Avraham Burg at Chapman College

Review by Jeff Warner, April 4, 2008


Avraham Burg gave a philosophical and optimistic talk at Chapman College on Thursday, April 3. 

Burg comes from a Zionist family.  He was a leading figure in Israeli politics for over 20 years, rising to become Speaker of the Knesset from 1999-2003.  But, Burg is a realist who said, "Whoever wants a full democracy with a Jewish majority cannot hold onto the entire land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, because it is a land that has people of another nation with different national aspirations."  In October 2003 Burg caused a sensation when he published an article in the British newspaper The Guardian titled “The end of Zionism,” that called for a quick withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  In the same year he published an article in the Israeli newspaper Yeduoth Ahronoth in which he declared, "Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism."

For his talk at Chapman, Burg stood back from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to ask broader questions of how to achieve peace in the world.  This is not a new theme for Burg whose activism pushed him to adopt a liberal, reconciliatory approach to the Middle East conflict.  He wrote, "All of my life I've been an activist of the peace camp... I'm ready to go a very long way to bring people together, from dialog to acceptance and then compromise."  His talk at Chapman expanded on this message.

In talking about specific conflicts, Burg said that to make peace each side must understand their enemy’s fears.  The psychological and physical needs of the other must be satisfied.

In talking about the new war on terror, Burg pointed out that it is fundamentally different from wars between nation-states.  The war on terror is a war about the narrative of each side – it is about values.  The democratic side has values of individual rights whereas the extremist side has values of fear.  Burg said that if the democracy side adopts the other side’s values, democracy loses.  He suggested that the politics of fear and Guantanamo and the use of torture will not help the democracy side to win this war of ideas.

Burg modified Samuel Huntington idea that the 21st century will be dominated by a clash of civilizations – the modern Christian world vs. the pre-modern Islamic world.  Burg said the battle will be a conflict between democracy and theocracy, and the battle will not necessarily be against a far away enemy – the enemy is commonly within our own society, and may even be within your own family. 

Of course Burg was referring to the conflict between humanism and fundamentalism that is occurring within all the monotheistic religions – Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam.  Burg suggested that this conflict is sort of self-induced.  Technology and the modern world move so fast, and are so hectic, that traditional people attempt to escape into the slower, familiar world of religion and fundamentalism. 

Burg said that for a society to transform itself to modernism, it invariably goes though violence, sometime internal and sometimes external.  As examples he cited the French Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Crusades.  He was optimistic that the current violence in the Islamic world means that Islam is in the process of adopting modernity and a humanistic value system. 

Burg was also optimistic in that he sees Europe’s conversion to modernism essentially complete.  He pointed out that although each nation insists on its national identity, there is reconciliation among the nations and they no longer resort to killing the other at the first problem.  The big test, he said, is how Europe will integrate its large Muslim minority – now about 30 million people, but when Turkey is admitted to the EU there will be 100 million Muslims in Europe – into the greater society. 

During the Q&A Burg addressed some Israeli-Palestinian issues.  He said that everyone knows what a two-state solution will look like – essentially the 2000 Clinton parameters.  He said the most Israeli and most Palestinians, and many of the government leaders in Israel and Palestine want a Palestinian state to emerge.  He said the barrier to achieving a two-state solution is that extremists have is not captured the government, hold the government hostage.  He identified the Israeli extremists as the messianic settlers who believe. 

He said most Israelis want three things in relation to the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea: (1) Greater Israel in control of all the land, (2) a Jewish state, and (3) a democracy.  Burg said that all three are impossible, and the want that most Israelis seem ready to give up is all the land, that is, most Israelis are ready to accept a Palestinian state on part of the land.

When asked about AIPAC, Burg called the organization that worst thing to ever happen to Israel.  He said the extremist position of AIPAC is commonly more extreme than the Israeli government.

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