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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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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.”
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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.”