Sunday, February 15, 2015


I look at the place of Avrum Burg today and just sigh. Among the saddest words in the English language are "what might have been." Over a decade, like a comet streaking across the sky that burned out as it hits Earth's atmosphere, Arum was a dear friend; then there was a different Arum falling to the Arum of today. It's a sad story.

Avraham Burg, the son of National Religious Party leader, the venerated Yosef Burg, was, with the Meridor brothers -- Dan and Sallai -- Yossi Beilin, Yoni Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert and others, one of the so-called "Princes" of a new generation of Israelis. All of them sabras, although of differing (often polar opposite) political leanings, all served in the IDF, they were expected to become the young Turks who would ultimately govern Israel. Burg was at the vanguard of these young men -- having served in the paratroops brigade, first entered the public scene as an activist in left-wing organizations, including Peace Now.

In 1985, then Prime Minister Shimon Peres appointed Avrum as his Diaspora Affairs advisor -- a role in which Burg flourished and in which he developed his most close personal relationship with Rabbi Brian Lurie, then the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Francisco, a professional and philanthropist with similar engagement with left wing organizations. In 1988, Avrum was elected to the Knesset; and a few years later Brian became the CEO of the United Jewish Appeal.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency flourished with the mass aliyah from the Former Soviet Union, only to become embroiled in controversy when the Chair of its Executive and the Chair of the World Zionist Organization, Simcha Dinitz, was indicted on claims he used JAFI credit cards for personal purposes (he was later found not guilty). While combating these charges and others, Dinitz was forced to step down. Enter Avrum Burg into Jewish organizational life. 

It was 1994. The massive aliyah was winding down; Dinitz was out. As JAFI leaders looked around for a successor as its Executive Chair, the obvious candidate was Yechiel Leket, a longtime Zionist leader and entrenched Israeli politician, who was serving as acting Chair of the JAFI Executive and WZO after Dinitz's resignation. Brian Lurie, now the CEO of the United Jewish Appeal, rallied support among the LCE (yes, there they were...again) for a "fresh face with new ideas" and they, with Lurie, in turn lobbied the North American lay leadership. My recollection today is that the venerated Max Fisher, z'l, the patriarch of North American Jewry, and others, were less than impressed with Burg but they were overwhelmed by Federation leadership anxious for someone "younger, new and different." Burg, in a close vote at the Search Committee level, was elected the new Chair of the JAFI Executive and the WZO.

Over the next four years, Burg, in his new positions, worked assiduously for the Jewish People. I had great admiration for his creativity, but, like the rest of us, was aghast at his lack of management skills -- something vitally needed in an organization that, as allocations seriously declined, still suffered from the reality and the perception of personnel bloat and politicization. To his credit, Burg began to cut the budget and with those cuts, the personnel and, at the initiative of his lay Board Chair, Corky Goodman, the organization started to professionalize over the constant entrenched and vocal opposition of Leket and his cronies. All the while he was in office, Burg continued to chart a course in Israeli political life.

Over those years, Avrum and I grew close. I loved his sharp wit and intelligence; I loved the arguments we in UJA leadership had with him b'shem ha'shamayim. I had a number of beautiful Shabbat lunches at the Burg home on a hilltop in the wilderness of Nataf outside of Yerushalayim -- where all of us just enjoyed each others company with the Burg family, his wonderful wife, Yael, their six children (among them those they had adopted), various dogs...and us. It was not difficult, sitting their in the Burg hilltop home, learning of his personal charitable activities conducted quietly, and exploring his dreams, to picture Avrum Burg as the future Prime Minister of Israel.

But two years into his tenure, it was becoming clear that Burg was growing frustrated with the constant pulls of his positions -- frustrations that boiled over. For example, in a speech to the Los Angeles Federation Board where he shocked those communal leaders with a broadside attack on their woeful lack of support for the needs served by JAFI; and, in another meeting, after weeks of negotiations, Avrum "agreed" quite reluctantly to meet with the ubiquitous, even then, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, leader of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a meeting that began with Burg refusing to shake Eckstein's hand and then telling him that, were it up to him, JAFI wouldn't accept Evangelical Christian money. We ushered the Rabbi out, insisted that the JAFI Executive Chair be a little more gracious and the meeting reconvened with a handshake and the delivery of a check to JAFI from the IFCJ.*

By 1999, it was time for Avrum Burg to move on. His departure was best characterized as uncivil -- in a heated negotiation over severance and perquisites (including a 10 year use of car and driver). He was again elected to the Knesset on Ehud Barak's One Israel ticket, and was elected Speaker, a position he filled for four years. 

His ambition unquenched, Avrum ran for the head of the Labor Party, won in a vote that was overturned after fraud allegations, and then lost in the second vote. Then he seemed to spiral out of control. In 2003, after a British newspaper published his op-ed advocating both "[T]he end of Zionism" and demanding Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Burg published another broadside, this time in Yediot Ahronot seemingly rationalizing Palestinian terrorism against Israelis.

He resigned from the Knesset in 2004 and led the failed acquisitions of two Israeli businesses accompanied with allegations of fraud. Controversy followed Burg everywhere. His public diatribes continued -- in 2007 his book, Defeating Hitler, claimed that Israelis had become a violent, fascist State, followed by an interview in Haaretz in which he advocated the rescission of the Law of Return and the end of Israel as "a Jewish State" (he later retracted this advocacy...somewhat) and disclosed that he had obtained French citizenship. A year later he went public with his support for J-Street and, thereafter, took a leadership position at the New Israel Fund.

In a debate at Georgetown in 2009, Burg articulated his opinion that " is time for the U.S. to get tough on Israel." He has been a constant critic of the Government of Israel as undemocratic while arguing that a "one-state solution" could bring greater democracy while writing in The Independent in 2012 that Israel is "...the last colonial occupier in the Western world."

And, only months after announcing his intent to initiate a new Jewish-Arab Party, last month, Avraham Burg, the once and former Prince, announced that he had decided to join the Arab dominated Hadash Party. Hadash, born in the embers of Israel's Communists, has been described as follows:
"Hadash is a Jewish and Arab party, but has a mainly Arab electorate. The main points of its platform include the complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, recognition of the PLO, the separation of religion and state, the Palestinian "right of return" to Israeli territory, lobbying for workers' rights, encouraging Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and full equality for Israel's Arab citizens."
Burg announced that he planned to run, once again, for the Knesset. His late father, a lifelong patriot for and leader of Israel, would not have been proud. But, at the end of the day, not even the Hadash Party would place the once and former Prince on its Knesset "list."

All of us who once knew Avrum as the future are confounded. But, he is still young. Round and round he goes, where he stops nobody knows...especially Burg.


* Ironically, Eckstein's organization has now funded a Burg-related Soccer company to the tune of $1 million. Avrum accepted that check.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From Avrum Burg to Alan Hoffman -- one can draw a straight line downward for JAFI with the notable exception of the brief period of Moshe Vigdor's executive leadership. But, Richard, you are right, nothing is so depressing as "what might have been."