'The Holocaust Is Over,' Says Israeli Politician Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli parliament, says it is time for Jews to "rise from the ashes" of World War II. In his book, The Holocaust Is Over, Burg says Jews and Israelis must remember the Holocaust, but not be its victims for generations to come.
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'The Holocaust Is Over,' Says Israeli Politician

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'The Holocaust Is Over,' Says Israeli Politician

'The Holocaust Is Over,' Says Israeli Politician

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In a new book with a provocative title, Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset, Israeli parliament, argues that Israelis and Jewish people around the world should stop living so much in the shadow of the Shoah, the Holocaust. That they should reevaluate the role of the Holocaust and the collective memory of the Holocaust plays in politics, language, government policies, and in everyday lives. He describes what he calls the Shoah industry. We cling to the tragedy, he writes, and the tragedy becomes our justification for everything. We sit on the branch of past mourning. He continues, not taking off for the heights of humanity and humanism where we belong. The book, we told you, it has a provocative title. It's called, "The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes." The author joins us in just a moment. Later, we'll also hear from one of his critics and from you. Is the Holocaust too much with us? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the hour Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Former Secretary of State William Cohen - former secretary of defense, excuse me. William Cohen joins us to talk about a new report that urges the Obama administration to take a leading role in the prevention of genocide. But first, Avraham Burg joins us here in studio 3A. Nice to have you with us on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. AVRAHAM BURG (Author, "The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise from Its Ashes" ; Former Speaker, Knesset): Thank you Neal.

CONAN: And you tell a story in your book to illustrate the grip that the Holocaust or the Shoah has on Israelis, a story about a man you called, Mr. D, who goes on a business trip to Poland.

Mr. BURG: That's right. Mr. D is a colleague associate of mine that I wanted to make some - cut a deal with him part of my real life or business life. And we couldn't setup up a meeting, so he said I'm going to Poland. I have a 10 days trip or two weeks trip. I'll call you when I come back. Twenty four hours later, his secretary calls, you can see Mr. D tomorrow morning. I said no problem. I came and said where have you been? Said I've been to Poland and I said why did you come back? He said two weeks. He said I came to Poland. We touched down at Warsaw Airport. We took the train and then we crossed the country forest, trains, snow, conductors. I couldn't stand it anymore. It all came back to me and I said, I made a u-turn and came back to Israel and I said, what do you mean? It all came back to you? It was the Holocaust all over again. I couldn't stand it anymore. I wrote it down and went back home. In the evening when I sit down, I was in the middle of writing of my book. I called him and said, tell me, what do you mean it all came down to you? Where are you from? Where are your parents from? He said though, they are from Iraq. And all of a sudden, you realize here is an Iraqi Jew who coming from the Muslim hemisphere, miraculously so did not suffer the horrors of the Holocaust. But he was consumed by the national psyche and this was his.

CONAN: There's another story you tell about how this is used in debate large and small, in this case an argument over a budget cuts. I think you were that time, the head of the Jewish agency and there was an argument over budget cuts for some of the youth groups sponsored by the Jewish agency.

Mr. BURG: You really read the book, didn't you? Yes and I said, listen its inefficient. We have to do this. We have to do that. Because you know, even larger organizations have to live by their budgets. And then somebody jumped at me, a right wing revisionist jumped at me and said how dare you cut the budget of this youth movement? They were the nucleus of rebellion in the Warsaw ghetto without them our entire national pride would have been - and what will you do, if there will be a next Holocaust, the second Holocaust tomorrow morning? You must support these potential partisans etc. And it goes all over the place. I mean, when you ask Bibi Netanyahu, what do you say about Ahmadinejad these days? He says, Ahmadinejad is not yet 38, all over again. And you say, is it? Did we have such an omnipotent army at 38? Did we have the entire western superpowers behind us 38? Did we have the Catholic Church changing it's no strike data in 38? No, we did not and why letting Hitler going so cheap at the price of Ahmadinejad. But it's there, it's the only presence realm of our life and we must address it.

CONAN: Bibi Netanyahu, also known as Benjamin Netanyahu, of course the head of the Likud block and quite possibly the next prime minister of Israel in elections that come up. But you talk about - we hear this a lot, the threat or the idea of a second Shoah, a second genocide which you say in your book. Israel is not on the brink of a second Shoah, that in fact most Jews around the world are better of than they have ever been.

Mr. BURG: We are a blessed generation. I mean I take it if I could have had a conversation with my grand, grand, grandfather or mother. And they would ask me, Avraham, what's going on? I said, listen grandpa we have a very powerful army, the best - some of the best academias in the world. The high-tech is leading in I would have said NASDAQ, but you know today, I should choose some other criterions and our reputation is not that bad. I even talk at the NPR this afternoon. I take it my grandpa would have said, what happened Avraham? Did the messiah arrive? I mean from the point of view, of all the previous generations. We are living in the best generation ever. And this has a factual base. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the Jews, 90 some percent are living in the democratic hemisphere is an indication for a new existential reality. You cannot continue as if life is like what it was in the last 2000 years because there is a turning point. And the turning point happened 60 years ago by the establishment of the state of Israel, 63 years ago by the opening of the gates of Auschwitz, and the rest of the concentration camps. And we are living in a new era, and we must depart from the horrors of the past, slowly but surely and move from trauma to trust.

CONAN: This is not to argue that the gates to Yad Vashem, the great Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem should be closed.

Mr. BURG: No on the contrary, I mean. In order to move forward does not necessarily mean that you have to forget. On the contrary, I say when you're so obsessed and over remembering and overusing and cheapening the sacred memory of the ruin of the destruction of the Holocaust. By the end of the day, you cannot make room for any future development. And even more than this, I look at my children. I say to myself that they will come maybe in our lifetime, their life time. And they will live in the first day ever since that there will be no living witness. What will be then, the reality of their life? Should we just cut paste or copy paste or clone the previous trauma and mold their future through the prism of Auschwitz only? Or, do we have to give them other facilities or intellectual skills and moral and psychological dimensions to enable them to say we remember like we remember all of our history, because we are a people of a long memory? And at the same time, marry again or got back or get connected back to the eternal Jewish optimism which just evaporated in the last couple of years.

CONAN: And more on that in just a minute. I want to get some listeners into the conversation too, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. Our guest Avraham Burg, his book "The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes." But one more story and that is about how you argue that the guilt for the Holocaust has been transferred in many Israeli's mind. You talk about a visit to a school in Jerusalem and a young boy who says, this is at the height of the second intifada, when people are being killed with some regulatory bombs going off, that sort of thing. And he says the Arabs are worse than the Germans.

Mr. BURG: These Arabs, I mean it's always these, you know, it's a kind of a generalization. They are worse than the Germans. What they did to me and we speak about the high days of the bloody 2000, 2001, 2002. The buses are exploding all over the city and at pizza parlors are the dangerous place for kids to go. And he was so angry. And he was so impacted by his personal horrors and traumas and being a Jerusalemite kid there was a very difficult task. And for him when the comparison came the German memory was a fading memory and there was kind of a psychological transformation, if you took the entire hate and the animosity and anger we should have had against our perpetrators of the last generation and imposed it and apply it on those we have today, which never will be the case. Nevermind how bitter will be our Palestinian enemies, it is never something to be compared to whatever happened in Germany in Europe between 39 and 45. But still in the minds of this kid, there is a kind of an equation between the Arab atrocities and the Nazis' crimes against our humanity.

CONAN: The transfer of victimization.

Mr. BURG: Yeah.

CONAN: And you also ask him, what kind of car does your mother drive and he says.

Mr. BURG: He says, I think, if I remember, you read the book after me, so you remember better, but I think, my Mommy has a battered Volkswagen and my father owns a new Audi or something like this. And here you have it. Germany is riding our roads and so many Israelis who love soccer teams, the Bundensliga and so many tourists in Berlin. And I was there just six weeks ago running the Berlin Marathon. You can't imagine how many Israelis ran along side with me. So, we have a kind of conciliation or reconciliation with the other Germany, not yet with the Arab world around us.

CONAN: Now, let's get some callers in on the line. Let's start with David. David with us from West Windsor in New Jersey.

DAVID (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

DAVID: My question is the following. As everyone knows, Israel engages in many actions which are very controversial, and in many cases, I think, rather than responding to charges which are debatable one way or the other, Israel responds by charging that the people who are accusing it are threatening to submit Israel to a new Holocaust. And I wonder what the guest thinks, whether he thinks Israel is using that kind of response to shortcut debate and if so, what his response is to that?

Mr. BURG: Thank you, David. The answer is yes with no but. Somebody once told me that the difference between an American and an Israeli is that American is saying yes but and the Israeli is saying no but. So here you have yes with no but, but and this is the very first years, early years of the state of Israel where it was so fresh, the memories and the wounds and the blood was still there and the living witnesses walked among us. It was natural. It was only a normal reaction. Now, that we are so many years later, you have a feeling that politicians are recycling and reusing and overusing this argument. It cannot be the arch explanation for everything, and in a way when you compare everything to the absolute evilness, you create a kind of permission. You say to yourself and so many Israelis do, oh, Gaza is really awful, I mean, from a human point of view, it's really awful. It's not nice. But is it gas chambers?

CONAN: Is it Auschwitz?

Mr. BURG: So, the answer is no. It's not a gas chamber. So, it's OK, right? And I say in real life, you do not compare relative realities to the absolute evilness. Remove it from the equation and leave the morality of real life.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. We'll talk more with Avraham Burg in just a moment, his book "The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes." In just a moment one of his critics will joins us. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join the conversation, stay with us. Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, NPR News.

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times last month, Avraham Burg argued quote, Israel must abandon the every thing is Auschwitz, in mentality. The way things are done today, the absolute monopoly and the dominance of the Shoah on every aspect of our lives transforms this holy memory into a ridiculous sacrilege and converts piercing pain into hollowness and kitsch. It's the argument he lays out in his book titled, "The Holocasut is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes." Avraham Burg is former speaker of the Israeli Knesset now a retired politician. If you agreed the Holocaust is too much to focus for our lives, give us a call, 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. There is also a conversation underway on our website npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation. Joining us now is Omer Bartov, the professor of European history at Brown University and an historian of genocide. He is with us today from the studio on the campus at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nice to have you with us today.

Prof. OMER BARTOV (Department of European History, Brown University): Hello, good afternoon.

CONAN: And I want to ask, is the Israel that Avraham Burg describes in the book the Israel that you know?

Prof. BARTOV: Well, it is and it isn't. I think, obviously Israel is obsessed in some ways with the Holocaust. It is hardly surprising. The country had a population of just over a half million people at the end of the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and many of the hundreds of thousands who joined it came from the camps. And they and their children formed much of the population of the country. So, obviously, the memory and the trauma of that event is still very deeply embedded in the country. But it is a country that has many other problems, and I think that Burg somewhat exaggerates his centrality of the Holocaust and also puts it mainly as an obsession of the Jews. And what has happened in Israel and I'll just tell you one story to give an example is that this obsession has become part of the conflict that is in the center of Israel's identity. And that is the conflict between the Israelis, Jewish Israelis and the Palestinians. The story is of a group of Palestinian students or rather Israeli-Arabs who were visiting a Holocaust museum in Israel and they were shown a model of Treblinka. And as they looked at the model of this extermination camp, one of them said, well, this is not as bad as what the Israelis are doing to us now because at least in Treblinka, the Jews were killed right away. And they are killing us everyday. And so the Holocaust has become a sort of subtext of the actual real problem of what is happening now in Israel and that real problem is an unresolved conflict. The roots of that conflict predate the Holocaust. They go back to the beginning of Zionism and it continues long after the end of the Holocaust with the Holocaust really playing just a role of an example, a bad example, but merely an example and not the actual issue that most Israelis and most Palestinians are concerned with.

CONAN: As you know, he also argues in his book that a nation of refugees by its creation, by the fact of its creation, created another nation of refugees and as a rule declines to accept that fact.

Prof. BARTOV: Exactly, you know, Zionism had two main slogans when it was established in the beginning of the previous century. One slogan was that one should give a people without a land, a land without a people. That is, take the Jews from the Diaspora where they had no land give them the land of Israel where there were no people. Unfortunately, of course, there were people living there. The second was that one should not only take the Jews out of the Diaspora but take the Diaspora out of the Jews. That is make new people. Create, normalize Jewish existence. Create new people. Now, of course, one could not do that, because if you took the Diaspora out of the Jews then they were left without any history. And what is Jewish identity without history? And so Zionism long before the Holocaust faced these two main problems. One was how do you create a new identity without giving up your history. And the second, how do you create a nation in a land in which there are already people. And so the main conflict is a conflict about identity and about land. The Holocaust came later and the Holocaust destroyed much of the Jewish people. It did give Israel a new legitimization for the Zionist movement. But the main issue predated the Holocaust and it's still at the core of what is happening now in Israel and between Israelis and Palestinians.

CONAN: Now, this book caused an uproar when it was published in Israel, and I suspect it will do the same in this country too among many American Jews. Do you think that uproar is justified?

Prof. BARTOV: Well, I don't know, because I don't think that what Burg says is outrageous. I don't think that he is fundamentally wrong. There is obviously a real preoccupation with the Holocaust. Some of it has negative manifestations and some of it does not. We have to remember for instance, that much of the discourse we have now about genocide is a result of the beginning of speaking about the Holocaust which goes back only to the 1980s. If you were to read history books, books about World War II, in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, you would not find the term Holocaust or genocide of the Jews in the index. It was not part of that history. That has moved into the center of our understanding of what the 20th century was precisely because we began to see the link between the Holocaust and other genocides. And what Burg says rightly is that the world should focus on genocides that are occurring right now. The problem is that his view of Israel's manifest destiny of Israel being a light unto the nations is that Israel should be involved in somewhat helping with other crimes against humanity around the world. That would be very good, but Israel right now is in fact committing crimes against people that it is occupying at this very moment. And so what it has to do first of all is make peace in its own house and then it could go back to the manifest destiny as described in Burg's book.

CONAN: Omar Bartov is in Cambridge. I'm sitting across the table from Avraham Burg. I think bitterly disappointed you said he was not outrageous but let's bring him into the conversation.

Mr. BURG: Omar shalom.

Prof. BARTOV: Shalom.

Mr. BURG: I'm quite reluctant to argue with Omar. He is too educated, too smart and too knowledgeable for my limited skills. But nonetheless, I don't understand how you can argue against me that my argument it's an overstatement that Israel is over obsessed by it and in a minute you crossed the border and you say the entire Middle East is obsessed by it. But nonetheless, leaving this aside, I would say two things. One is about the nature of polemics and the other one is about what I think you think is the most important or crucial issue in Israel and what I think is. Polemic for me is very important not only being a Jewish second nature but because I think it's a tool of creation. If I agree with you and you argue with me and all of us persuade Neal, it becomes a very boring world and nothing new is born between us. Only if we have a kind of polemic and disagreement and controversy, some kind of Hegelian offspring is born between us and therefore it is very important.

CONAN: Synthesis, yes.

Mr. BURG: Yeah, I feel that Omar you have, you believe that the primary scene, if I can say, or the remedy for so many of Israeli maladies is the occupation and therefore we must put an end to the occupation in the occupied territories. I'm not very far from you maybe a bit to your left to say I fully buy into it. I'm fully committed to it and very active there. But my sentiment that was many years I thought, yes, let's put an end to this occupation, that will put an end to all of our problems is not there anymore. I believe we do not, we cannot mentally and psychologically depart from the West Bank because of an earlier trauma and the earlier trauma is the trauma of the Holocaust and 2000 years of wars before the Holocaust. And before we address this wound, this open bleeding wound, and we address the trauma and release a little bit our obsessive grip of these horrors we know and give a chance to new a trust, in a new environmental confidence, it will be impossible to go for a solution you want.

Prof. BARTOV: Should I respond?

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. BURG: No, no no.

CONAN: Or you could just concede.

Prof. BARTOV: I could concede. Look, I mean the occupation that we're talking about did not come about in 1948. It came about in 1967, and it had certain messianic elements to it which became very clear in Israel right after 97 when many people in Israel, some of whom one would never have expected it from, spoke about this as being the Third Temple, the first two temples having been destroyed in antiquity. This was Israel's Third Temple. Israel came into its own. So, this kind of messianic speech came in long after the Holocaust. What resulted in that and unfortunately, resulted on both sides was the extremists took over, both the Jewish extremists who are a minority in Israel and yet have it in an iron grip and extremists on the Palestinian side who are now.

Mr. BURG: They didn't take over. They kidnapped and abducted both societies.

Prof. BARTOV: Kidnapped and abducted both societies and Israeli and Palestinian leadership has failed miserably over those years to confront that issue. Now, where I differ with Avraham is on one issue. What I say is that the Holocaust has become a kind of a rhetorical tool. People use it all the time. Just a few days ago when settlers were being evicted from parts of Hebron, they were shouting at the soldiers, Nazis. They were trying to use this rhetorical tool. But ultimately, it's not about that. This is not the actual issue. If one could resolve the real issue, this rhetorical tool will go to where it belongs and people would be able to think and to study that period in history as a period in history and not as an ever-present event that one can not somehow overcome. And what I fear about Burg's book and this is my only real difficulty with it is that it takes us away from the central issue. It takes us to another place instead of talking about what we have to talk which is to make both Israelis and Palestinians less fearful of dividing that country and living side by side with the border in between. We talk about overcoming past traumas. Overcoming those traumas is possible only if you normalize the present, not if you normalize the past.

CONAN: And before you get into it because we have to move on, I would just summarize that he would say that you can't possibly do that until you can de-traumatize some of the past. But in any case, let us thank Omer Bartov for his presence with us today. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. BURG: Toda Raba Omer.

Prof. BARTOV: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Omer Bartov, a professor of European history at Brown University, with us today from the studio at MIT in Cambridge. And let's get Tanya on the line. Tanya with us from Walnut Creek in California.

TANYA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Tanya. Go ahead, please.

TANYA: I was just calling to say that I'm happy to hear that there's somebody kind of coming out with this point of view now. I've been thinking this for a long time, and I grew up in a family with a Holocaust survivor. My dad is a Holocaust survivor and while we grew up, you know, just really in awe of what he survived and all that had happen, the stories that we heard were endless in our lives and as children, we were pretty much traumatized by it. They talked about it from a very earlier age, my parents. And I think what your guest has said hits the nail on the head and that is that when you are constantly reviewing the horrors of the past, you can't go forward in trust. And so in Israel and Palestine, the Palestinians also, when you raise your children constantly speaking of the wrongs that were done to you and the horrors and the awfulness, you don't leave them much room to look for hope and promise. That's kind of my point of view.

CONAN: Tanya, thank you for that. Appreciate it.

Mr. BURG: Thank you, Tanya.

CONAN: We're talking with Avraham Burg about his new book, "The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get, this is Reggie. Reggie with us from Cincinnati.

REGGIE (Caller): Yes. I'm here. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air, Reggie. Go ahead, please.

REGGIE: I kind of appreciate the Jewish remembrance of their history especially of the Holocaust, especially as an African-American and an African-American activist and an afro-centrist and I'm constantly, when I give speeches or whatever to different groups, our people, the African-American people kind of suffer from an ashamedness about our enslavement period which in essence which because we're ashamed of that period, and we're ashamed of the inferiority complex that came from that period due to the seizing process, we tend not to want to remember our past, and we don't have the cohesiveness that the Jewish people have, and I think that part of their cohesiveness is attributed to that Holocaust period. Could the speaker kind of - can the speaker?

CONAN: Avraham Burg? We'll just ask him to address that if he would. Yeah, hang on.

Mr. BURG: Reggie, thank you very much for your question. I listened to both of yours and Tanya's remarks or exchange with us. And yes, I had a feeling that from the role of my people in the last couple of years is a bit off - is a bit messy. We dealt too much on the instrumental side of the memory as Omer spoken. I've spoken, less about the content, the real meaning of it. And I'm very happy to talk to you about it. You know, I was very moved when President-elect Obama was elected because, everybody around the world spoke about wow, the slavery is over which means, here, you take a long memory and open wound and you deal with it a real sincere very containing word which is it's not about I insult you the way you insulted way, but let's together overcome the trauma. And for me, the never again that we so much use. It's not, never again for Jews. It's not, never again for Jews only. It's not never again, let's have the thickest walls around us and the deepest shelter above us. For me, never again is never again for anybody who needs me. Never again is my voices of victim yet of the yesterday's victim to prevent any future victimization of anybody around the world and it's my world with you Reggie and Tanya and anybody else who's a partner to our coalition is to raise the voice and wake up the indifferent nations because it was indifference that eventually enabled the atrocities to happen not just the bad people who did it.

CONAN: Reggie, thanks very much. And we just have a minute with you left. And I can't leave you without asking, there is a vacuum of power at the moment in Israel, there is a vacuum of power in the Palestinian side as well or a competition for power on the Palestinian side. What do you think is going to happen in the next six months? Is there going to be anybody to negotiate with on either side?

Mr. BURG: A lot depends on the west and the president of the White House. I mean, the last eight years were not years of dialog in the world, were years of shooting and cowboy policies around the world and whatever was allowed by the White House to be done around the world was done around the world. Only if we'll have a president who put a lot of pressures on the sides, alongside with Europe. We should not have two world policies but the world community saying, listen you lock in your horns Israeli and Palestinians, let us help you to get away from this catch 22 for the betterment of both societies. We'll help you to negotiate, to bridge, to mediate, to overcome the fears and the traumas and the way to do it is the way of the new world rhetoric. Address the fears and traumas of the other and only then, go for the politics of it.

CONAN: Avraham Burg, thank you very much.

Mr. BURG: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, the author of the "The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes" joined us here today in Studio 3A. Up next, a new report on the prevention of genocide, so what's new? Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former secretary of Defense William Cohen will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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