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'For many young American Jews, the Trump-Bibi axis is the enemy'

Bradley Burston insists that his views about Israel haven't changed since he moved here in the 1970s. It's Israel which has changed. 'I would like to have two states. But hundreds of thousands of Israelis said ‘you can’t have it,’ and they run the country,' he says in a wide-ranging interview about Israel, the Nakba, and the changing face of American Jewry.

Edo
Konrad

There have always been undercurrents of dissent within American Jewry when it comes to Israel. After all, it was progressive Jewish Americans, radicalized by the New Left of the 1960s, who became the avant-garde of the American Jewish Left, demanding that the Israeli government enter into talks with the PLO decades before it became Israeli policy. It was radical American Jews who, just a decade after protesting the Vietnam War, began demonstrating outside Israeli embassies and consulates during the First Lebanon War.

Decades later, we tend to hear a great deal about the changing relationship between American Jews and Israel, whether by those who feel let down by it, deceived by the stories and mythologies promulgated by their own communities, or those who are simply turning away from the Jewish state altogether.

What we hear far less about is progressive American Jews who have chosen to make Israel their home. How do American Israelis, particularly those thought leaders who have helped inform many of the changes bubbling up among their kin back in the U.S., feel about Israel today?

For Bradley Burston, making his Jewish American voice heard has become a mission of sorts — even when no one was really listening. Burston has become one of the most prominent voices of liberal Zionism (he rejects the term, calling himself “more of a post-labeling guy”) through his Haaretz column, “A Special Place in Hell.” Long before IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street, and Peter Beinart blew the lid off a simmering crisis between American Jews and Israel, his writing served as a refuge for those who felt stranded between their values and Israel.

Bradley Burston outside the Haaretz offices in south Tel Aviv. (Oren Ziv)

Bradley Burston outside the Haaretz offices in south Tel Aviv. (Oren Ziv)

As Israel’s military dictatorship over the Palestinians grew more entrenched, Burston’s columns became more strident, warning Israelis — and their American Jewish patrons — of its dire repercussions. So it is somewhat incredulous to hear Burston declare that his views about Israel have not changed since 1971. After all, much to his chagrin, his name has become synonymous with a strain of liberal Zionism that has struggled to remain relevant in the Netanyahu era — one that believes in a two-state solution, a Jewish state that respects and empowers its minorities, and a healthy connection to the rest of the world.

Despite the political setbacks and the fading hopes for two states, however, Burston believes that deep down, most American Jews agree with that vision.

“The majority of American Jews want to see a democracy here, and they are tremendously embarrassed by the way things are going,” the Los Angeles native says, as we sit down for an interview in Jaffa, where he lives. “They are concerned about the asylum seeker issue and the relationship between Israel and American Jewry. For many if not most young American Jews, the Trump-Bibi axis is authentically their enemy.”

Yet on the Palestinian issue, Burston believes the majority of Jewish Americans still have a way to go. It’s a slow-moving process, he says, but only a matter of time. “[American Jews] have been brainwashed into thinking that Israelis know best. But it’s only a matter of time. If Netanyahu alienates the American Jews on issue after issue, things are going to change. I hope we’re heading for something better — something more sustainable.”

Members of Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow protest Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Washington D.C., May 14, 2018. (Gili Getz)

Members of Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow protest Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Washington D.C., May 14, 2018. (Gili Getz)

“This country has changed tremendously since I moved here in the mid-70s,” he says, rubbing the sides of his salt-and-pepper goatee, as he tends to do while deep in thought. “Yet I still believe what I always have: that the best solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two states, side by side. The problem is I don’t believe it is possible anymore.”

How did you come to the realization that there won’t be a two-state solution?

“I would like to have two states. But hundreds of thousands of Israelis said ‘you can’t have it,’ and they run the country. When Netanyahu won the election in 2015 following his racist campaign — that was when I knew it was game over. But it won’t be forever.”

Is the idea of a Jewish and democratic state sustainable in the long term?

“I believe there can be a confederation that makes it possible to have a Jewish and democratic state. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the horrible bathwater, but I believe that there is something positive about Jewish culture and the revival of Hebrew culture.

“You need to remember that something happens to Jews in Israel — whether or not they end up living here — which is extremely powerful. That’s not the bathwater. The bathwater is fascism, it’s ruling over another people. For Netanyahu, bathwater is the essence of this country.”

You have written that the country’s ruling ideology has become akin to racism. Do you still identify as a Zionist?

“I’m not sure that I ever did. I don’t have any problem with there being a Jewish state. I have a problem with a Jewish state that is oppressive. I have a problem with a Jewish state that fights against its own vestiges of democracy. I have a problem with a Jewish state that is exclusionary of Jews of all kinds. When Zionism becomes equated with support for settlements or the expulsion of asylum seekers, it becomes really easy for me to answer that question. If that’s what it is, then I’m not a Zionist.”

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More than ever, American Jews are more willing to talk about the Nakba and the dispossession of the Palestinians. How does one reconcile progressive ideas such as equality with the history of how this country was founded?

“The truth of all of this is that it is an incredible mess. Benny Morris made a tremendous study of what happened in 1948 and what you realize while reading it is that there were instances of true nobility, and there were instances of terrible atrocities. People were suddenly given the opportunity to be themselves, and in many cases it ended in a terrible result, and in other cases it didn’t.

“It’s the perfect storm. Jews were legitimately worried about being exterminated again. If I believe that everybody is trying to kill me, I’m going to be terrible to them. There are enough people who are willing to say they want to kill the Jews and that we have no right to be here, to give Israelis the justification to do terrible things to them.”

Has that mentality persisted since 1948?

“Yes, and it explains why Israelis today don’t care about Palestinians being shot dead at the border with Gaza. That was the genius of cutting off contact between Israelis and Palestinians, because if you really want to make people to loathe and fear the other side, then you need to make sure they have no contact. Now we never see the other side. If I think the other side wants me dead, I will do terrible things.

“For good or ill, many of the Jews who came here did so because they deeply believed in this place, that they were of this place, even if they had never seen it. Just like the Palestinians holding on to their keys who are also from here. The Jewish man in Estonia who wasn’t allowed to be openly Jewish in the Soviet Union — he was from here. He was willing to go to jail in order to live here.”

But why should that matter to the Palestinian holding on to his or her key?

“The one thing that we can’t do is to unfairly dismiss the extent to which both sides are fully, emotionally imbued with this place. This is their place, on both sides. And that’s the problem. There must be some reason why this is the crappiest place in the world and it still has a hold on us. Part of it is some form of brainwashing that is part of Israeli culture, but it’s not only that. There is some mystical element here that people have an unbreakable connection to. The government can’t ruin that.”

Palestinian youth carry a wounded boy to receive medical care during the Great Return March along the Gaza-Israel border, April 27, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

Palestinian youth carry a wounded boy to receive medical care during the Great Return March along the Gaza-Israel border, April 27, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

* * *

A few weeks after our initial interview, in a single day, Israeli snipers on the Gaza border killed over 60 protesters demanding the right of return for Palestinian refugees, wounding thousands more. I went back and asked Burston if the bloodletting had changed anything for him.

“I don’t know how we live with ourselves, knowing what’s happening to people who are essentially next door. I’m not talking in particular about the deaths and injured in the March of Return protests. I’m talking about the years and years that preceded them. The siege of Gaza was and is a terrible error, the worst error Israel has made in the last 12 years, not only morally, but also tactically and strategically, for Israel’s future as well as for the Palestinians. The government knows it.

“But the government is too scared to do anything about it. The army is continually pressing Netanyahu to boost humanitarian aid and work on international cooperation to rebuild the critical infrastructure that we’ve bombed into oblivion, power plants, sewage treatment plants, the drinking water system. But Netanyahu’s too scared. He’s too busy looking over his shoulder and trying to prove that he has more testosterone than Bennett, who’s trying to prove the same about his masculinity level relative to Lieberman.”

“There’s one other thing that makes me despair. For some leaders on the Israeli right, a high Palestinian casualty toll can actually be seen as a political asset. A poll taken after the bloodshed of the initial marches showed that 100 percent of respondents who had voted for [Defense Minister] Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, approved of the military’s actions. A hundred percent.”

* * *

Do you ever think about going back to America?

“There was a time during the Second Intifada where we were terrified for our personal safety or of letting our daughter ride buses in Jerusalem. But I suppose there is something that is holding us here. Everybody who is here and who is a progressive must be an out and out crazy revolutionary, because otherwise how are they able to stand it?”

And yet the feeling is that things are getting worse.

“I’m still holding out for something better. When I came to Israel I said ‘I’m going to give it a year and see what happens.’”

And you’ve been saying that ever since.

“Exactly. Every year around October I say ‘well, okay fine. I’ll give it another year,’ and here I am.”

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      “The army is continually pressing Netanyahu to boost humanitarian aid and work on international cooperation to rebuild the critical infrastructure that we’ve bombed into oblivion…” It’s a perpetual mystery to me why the Israeli government doesn’t listen to its own army. This article by an Israeli academic and think-tanker makes recommendations in line with what many in the IDF have said:

      http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/09/25/failure-gaza/

      The idea of “managing” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is illusory, and concluding it by force is a dangerous fantasy. The only reasonable strategy is resolution of the conflict…A long-term resolution with respect to Gaza requires changing its political predicament. The only sensible way of doing this is to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza…As part of a comprehensive political agreement, Hamas is very likely to agree to a long-term truce, as its representatives have repeatedly said. In 1997, its founder and spiritual leader Ahmad Yassin suggested a thirty-year hudna (truce) with Israel. In 2006, one of its leaders, Mahmoud al-Zahar, proposed a “long-term hudna.” Earlier this year, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a senior Hamas functionary in the West Bank, reiterated the organization’s willingness for a hudna and said the organization was willing to accept a peace agreement with Israel if a majority of Palestinians supported it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joe Cohen

        You really think Hamas wants peace?

        You’re deluded.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bruce Gould

          @Joe Cohen: every time I walk into a bank I WANT them to give me $100, just because they like me. But I’ll ACCEPT that they just don’t charge me hidden fees. It isn’t what people want that’s important, it’s what they’ll accept.

          As for what the Palestinians will accept I rely on the judgement of the Israeli security apparatus.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Bruce: Very true. Pretending otherwise is a form of Israeli feigned helplessness about solving the problem. It’s not about what anyone on either side *wants*. Who cares what Jewish jihadis like ‘Lewis from Afula’ and ‘Halevy’ or their Palestinian-side counterpart jihadis *want*? It’s as you say about accepting reality. And practical arrangements on the ground safeguarding that. Change the behavior, the 50 year occupation and brutal subjugation, address injustices, treat people with minimal fairness and dignity, and the feelings will follow in the next generations. Changing feelings and wants first is putting the cart before the horse.

            Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordin Halevy

        Israel is not a military dictatorship. It is the government that makes the decisions and our army obeys. In addition Judea and Samaria are part of the historical, national and religious heritage of the Jewish people that our religion forbids us to abandon

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      ‘You have written that the country’s ruling ideology has become akin to racism. Do you still identify as a Zionist? “I’m not sure that I ever did. I don’t have any problem with there being a Jewish state. I have a problem with a Jewish state that is oppressive.”’

      Burston’s problem, and liberal Zionism’s problem, is that, at bottom, he is grounding his entire argument in some faith that people are ultimately and on balance “good,” and that it will all work out because good people will win out over bad people, if only he can implore them enough. All his columns over the years are a protest to this effect. His thinking is testimony to American idealism shorn of the American Founders’ clear eyed realism and suspiciousness about what men are really like. But people, especially those with power, are not good. On this Fourth of July, let us say that the American Founding Fathers knew this very well and did not depend on people being good. They knew better. They in their genius built a system that is ever suspicious of people’s true motives. And wrote a Constitution enforced by an ever vigilant, truly Supreme Court, and built in checks and balances. Lurking in liberal Zionism’s faith is the idea that Jews are somehow better, special, more idealistic, better at effectively pulling off an ethnic state that no other humans have been able to pull off without letting power corrupt them and oppressing minorities. But nothing in history, and nothing in Israel’s history, supports this exceptionalism. Which is why Noam Sheizaf is right, and is far more practical, realistic, sober and clear thinking than Bradley Burston (or his opposites on the right):

      By Noam Sheizaf |Published September 11, 2013
      Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state
      A country can, at least in theory, be ‘Israeli and democratic.’ It cannot and will never be ‘Jewish and democratic.’
      https://972mag.com/why-i-oppose-recognizing-israel-as-a-jewish-state/78751/

      Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      These Reform, Conservative and Unaffiliated American Jews are a dead offshoot of the Jewish People. Essentially, a bunch of people who were born Jewish but don’t know what it means and are on heading to intermarriage, non-marriage, childlessness and ultimately ethnic disappearance.

      Bibi is correct by just ignoring these whiny losers.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        it’s like ‘jewish’ is connected to ‘judaism’ for americans. absurd!

        Reply to Comment

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