This is part nine of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Our Jewish colonial mentality. Best to admit it. Then filter it through Karl Marx, about whose life I’m reading in a new and very special book, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, by Mary Gabriel. The book is fascinating on a variety of levels, not the least of which is the discussion of Marx’s Jewishness.
I also just picked up a biography of Thomas Paine from the local library. Paine has been one of my American – and French – revolutionary – favorites since childhood. Just checked the index for his views on religion, which are, for the most part, negative, but, as with Marx, they are also complicated. Paine was against a religion that enabled state power. Good. He was also against the forced de-Christianization during the revolutionary years in France. Interesting. On the positive side of religion, Paine thought Christianity kept alive an ethical tradition that was vital to nurture republican democracy. On the Bible and the purveyors of religion he was scathing. But now, flipping through the pages, I see Paine being arrested by the French revolutionary authorities. A knock on his door during the night, then to prison he goes. A Deist on the run from the revolution! No mezuzah on Paine’s door. No way. More on Paine as I delve deeper into his life.
The main theme of Gabriel’s book on the Marx’s is personal, combining the personal life of Marx and his family with their political writing and activities. I say “their” because his entire family was intensely political and active. The story of Marx’s family history carries so much tragedy it is hard to imagine anyone surviving it. Most of his children and grandchildren didn’t. Marx himself was a loving husband and father. His partnership with his wife, Jenny, is quite a ride. Their children are fascinating.
One way to understand Marx is through his attempt to decolonize his mind. By doing so he was able to cut through the layers of political and religious propaganda that limit options for justice in the world. His famous statement about religion being the opiate of the people could as well be applied to the colonial sensibility now so deeply embedded in Jewish identity. I cite again the lack of outrage over the proposal by Progressive Jews that the immediate heirs of the ethnic cleansers of the Palestinian people, Jewish Israelis, an ethnic cleansing that continues as I write, should be accepted as the protectors of the Palestinian people in their newly demilitarized state. This is accentuated by an encore performance that proposes that anyone who recognizes the obvious contradiction commits a cardinal sin. Amazing stuff, when we think more consciously about decolonizing our Jewish identity. What is obviously a colonial mentality doesn’t even raise an eyebrow.
Of course, this is the major theme of any colonial mentality – the colonizer is innocent. That’s how Jews think of themselves. I certainly grew up with this understanding. Most Jews do. It’s a constant battle to keep reminding ourselves, even after we have reached the ahha moment, that, no, we Jews are not innocent. As importantly, we have to constantly remind ourselves that we are not going to return to that innocence. There is no way back.
The sense that Jews are innocent or could return there was the great promise held out by Progressive Jews. It is the reason they attracted so many Jews to their cause. They preserve Jewish innocence by admitting that the the post-1967 occupation is wrong. By correcting this mistake, Jews return to innocence. Jews symbolize their innocence by wearing a colorful kippa and or by affixing a larger than life mezuzah on our door post. The IDF can protect the Palestinian borders since the IDF – in its essence – is the only fighting force in the world that is innocent. How can that be? Because Jews are innocent.
Purity of arms, Israel alone have a fighting force that doesn’t want to fight, fights only when Israel is attacked and only aggresses as far as it needs to while protecting Jewish lives. You have to be my age to remember that assertion. No one makes it any more. (Un)Purity of Arms. It’s true everywhere, including Israel.
Once we step back from our colonial gaze, it all becomes too obvious. And shameful. Thinking about these issues while reading Gabriel’s book, she cites two quotes from Marx that bear repeating. The first relates to how our naiveté will be judged: “Hegel remarks that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Think of the history of the state of Israel. Think of the leaders of 1948 being involved in a tragic situation. Now think of present day Israeli leadership and Netanyahu as farce.
The second quote from Marx that Gabriel highlights is how history deals cards which we then have to play. Or rather, cards are dealt. We decide which cards we play in response. Here is Marx: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstance chosen by themselves, but under circumstance directly encountered, given and transmitted by the past.” I add that in the Jewish civil war, Jews of Conscience are dealing with cards dealt by non-Jews in history, as well as with a Jewish state that acts in the name of Jews everywhere. Add to these the cards played by the various establishments that also claim to act in the interests of Jews everywhere.
Our Jewish inheritance is complicated. Our Jewish now is complicated. So I might paraphrase Marx in relation to the task of Jews today: “Jews make our own history, but we do not make it just as we please; we do not make it under circumstance chosen by ourselves, but under circumstance directly encountered, given and transmitted by Jews past and present.” Or more specifically in terms of Jews of Conscience and now somewhat extended: “Jews of Conscience make our own history, but we do not make it just as we please; Jews of Conscience do not make it under circumstance chosen by ourselves, but under circumstance directly encountered, given and transmitted by Jewish history, the Holocaust, the state of Israel and the various Jewish establishments that have bequeathed an impossible situation which we must account for and work through.”
Now listen to Marx on the Jewish question, a controversial issue historically. It is often played back against Marx himself, accusing him of anti-Semitism. The Jewish question remains today, albeit in a somewhat different form. How different and in what way is an important issue. Here is how Gabriel succinctly sums up Marx on the Jewish question:
In his treatise [on the Jewish question] Marx considered how religion was used in day-to-day affairs in Germany, whether that be Christianity in the political arena or Jewish dominance in the marketplace, and what freedom from religion would mean in nontheological terms. He argued in the case of Jews, their main activity, finance, had become integral to the state’s very existence and concluded that liberating Jews from the confines of that commercial activity (which had, he felt, become the essence of Judaism), and thereby depriving the state of its benefit, would precipitate the German revolution he sought. The state could not stand if one of its pillars – in this case finance – crumbled: the government Marx and his fellows despised would collapse.
Not simple to paraphrase but taking it seriously let’s see where we end up. Again thinking from the standpoint of Jews of Conscience, first we have to expand the areas of Jewish dominance, at least areas where Jews are prominent today. Finance continues unabated but Jews are everywhere in American society for example and, of course, in Israel. In the (extended)military/industrial complex, Jews are prominent. Including now in official political and governmental roles. “Liberating Jews from the confines of commercial activity” has to be greatly expanded. So, too, then, what is viewed as the “essence of Judaism” has to be expanded. Depriving the state of Jewish talent would be all encompassing in America. It’s obviously impossible in the state of Israel.
Israel ups the ante considerably. Has it altered the Jewish question beyond what Marx could have ever imagined? In Marx’s time the Jewish community dominated one pillar of the German state, finance. The American Jewish community is so integrated into the American state that pillars are more apt. But in Israel, Jews are the state. In Israel, then, Jews as pillars of the state have to distinguish between Jews who form the elite of the state in economic, military, political, intellectual and social terms and the mass of Jews who have various relations to the elite.
Thus the movement of Jews in relation to social change in America and Israel is complicated. It has to do with many factors, including where segments of Jews place themselves in relation to the societies they live in and to Jews within those societies. Then we have the empowered minority and empowered majority situation in America and Israel respectively, the interaction of Jewish elites with other elites in America and the interaction of Jewish elites in America and Israel. If the governments in America and Israel or the social and political systems which produce so much injustice in both places are to be challenged by Jews of Conscience, then first and foremost the Jewish pillars of both societies have to be transformed or replaced.
A tall order it is, especially in relation to entrenched and deeply embedded systems where Jews are privileged and powerful. Part of our historical inheritance as Jews is to think how Jews would fare if Jewish empowerment in America and Israel were to collapse. For the most part, Jews involved in these kinds of discussions haven’t lived in a time when Jews were without power. Most Jews alive today haven’t experienced a time when Jews weren’t becoming or are pillars of American society or, for that matter, when a state of Israel, however controversial, didn’t exist. For most Jews alive today, unempowered Jews or a time when Jews were only one pillar of society, exists in history books, primarily in recitations of the Holocaust narrative. It is also the case that increasing number of Jews, perhaps a great majority of Jews alive today, have no experience of a Jewishness that isn’t thoroughly imbued with colonial sensibilities.
Another German Jew, Hannah Arendt, wrote decades after Marx, this time about the Jewish question involving Palestine. Arendt insisted that in a Jewish homeland, rather than a Jewish state which she opposed, East, represented by Arabs, and West, represented by Jews, could meet in a transformative way primarily because Jews, unlike others from the West, did not have a history of colonialism. Arendt opposed the creation of the state of Israel for a number of reasons. Primary among her reasons was that the existence of a Jewish state would necessitate a dependence on colonial powers. Of necessity, in assuming colonial power, Israel and Jews in general develop a colonial consciousness. No one can one have colonial power without a colonial consciousness. Not even Jews.
With Jews taking on colonialism as intrinsic to our being, Arendt believed that Jews would relinquish the most admirable attribute we had – an (un)colonial past – and one that was imperative in rebuilding the world after the Holocaust. Yet when Arendt wrote about this in 1948, it was already too late. We were already creating a colonial legacy.
How far we Jews have come from Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt! Are we or the world the better off for it?
Squandering legacies. A global reality. If everyone does, why shouldn’t we?
We squander our legacy in the name of those suffered for it. Is this another inversion that isn’t confined to Jews?
Sharing our squandering. Across communal lines. And don’t think such squandering is limited to retro-religious folks who vote in Christian denominational assemblies or affix a mezuzot to their doorposts. Think of the promise of the Enlightenment. Think of modernity despoiling the earth. Think of Apple and our newly minted saint, Steve Jobs. Don’t forget the slave labor of China fueling Apple’s profits and China’s miraculous growth.
Squander away. It’s Jewish. Human.
The task before us: Find what is leftover. Begin again. With others. Since squandering is Jewish, human, shared, so is finding. So is beginning again.