropriate, putting the stamp of approval on everything that was supposed to be absolutely forbidden, making it permissible and even sacred.
I arrived home safely. I clearly remember the sound of exploding shells falling in the yard and my sister’s fear, as well as our surprise at the new, unfamiliar names the radio announcers peppered us with: Sharm el-Sheikh and Quneitra, Nasser and Hussein. Who are these terrible demons? Where are these hellish places?
On Wednesday, it was all over. After much shelling and bombing, endless rumors and news flashes, patriotic music playing on the radio, and families huddling together protectively, Dad returned home from his job at the government and said to Mom, “Get ready, we’re going to the Kotel,” the Western Wall. I didn’t know exactly what this Kotel was. We were never taught at home to yearn for it. We didn’t have a picture of it on the wall, not even a bronze engraving, as was common in so many homes at that time. The walls of Dad’s large library were decorated with photos of Mom’s family from the old Jewish community in Hebron that had been destroyed, and next to them was a lithograph of synagogues from around the world that were no more, from the Jewish diaspora that had been wiped out. But there was nothing to commemorate the Temple.
I will remember Mom’s excitement until the day I die. She was wearing her blue pleated skirt. “Does this look all right?” she asked Dad, as always. “Very much so, Rivka,” he replied, as always, and together they went to the road to board the military transport that had come to pick them up. A dusty, unshaven soldier helped them climb into the command car.
“I want to go, too,” I wailed at the top of my lungs, crying heavy, salty tears whose taste I can still recall. It was the first great outburst of my childhood. Cries of longing and sadness, of fear and disappointment, of a parting much greater than myself. Perhaps I was curious to see the battlefields; perhaps I was just giving voice to all the fears that had built up inside me during those days. The cries of a young boy who was not ready to be left without the security and protection of his parents. But despite my tears, they left without me. When they came back after a few hours, my mother pulled out a small bag from her pocketbook and retrieved from it a few short, squat cartridges from an Uzi submachine gun. “I collected them at the Kotel especially for you,” she said, as she handed the cartridges to me. She wanted to compensate for having left me behind, but she was also entrusting me with a little treasure.
In those last innocent days of the State of Israel, we all had to take a shop class at school. Once a week we left the gray, neglected schoolyard and walked a few blocks to the workshop of the teacher, Mr. Tarshish. In the faded apron of a craftsman from a bygone era, with a booming voice and a ruler he rapped against the table any time he grew angry, Mr. Tarshish taught us all the survival skills we’d ever need. How to fix a short circuit with a special iron wire, how to change a light bulb, how to sand down a rough board and polish metal. To this day, I don’t particularly like manual work, mainly because I’m not that good at it. I am not just left-wing politically; I also have two left hands, far more left than my most firmly held views. I was also never good at conforming to the mold, or copying a template exactly and without variation. Even back then my spirit sought something else, something creative and original. The complete opposite of the strict, precise work ethic of the formidable Mr. Tarshish.
A few months after the war had ended, we prepared a surprise for our parents in honor of Chanukah: we made metal menorahs, the proud work of our own hands. We toiled for days, cutting the brass, bending and joining, shaping the frame and the branches. For me, the high point was taking the Uzi cartridges that Mom had brought me from the Kotel and attaching them to the menorah as candleholders. My souvenir from the remnants of the Temple is inextricably bound up in weaponry, violence, and bloodshed. I was not yet familiar with a Judaism of pacifism, but if I had been, I doubt I would have committed to it. In school, we had not yet read the biblical verse rejecting all violent associations with the Temple and its altars: “And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones, for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them” (Exodus 20:25). And thus, the Jewish Kotel and the Israeli Uzi were melded together for me into something new, inseparable.
TO THIS DAY, WE LIGHT THIS MENORAH EVERY CHANUKAH, and I both love it and hate it. Each time my heart is pierced anew—by longing for the childhood I once had and that is no longer, and by lament for the great transformation that has come over all of us. I need that particular menorah not just as a nostalgic link to those innocent bygone days, but also as a tangible reminder of all those things that I still want, and still need, to change in this world.
I always loved Chanukah, more than any other holiday. In the beginning, in my youth, it was because of the mystery of the darkness and the small lights that banish it, and because of the modest little gifts we always received from our parents. I loved those magic moments in which Dad, Mom, my sisters, and I sat on the rug and played with the dreidels, the spinning tops—one of the rare occasions when Dad came down to our childhood level. Perhaps that’s why dreidels became my favorite collector’s item, with thousands of them now decorating the walls of our home. With time, I came to love Chanukah even more, as a unique and special holiday in which Mom had a significant role. Not just as the passive woman who says Amen to all the blessings, rituals, and customs that Dad performed with flair, but also as the one who lit the candles on the nights that Dad was not at home. I loved her in this role—she inspired me to take on my first public position. It was during Chanukah when I was in first grade. I was selected to play the part of the shamash, the candle used to light all the others. Mother ironed my white shirt, made me a cardboard crown with a paper candle on top, and rehearsed with me again and again the line I was supposed to recite in a loud voice in the class play. “To be a shamash is to bear a great responsibility,” she said to me, “and my son needs to be the best shamash there is.” So I tried, for her sake. I wanted to be the best shamash there is.
Since Chanukah is always celebrated in the winter darkness, it is the Festival of Lights, similar to festivals of light in many other cultures, such as Diwali, the Hindu festival. We Jews, who do not worship nature in and of itself, have added more and more layers of religious meaning to Chanukah, as with many of our other holidays. The miracle of the jar of oil, the redemption of the Temple, the victory of the few over the many—the whole deal. Thus, we transformed a festival celebrating the shortest days of the year and the approaching lengthening of the hours of daylight into a religious holiday. Adam’s sigh of relief, as his fears were alleviated when the winter nights stopped growing longer, was transformed into a great, spontaneous joy. The joy of the faithful over the redemption of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Greeks had defiled it with their pagan rites and their military conquest. The Greek empire issued religious decrees against us. Our benevolent God, the master of history, stood by our ancestors in their distress and granted them a “great salvation.” As a sign of gratitude, and as a means of commemoration, the ancient Jews dedicated these eight days to giving thanks to the God who delivered them, and to praising His name.
It was never a holiday about wars and warriors. On the contrary, the mighty ones in the Chanukah story are the Greeks, not us. But that is something that no one told me before I ascended the tall chair of the shamash on Chanukah during first grade. In my black polyester Sabbath pants, which were secured high above my belly button, I sang my lines as loudly as I could: “In our time as in those days, God’s Maccabee redeems always.” I didn’t know that in my cousin Moshe’s secular school down the block, they sang the same song, but with a slight variation: “In our time as in those days, the Maccabee redeems always.” For us, it was still a religious holiday with God at the center; for them, the holiday had already been appropriated by the steamrolling revolution of Zionist consciousness. God was cast aside, and the Maccabee took center stage.
The Zionist revolution dearly wanted to return us Jews to an active role in political history, and it grasped at every symbolic straw it could find. It is natural, therefore, that the heroism of the war and the struggle of the Maccabees became the most important port of call in the Zionist movement’s voyage home. The return to the land and to our memories, to language and history, to the places that once were, and to the glory of the past. And we small children each were the best shamash there is, the caddies of this fantastic revolution. A decade later, in the mid-seventies, we in the army were singing completely different versions of those Chanukah songs. God had disappeared entirely from the holiday, and we marched in unison—left, right, left—accompanied by the hoarse loudspeakers:
We carry lights
Through darkest nights
The paths aglow beneath our feet.
We found no jar of oil
No miracle but our toil
We hewed the stone with all our might—
Let there be light!
- "In this book Avrum Burg addresses issues that affect us all beyond the confines of simple national, religious, and individual concern. He invites us to take part in the most important flight of all-the flight towards a better future. His views are compelling and I am hopeful such a future is possible if we all make an effort, sincerely and with wisdom. I appreciate the author's hard work for putting his concerns into words."—His Holiness, the Dalai Lama
- "In this thoughtful, poignant, and unflinchingly honest memoir, Avraham Burg inspires us to think anew about Israel's place in the world and in our hearts. A man who manages to balance clear-eyed pragmatism with a profound commitment to human rights and civil liberties, Burg is an inspiration for all who care about justice and peace."—Ayelet Waldman, author of Kingdom of Olives and Ash and Love& Treasure
- "A leftist Israeli activist delivers a singular sermon explaining what needs urgent repair in the Jewish democracy... A heartfelt synthesis of a coming-of-age story, a political jeremiad, a memoir, and a manifesto."—Kirkus Reviews
- "The former speaker of Israel's Knesset gives his own take on his country's history and the quagmire it now finds itself in as Zionism and Jewish identity evolve to meet the new realities of the 21st century."—New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- Jan 9, 2018
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Bold Type Books