Judaism Does Not Equal Israel: A Call for a Return to Prophetic Jewish Values
Allan C. Brownfeld
Judaism Does Not Equal Israel
By Marc H. Ellis,
The New Press,
More and more, Jewish life in the United States has made the State of Israel “central” to its existence. Synagogues of all denominations feature Israeli flags in their sanctuaries and have “We Support Israel” banners flying. Religious schools teach conversational Hebrew and Israeli dancing and culture. Sermons often relate to contemporary events in the Middle East. Young people are told that the highest form of Jewish commitment they can make is “aliyah,” or emigration to Israel.
In reality, of course, as Professor Marc H. Ellis declares in his new book Judaism Does Not Equal Israel, all of this turns the traditional Jewish religion on its head. Dr. Ellis is a leading authority on contemporary Judaism and is the founding director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University where he is a Professor of Jewish Studies. The author of more than twenty books, he regularly provides commentary and analysis on NPR and BBC. He has been inducted into the Martin Luther King, Jr. Collegium of Scholars at Morehouse College.
Ellis examines how Holocaust theology replaced God with Israel and gutted the prophetic moral core of Judaism as a religion. The future not only of Judaism but of Israel itself, he argues, hinges on a fundamental shift in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and on a completely new direction in the peace process. At a time when critics of Israel are silenced with the charge of anti-Semitism, Ellis offers a prophetic Jewish alternative to blind acceptance of Israel’s policies.
In the foreword to this book, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa writes that, “I thank God for my Hebrew antecedents and their Bible. Our New Testament is incomprehensible without its Jewish roots. When apartheid’s repression was at its most vicious, this tradition and its great prophets inspired us and sustained our hope in the ultimate triumph of good over evil ...They taught us that God is notoriously biased, forever taking the side of the weak, the oppressed, the downtrodden against the kings and the powerful elite. All of the Hebrew scriptures depict a just and merciful God, and if God’s people would be holy, they must perform mundane acts of caring, of kindness, of compassion and of humanitarian concern. In Deuteronomy the clear motive for kindness to the widow, the orphan and the alien is not just holiness, it is the memory of slavery in Egypt. That memory should prevent their inflicting on others the same anguish.”
In Tutu’s view, “Jews are indispensable for a just and caring world. We need Jews faithful to their scriptures and to their prophetic vocation ... Equating the state of Israel with Judaism threatens with irrelevance the prophetic power and truth of the scriptures that have, for millennia, inspired and grounded Jews in their witness to God. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people reminds me of Cape Town under apartheid; coloreds thrown out of their homes and relocated in distant ghetto townships, illegal walls encroaching on people’s ancient lands, separated families, divided properties, and the nightmare of running military checkpoint gauntlets.”
Israel and Prophetic Judaism
Equating the nation-state of Israel with prophetic Judaism, declares Tutu, “will corrode both from the inside out. Upholding an unjust collusion of religion with a militaristic state corrodes a people’s humanity. Ellis’s work is important not only to the survival of Judaism as a religious tradition but also to untangling what has been the terrible political tragedy of Israel’s policies against the Palestinians.”
Ellis describes the purpose of his book in these terms: “The prophetic is the wild card of Jewish life and its primordial marker. Jewish life cannot be described without the prophetic, which always pushes Judaism to another dimension. In these pages, I hold the prophetic marker of Judaism against its corrupting — and potentially fatal — identification with modern Israel. I also offer a prophetic, life-giving way forward for Jewish life in the world.”
Post-Holocaust Judaism has, Ellis points out, become the religion which the established Jewish community affirms, but with which most ordinary Jews have little relationship. “A majority of Jews today have very little in their lives of ritual or rules,” he writes. “For far more Jews, self-identification with Israel is more important than religious observance. The Israel in question is the modern state of Israel, rather than the people Israel. ... Judaism today is, in fact, not simply to be equated with the state of Israel. Jewish life encompasses a variety of paths. It includes prophetic Judaism, the memory of the Holocaust, cultural and spiritual understandings of Zionism, forms of Jewish renewal, and the state of Israel. ... There is a burgeoning number of Jews who oppose Judaism’s equation with the nation Israel. This latter group has been cast into exile from mainstream Jewish life. The current Jewish establishment seeks a religion-state alliance, parallel to that which early Christianity forged with the imperial state, an alliance also sought by the current Christian religious Right in the U.S. This alliance is often called Constantinian Christianity, and it is mirrored by a Constantinian Judaism.”
“Jews of Conscious”
The dissenters from this establishment Jewish identity are referred to by Ellis as “Jews of Conscience,” who “experience Jewish life as imbued with questions of justice. Constantinian Jews are defined by their pursuit and exercise of power. Jews of Conscience by their pursuit of ethics and exercise of conscience.”
Ellis laments that, “Coterminous with the Holocaust and the founding of Israel have been the conquest and destruction of much of Palestine. The creation of Israel forced an ethnic cleansing of more than 700,000 Palestinians to create room for the Jewish state. The removal of the Palestinians from their own land continued through the early years of Israel’s existence. It accelerated in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. These policies continue today in the Jewish ‘settlements’ —really expansive towns and small cities — that mark the future of Israel’s dominant and permanent presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. ... ‘Ethnic cleansing’ has been protested and mourned in Jewish identity as something that happens to Jews. That Jews used ethnic cleansing to form the state of Israel introduces another, profoundly disturbing factor in the formation of modern Jewish identity. It appears our empowerment is tainted with the same abuse of power others have used against us, an abuse we have condemned.”
Those who express such views, Ellis notes, are all too often simply dismissed as “anti-Semitic” or as “self-hating Jews.” He writes that, “Jewish life has settled into a self-understanding that revolves around the Holocaust. Jewish assertions of power are seen as a response to this fundamental injustice. Hence, the axiomatic equation of Jewish life: ‘Jewish power equals innocence.’ ... Their corollary is: ‘Those who doubt Jewish and Israeli innocence are anti-Semitic.’ This corollary asserts that those who challenge the formation of Israel and the linking of Jewish identity with it must be against Jewish identity itself. ... The charge of anti-Semitism is even leveled against those Jews who dissent from the ‘Jewish power equals innocence’ identity formulation. We are labeled ‘self-hating’ Jews ... Accusations of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred are the flip side of the counterfeit claim that Jewish power is innocent.”
For some contemporary Jewish theologians, such as Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Jewish power is mandated in light of the Holocaust, but is endangered by Judaism’s prophetic tradition. “Jews are experts in exercising the prophetic and have done so ably and appropriately when Jews have been without power,” states Ellis. “With Jews having power the prophetic becomes dangerous, especially as it relates to Israel’s existence. No nation can withstand the prophetic if it is vigorously applied. In this sense, Israel, the state, is like any other state. Does that mean that Jews are like other peoples? ... The reason that Israel is innocent is because Jews have suffered, especially during the Holocaust, so that Jews are, ipso facto, very nearly incapable of causing suffering.”
In recent years, Ellis points out, the very term “anti-Semitism” has been redefined: “For some thinkers, if Jews did not accept the new post-Holocaust definition of Jewishness, we ceased to be Jewish. ... Holocaust consciousness saw anti-Semitism shifting from the European form of denying rights to Jewish citizens within national boundaries to the denial of Jewish particularity and its empowerment in the state of Israel. By the 1980s, with dissent toward Israel accelerating in the international community and among Jews, opposition to Israeli policies vis a vis the Palestinians became the focal point of what was alternately termed the ‘real’ or ‘New’ anti-Semitism. Whatever individuals thought of Jews, the new anti-Semitism was defined as the denial of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. ... In this redefinition, bodies as diverse as the United Nations and the World Council of Churches were defined as anti-Semitic.”
Palestinians, who have political grievances of their own, are not seen except as actors in a larger Jewish drama. “Then Jews see themselves as cosmic actors on a universal stage,” writes Ellis, “those who critique aspects of Jewish power find themselves in the Jewish existential drama. Therefore, Palestinians are no longer people with a political existence, but players in the drama of Jewish destiny. Jews have rarely affirmed their grievances as political in nature. In few places in Jewish post-Holocaust literature do we find a reckoning with Palestinians as a collective and political entity. As individuals, Palestinians may be in difficult straits; Jews might empathize with a displaced Palestinian, but the collective aspirations of the Palestinian people, as a people or national entity, politicize their circumstances. If indeed Palestinians have political rights, if the individual plight of the Palestinians can be addressed only within a political framework, then Jewish empowerment is also political, to be supported or opposed on purely political grounds.”
The warning issued by the respected Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel against a Godless Jewishness in the post-Holocaust world, was, Ellis believes “prescient.” He argues that, “By distancing ourselves from the foundations of what it means to be a Jew, we are left with self-assertion without a radical critique of our actions. Power for power’s sake ... was achieved in the decades after the Holocaust. Such consolidated Jewish power lacks a reference point within and outside itself to make judgments about its path and scope. Any attempt to discuss that power outside its dimensions, as defined by Jews, is deemed outside Jewish discourse and against Jews as a collective ... Raising the specter of a ‘new’ anti-Semitism limits the world’s ability to speak truth to Jewish power. It also warns Jews against the prophetic as a form of self-hate, the other side of the new anti-Semitism. In sum, the prophetic critique of Jewish power is defined as in league with the organized and unorganized anti-Semitism of the world. Treason against Jews — the very prospect of another Holocaust — is deemed to come from outside and also from within.”
Historically, Jews were schooled in the abuse of state power, particularly when used against them. “Despite this schooling,” writes Ellis, “when it came to us, we felt there would be a difference. The Jewish tradition of ethical concern would be strong enough to discipline Jewish power. Like most Jews, I felt the strength of my tradition. As it turns out, Jews were wrong. So was I. The conundrum for Jews who support a state that is outside of our control may be common to all peoples and traditions. All states may be outside of the people’s control. Still, all power needs an ethical accounting. Is there something about the Jewish tradition that is lacking, or does the Jewish tradition stand in relation to power as any religious and or cultural tradition does — as the weakest part of the ethic-versus-power equation?”
The post-Holocaust years led to what philosopher Emil Fackenheim called a new commandment, the 614th commandment: “That authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory.” Ellis notes that, “I accepted this understanding as well. Participating in the rebuilding of Jewish life was the imperative of our generation. However, Israel as the locus of this life, almost without critique, became difficult for me … Israel now augmented the expulsion of the Palestinians in the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 with further expulsions, settlements, military occupations and war. While Jews had once been weak and helpless, our theology was telling us that we were still. The fact was just the opposite. We had become empowered ... though we failed to understand this reality ... We argued our weakness when we had power. ... Perhaps we needed another commandment, the 615th commandment: ‘Thou shalt not demean the Palestinian people.’ ... I understood that the history of Jewish suffering was real; we did need empowerment. ... From the Palestinian perspective, Israel was neither righteous nor moderate. Palestinians turned the security argument for Jews and Israel upside down. Who was insecure, losing land, and livelihood, occupied on a daily basis? ... Who had the strong military and the support of a major superpower? Where Jews saw the lessons of the Holocaust being carried out in terms of survival and flourishing despite Hitler, Palestinians felt that Jews themselves violated the lessons of the Holocaust.”
Many Jewish voices warned about the dangers to Judaism and to the prophetic tradition of the creation of a nation-state. Some of these individuals — Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Hannah Arendt among them — are discussed in some detail in this book.
Martin Buber was one of the most important and noted Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. He was an Austrian Jew who fled Germany during the Nazi period and went to Jerusalem in 1938 and lived there the rest of his life. His seminal work was “I and Thou,” which he published in 1923. One of the most influential books of the 20th century, it combined Hasidic theology and Eastern philosophy with a potent communal spirituality.
Buber proposed a Jewish spiritual renewal rooted in community. A life-long Zionist, Buber argued for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, alongside the Arabs. However, Buber was opposed to the creation of a Jewish state. He believed that Jews should live in the Holy Land without a state to define that presence.
“The basic dichotomy between political and homeland Zionism revolved around normalization and state,” writes Ellis. “Homeland Zionists like Buber, Magnes, and Arendt wanted a Jewish community that redeveloped and pioneered a distinctive Jewish contribution to the future. Buber and Magnes, especially, wanted a just and committed Jewish community in the Land as a way of expressing and enhancing the spiritual and ethical elements of Jewish life. For them, the Jewish Diaspora could be more fruitful with a thriving Jewish center in Palestine. However, both feared that the politicization of that center as a state would dilute and perhaps overtake the spiritual and ethical values they wished to cultivate. Jewish ethics and spirituality were distinctive and had existed throughout most of Jewish history without a state. When Jews did have their state, the results were mixed at best. Besides, a state was a state was a state, with its own priorities and rhythms. Adding ‘Jewish’ before the word ‘state’ would not change the nature of Judaism and mitigate the distinctive contribution a Jewish homeland might make to Jews outside of the Land and to the world.”
Buber and Magnes saw that a Jewish state would be like any other state and diminish the Jewishness they saw as the reason for a vibrant Jewish community in Palestine. Hannah Arendt joined their opposition, adding a political reason. She thought that the creation of a Jewish state would separate Jews and Arabs within Palestine into a ceaseless war of attrition. She predicted a cycle of violence and atrocity without end because a Jewish state could be created only by expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs. This in turn would mean a militarization of the state, since the entire Middle East would see Israel as a foreign, even colonial, enterprise in its midst. This enterprise, Ellis points out, “would occur at a time when anticolonial movements were peaking in intensity. Israel swam against the historical tide. Jews would have to argue power against the turn of world history. Involved in a colonial adventure, a Jewish state would have to look West for support, again running against the tide of Western opinion, which was reassessing its colonial past. Arendt suggested that Israel might turn into something resembling ancient Sparta.”
Where Arendt saw political danger, Buber and Magnes saw spiritual disaster. They contemplated Jews and Arabs living in their own particular communities while developing bridges that encouraged political cooperation and integration. Buber and Magnes each proposed various confederations within the Middle East to enable all parties to exist in harmony and pursue the joint development of the region. If a Jewish state emerged at the expense of this shared political future, Buber and Magnes felt, a peaceful life for Jews and their neighbors would become impossible. For Magnes, this scenario would be fraught with so much danger on the spiritual level that it might destroy Jewry at its foundation.
Ellis reports that, “Magnes’s pacifist Judaism forced him to prefer the redispersion of Jews outside of the Holy Land to their concentration in a state. In 1948, as the Jewish state was coming into being, Magnes, just months before his death, personally lobbied President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall to land troops in Jerusalem to maintain the unity of Palestine and forestall the creation of the state of Israel. Arendt predicted correctly that Magnes’s lobbying against a Jewish state in the highest corridors of American power would eventually be considered heresy. Worse, it has been forgotten by most Jews or never learned at all.”
As he began to find and piece together the ideas of these thinkers and activists, Ellis recalls, “I discovered that Jewish dissent on Israel was indeed a tradition. I was struck that this tradition of dissent was so deeply buried that, when it was broached, many Jews accused the bearer of this tradition of lying and incitement. Speaking of opposition to the state had indeed become heresy; challenging the unanimity of thought on Israel — and the meaning of the Holocaust — meant that you were not an ‘authentic’ Jew. Israel had become a Sparta in the Middle East, victorious for now but whose existence would also hang in the balance, and the Holocaust had become the ideological underpinnings of that Sparta. Jews around the world had become modern-day Spartans.”
Within Israel itself, a generation of new historians emerged, challenging what they called the “myths” of Israel’s creation. In his book The Birth Of Israel: Myths and Realities, Simha Flapan divided his book into seven chapters around what he called the seven myths of Israel’s creation. These include, “Palestinians Fled Voluntarily Intending Reconquest.” Historians Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe wrote intricate histories of Israel’s founding with particular attention to the creation of the Palestinian refugee population.
“With some twists and turns,” writes Ellis, “these historians validated and detailed the Palestinian version of historical events, which had been seen up till then as Palestinian and Arab mythology. The Palestinian refugees originated with the creation of the state of Israel. Jewish soldiers, some of them recently arrived in Palestine as survivors of the Holocaust, forced Palestinians from their homes in villages, towns and cities and expelled them across the borders into the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Later the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti and then Haifa University historian Ilan Pappe would refer to this expulsion as ethnic cleansing. Unlike its mythology, Israel did not have a virgin birth.”
In the post-World War II period, Jewish-Christian dialogue initially focused on getting Christians to alter their own relationship with Jews and Judaism. Both Catholics and Protestants reviewed their own theology to see if it had provided a fertile ground for the growth of Nazism in Europe. Ideas such as deicide — that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion — were abandoned by those groups which held them. Slowly, interfaith dialogue focused not on a reevaluation of Christian teachings but on Jewish demands that Christians show their good faith by supporting the state of Israel and its role in the Middle East.
Israel Front and Center
“Israel was now front and center in defining whether Christians had reformed,” writes Ellis. “In Holocaust theology as put forth by Jewish leadership in the ecumenical dialogue, Israel was the place where support from Christians was necessary. Jews would define by ourselves who we were. Jews presented Israel as a religious issue, and Israel operated as the Jewish covenant in the contemporary world. The definition of contemporary anti-Semitism had been hammered out. This definition placed remembrance of the Holocaust and support for the state of Israel at the center of the Jewish agenda. ... The Christian world owed Jews Israel, and undivided economic and military support for this nascent Jewish state.”
This ecumenical “dialogue” lacked reciprocity. According to Ellis, “The lack of reciprocity was built into the dialogue itself. The lack of reciprocity had to do with the Jewish assertion of innocence in suffering and in empowerment, and with the static sense of Jewish identity that the Jewish delegates to the dialogue sought to instill in its deliberations. Decades after the Holocaust, Jews portrayed themselves just emerging from the death camps. ... That the Jews in the dialogue had been in America during the Holocaust or, as time went on, were born after the Holocaust, went without comment. Another obvious point was left out of the discussion: if Israel was so important to Jews, why had the Jewish delegates, who could become automatic citizens of the Jewish state upon their arrival in Israel, remained in the U.S.? If Israel could only be affirmed and any critique of Israel was forbidden, could the Christian delegates ask how the Jewish delegates could speak so freely and authoritatively about Israel without living there?”
Increasingly, ecumenical discussions began to center around keeping criticism of Israel away from the discussion. Ellis explains that, “Israel became the elephant in the dialogue room. To admit its presence was to risk ending the dialogue then and there. Though the Jewish delegates might be willing to do this, they would use this ending as evidence of renewed Christian anti-Semitism ... Christians entered a tacit agreement with their Jewish partners and accepted the burden of self-censorship so that they could be redeemed by the Jews. ... Even as Jews and Christians were talking with one another, they were also talking past one another ... As I traveled the country and the world, I met more than a few Christians who felt that the ecumenical dialogue had muzzled them. They resented the center of the dialogue-become-deal that saw criticism of Israeli policy as a reason for accusations of anti-Semitism.”
Middle East Policy
Even the commemoration of the Holocaust has become deeply entwined with Middle East policy. Ellis writes: “The perpetually repeated reason for the commemoration of the Holocaust — that never again should anyone be silent in the face of injustice — mocks an ecumenical deal that calls for just that silence when it comes to injustices Jews are perpetrating against Palestinians. The only issue that is important to the Jewish ecumenical dialogists, Israel, is the only issue that can’t be discussed honestly ...The excluded, the Palestinians, are the ecumenical deal breakers. Inviting a Palestinian to the dialogue or even speaking in the name of Palestinians is the ultimate deal-breaking heresy. But without even being there, Palestinians and Palestine have dominated the last years of the ecumenical dialogue. Jews and Christians can agree, as they often do, to table that issue out of respect for our common life together. If Jews table our dark side while demanding a continual return to the dark side of Christianity, can we expect respect and can Jews respect Christians for cowering before us?”
Recent maps of the Middle East show increasingly less land and opportunity for Palestinians. In Ellis’s view, “The Separation Wall now demarcates and enforces the boundaries. Without a plan that reverses this ... no matter what the rhetoric on either side, the situation will become permanent. Israel will stretch from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River, with two remnant populations within its borders, and the Gaza Strip will remain either imprisoned as a third remnant or become one of the two categories of Palestinians within Israel. Jews of Conscience stand within the ruins of Constantinian Judaism. They study these maps, mourn for the loss of Jewish ethics, and wonder what is next for the Palestinians, for them, and for Jewish life. ... The reduction of Palestinians to three remnant populations will make faithful Jews also a remnant, as these two remnants now travel together within Jewish life. ... Remnant Jews must look at these maps and draw the obvious conclusion: Jewish life as we have known and inherited it and Jewish life as it is presented to Jews and others in the world is, for all practical purposes, over. Only Constantinian Judaism and Jews of Conscience remain.”
Cycle of Violence
Ellis laments that, “Jews are continuing the very cycle of violence and atrocity perpetrated against us. What has our history come to? The stories challenge us, in our empowerment, with a stark choice. We can use our power to end the cycle of violence and atrocity as our leaders and theologians once hoped, or we can continue to use our power to repeat that cycle under cover of our banners and ideologies.”
Many stories, Ellis believes, from the Palestinian uprising make clearer the connection between Palestinians and Jewish Holocaust history. One event from January 1988 occurred a month after the Palestinian uprising had begun, when an Israeli captain was summoned to his superior. The captain was instructed to carry out arrests in the village of Hawara, outside Nablus. Yossi Sarad, an Israeli politician and political analyst, points out that such arrests of innocent young Palestinians was hardly out of the ordinary. He describes what followed:
“The soldiers shackled the villagers, with their hands bound behind their backs. They were led to the bus. The bus started to move and after 200-300 meters it stopped beside an orchard. The locals were taken off the bus and led into the orchard in groups of three, one after another. Every group was accompanied by an officer. In the darkness of the orchard, the soldiers also shackled the Hawara residents’ legs and laid them on the ground. The officers urged the soldiers to ‘get it over with quickly, so that we can leave and forget about it.’ Then, flannel was stuffed into the Arabs’ mouths to prevent them from screaming and the bus driver revved up the motor so that the noise would drown out the cries. Then the soldiers obediently carried out the orders they had been given: to break their arms and legs by clubbing the Arabs; to avoid clubbing them on their heads; to remove their bonds after breaking their arms and legs, and to leave them at the site: to leave one local with broken arms but without broken legs so he could make it back to the village on his own and get help.”
The title of the article about this action, “The Night of the Broken Clubs,” was an allusion to the Nazi Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass.
Not Dr. Mengele
A second story reported by Ellis occurred just months after the beatings when Marcus Levin, a physician, was called up for reserve duty in the Ansar prison camp. Levin asked for information about his duties. The answer: “Mainly, you examine prisoners before and after an investigation.” Dr. Levin then demanded a meeting with the compound commander and told him, “My name is Marcus Levin and not Josef Mengele, and for reasons of conscience I refuse to serve in this place.” A doctor who was present at the meeting tried to calm Levin, “Marcus, at first you feel like Mengele, but after a few days you get used to it.”
An article written about this incident was called “You Will Get Used To Being a Mengele.” Ellis declares: “That the Jewish community resists this Nazi analogy is understandable; it hopes to silence all such references. Yet, from the very beginning of the Jewish struggle for statehood in Palestine in the 1940s until today, Jewish Israelis have repeatedly made the connection between the Jewish experience of suffering in Europe and the Palestinian experience of suffering at the hands of the Jewish people in Palestine and Israel.”
The question remains, states Ellis, of what it means to be Jewish now: “If ‘Judaism does not equal Israel,’ what does it equal? Rabbinic Judaism has organized Jewish life for almost two thousand years. Judaism, whatever its religious merits and limitations, has gained a second wind through its allegiance to the Constantinian Jewish establishment. The waves of overt religious renewal issuing from that establishment today, both fundamentalist and progressive, are primarily ways of ordering affluent and powerful individual lives. Thus, the religious settlers in Jerusalem and the West Bank are not so different from the Americans, many of them academics, who form the backbone of these renewal movements. Other dissenters, like Jewish feminists, have also made their peace with the Jewish establishment, Feminism, like other forms of renewal, can be accepted as long as the centrality of Israel remains in place.”
No Better Than Others
Ellis wonders why Jews are unwilling to admit that, in the end, they are little different from those of other religious traditions, decrying their own mistreatment and rationalizing their mistreatment of others: “Regarding religion and identity, why are Jews unwilling to say that ... we are no better than others who claim their religion or identity as innocent, that Jews and Judaism are no different from Christians and Christianity or Muslims and Islam? When we suffer, like them, we cry suffering. When we have power, like them, we use power while claiming innocence. If Jews are like everyone else, what is the reason to identify as Jewish? Judaism as a religious identity, neither promises salvation nor has a clear view of the afterlife. For most Jews, God remains an open question, even if they identify Judaism as important to them. Unlike in Christianity and Islam, God is not the sole compelling reason for adhering to Judaism. Judaism is a religion of doing rather than believing. If the choice is between doing the right and good thing and believing, rabbis counsel doing. Holocaust theologians counsel the same with regard to the state of Israel.”
The special language of the Judaic was found in sacred texts rather than territory. Historically, Ellis shows, “Jews guarded these texts, the Torah and the Talmud, and it is here that Jews would find their special destiny and contribute to the world. Nation states come and go. Moreover, they use violence to survive ... Jews of conscience must reembrace the prophetic without Judeocentric superiority and rabbinic limitations. This reembracing is impossible within the Jewish establishment today. Thus, we will be exiled from mainstream Judaism. We must also assess whether Israel, the state, can be supported at all within prophetic understandings. If such a state can be supported today, there may yet come a time when it needs to be abandoned.”
The prophetic tradition is, Ellis believes, the greatest Jewish gift to the world: “Without the prophetic there is no meaning. The prophetic is not inherited through blood or conferred once and for all. The prophet and the prophetic cannot be institutionalized ... prophetic Jews must be politically independent of the Jewish community to be spiritually honest. The prophetic can only be sustained through a life of heartfelt generosity and a practiced critical distance. Neither special privilege nor religious superiority can substitute.”
Resisting the Prophetic
In history, he writes, “The community that is violated and then violates others is a common enough occurrence ... Jews as a community often resent and resist the prophetic for the demands it makes upon us, so we should not think that other communities want to live in close proximity to those same demands. The Jewish establishment has always handed over the prophets, except when it could discipline the prophets itself. The prophetic is always seen as subversive of right order and belief.”
Marc Ellis spent much time traveling in the Third World, observing the suffering of the poor, and came to the understanding that in the years after the Holocaust, mass death continued. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge killed over a million Cambodians. Rwanda was ahead, waiting for the 1990s. Darfur was on the horizon. “The subjugated peoples I encountered were,” he writes, “a warning for the future. The Holocaust, with all its particularities, should be seen through wider lenses beyond the horizon of Judaism. Did that mean I should see myself, with all of my particularity through those same lenses, the struggles of others, just like the struggling of Jews being my own? Part of the Jewish community was telling me that my own particularity trumped what I was experiencing and that the Other Nations, the Gentiles, as it were, had their own concerns and possibilities. My concern and possibility had to do with Judaism, Jews, and Israel.”
On a visit to Israel in 1984, Ellis visited many Palestinians. He remembers that, “As a Jew, I came without weapons, drank Arabic coffee, visited their workplaces, and sat and listened in their homes, a total reversal of their usual experience of Jews. It was also a total reversal of my Jewish experience. Palestinians had a lot to say to a Jew who came to listen. Most of those I met had been driven out of Israel in 1948, and some had become refugees a second time after the 1967 war. All of them were suffering under the Israeli occupation. Should I have expected coffee and sweets without a lecture on the arrogance and perversity of Jews? ... From the first moments, I knew that the Palestinian view of Jews as a brutal, conquering, occupying and even evil people would upset me no end. It caused me to be physically ill. Ultimately, it would impact my understanding of Jewish life. Confronting the dark side of my own history caused a deep ambivalence about my own identity. I could hardly avoid a similar ambivalence toward the Palestinians who, unrelentingly, conveyed this message to me.”
Future of Palestinians
As he sat in the homes of grieving parents, Ellis found the possibility of two states very distant: “When I ended my visit in 1984, I wondered about the future of the Palestinians. More than two decades later and many visits since, I ask the same question. There are now thousands more martyrs, a physically disabled population that outnumbers the martyrs, and a broader Palestinian population that has endured displacement and occupation for sixty years and counting. What is their future? As much, I wondered then and wonder today about the future of the Jewish people. Have we escaped the scarring we have caused them?”
What does it mean, Ellis asks, to be a Jew after the Holocaust, after Israel, and after what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people? This question, he believes, is one of fidelity to Judaism itself.
Jane Hunter, a dissident Jew, catalogued Israel’s involvement in arms dealing around the world in the pages of her periodical, Israeli Foreign Affairs. She noted that Central America had become a particularly lucrative hot spot for arms dealing. The Israeli arms industry was extensive. One Israeli author was prompted to see the industry as part of Israel’s “global reach.” As Hunter reported, Israel had become one of the major arms dealers in the world.
“Israel,” Ellis writes, “was making a strategic gamble that the oppressive governments Israel armed would survive and support Israel at the U.N. and other international forums. Why did Jews and Israel want to be strategic allies of such despotic governments? I learned Israel also had security and armaments relationships with the apartheid South African government. I found Israel’s pattern of strategic alliances unbearable. ... Holocaust theologians were silent on Israel’s alliances, as was the Jewish establishment. Without ever mentioning the particulars, Holocaust theology implicitly sanctioned Israel’s arms dealings,”
Holocaust as Explanation
Using the Holocaust as an explanation for Israeli policies toward the Palestinians has become increasingly difficult to sustain. The Palestinians, after all, had nothing to do with the Holocaust. In facts they have become its latest victims. Ellis declares that, “Power that eclipses suffering and causes suffering to others loses its right to argue that its roots are in suffering. Israeli power, enabled by the Jewish establishment in the U.S., was losing its right to Holocaust speech. No doubt, the very thought of this loss sent a shudder down almost every Jewish spine. We had defined ourselves within the Holocaust paradigm: what voice would we have if we forfeited this because of our actions? Or even worse, what would happen if Jews, pondering our power, decided that Jews were also now after Israel. What if those Jews who came to believe this after spoke for more Jews than the power establishment would ever admit to? Articulating this after Israel was defined as heresy.”
The narrowness of today’s Jewish establishment in areas such as opposition to intermarriage is, in Ellis’s view, completely contrary to the real history of the Jewish people: “The assertion of a fixed Jewish identity is idolatry. Israel originated as a number of tribes that became a people, but each tribe had its indigenous history and traditions. The Bible describes the Israel that left Egypt in a variety of ways, among them as a ‘mixed multitude.’ Once in the Promised Land, they mixed with Canaanites and others, already there, who were also themselves mixed. This mixture is the origins of the people Israel. The objections of today’s Constantinian Jewish establishment to intermarriage and assimilation are older than Judaism itself, and predate the formation of Israel; Israel as a people was impossible without racial, cultural, political, national and religious mixing. Without mixing it is impossible today.”
The real question at the present time, Ellis believes, is, “Did Jews still have something to contribute to the world beyond denying Hitler his victory? What was the reason to be Jewish beyond this seemingly negative proposition? … A Jewish theology of liberation raises the question of how a suffering Jewish people should proceed ethically, once we attain power. Does power itself liberate? Can power offer liberation from suffering if another people, in this case the Palestinians, is suffering so that Jews can have power?”
Prophetic Jewish Tradition
The fact is that Marc Ellis is deeply committed to the humane and prophetic Jewish tradition which calls for ethical behavior and justice for men and women of every race and nation. It is the role of Judaism to speak in behalf of those who have been mistreated, whether or not they may be Jews. Judaism, beyond this, is a universal, not a tribal faith, dedicated to a God who is the creator of all people. Jews were not meant to worship themselves, and their own power. To do so is the ultimate expression of idolatry.
“There are many signs that ordinary Jews in Israel and America have ceased to listen to the Constantinian Jewish establishment,” Ellis concludes. “Over time the rank and file will find another outlet for their pursuits and loyalties. Their children will encounter such hollowness at the core of Jewish identity that their distances from things Jewish will increase until, incrementally, the core disappears. Unless another unifying element emerges, Jewish affiliation may dwindle to the point of no return ... That the Jewish testimony in the world needs renewal is beyond questioning. Its importance is also beyond questioning. The time is now and is already too late. But too late can become right on time — when the time is right. When the prophetic wild card is in play and a turning occurs, all that seems closed can open. Then mourning is remembered as the part of a process, too long and overdue, that can begin a reconciliation of enemies. The world begins anew. Is it possible that a Genesis for the twenty-first century will be written in the language of modernity and with a Jewish inscription? The most deeply engraved, the prophetic, long in exile, is alive.”
Most Exacting Standards
The Biblical prophets held their fellow Israelites to the most exacting standards. Today’s “Israel right or wrong” standard would be anathema to them. It was God who was the object of their worship, not themselves. The idea that a sovereign state could be the proper object of their worship, and “central” to their religion, would never occur to them. They would view it as idolatry and nothing more.
One need not agree with all of Marc Ellis’s views regarding contemporary Israel, its role in the world, and its treatment of Palestinians, to recognize that his declaration that Judaism does not equal Israel is a truth that both Jews and others need to hear — and understand. In making his case, he looks to the prophetic tradition to discover an authentic Judaism that can speak to men and women today and raise their sights beyond the worship of land and power that seems to have replaced that prophetic vision. In that sense, he has provided all of us with an important challenge. As Archbishop Tutu writes, “We will all be the poorer if Ellis’s view is not heeded, but how wonderfully enriched if it is.” •
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and Editor of Issues. The author of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.