Exile and the prophetic: Empire detoxification

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

What kind of future does empire and isolation hold for Jews in Israel and beyond?  A question I asked and didn’t answer.  Is there an answer? 

No matter what diverse parts of Jewry might want – or abhor – I doubt one answer is forthcoming.  Jews are more likely to travel separate ways, entwined with others, though without attribution.  Jewish history has never been decided by Jews only.

The historical crisis Jews find themselves in cannot be resolved in a simplistic way. At issue are the remains of ‘Jewish.’   What will be defined as ‘Jewish’ in the future?

Jews have become used to empire and isolation in Israel, perhaps because we have empire and inclusion within the American empire.  The isolation the state of Israel experiences is coupled with special protection from the United States.  Actual Jewish isolation has been thought but not experienced since the creation of the state in 1948.

Israel uses isolation as a trump card without being isolated at all.  At least the consequence of isolation, being without a protector, is unknown to contemporary Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora.  The difference between thinking aloneness and being alone are worlds apart.

With the international community turning toward the Palestinians in a trend that is now decades old, Israel may one day face its true isolation.  In the next decades, the United States and Europe will have China and the rest of Asia on its mind.  To concentrate on Asia, a stable Middle East, rather than one dominated by Israel, is crucial.   The United States cannot project its power in Asia if constantly called upon to bail Israel out of difficulties that are mostly self-generated.

We don’t know what Israel would be like without a giant chip on its shoulder.  Surveying the history of Israel, that chip has been growing by leaps and bounds over the decades.  This has to do with the occupation of so many years, Israel’s continual expansion and its Sparta-like existence in the Middle East. 

That chip has spread to the shoulders of American Jewry.  Never before in American Jewish history have Jews been so bellicose and war mongering.  Without Israel, the militaristic spirit of the Jewish establishment is unthinkable.  With Israel, a critically minded justice-oriented Jewish establishment is impossible.

What would it mean for Jewish Israelis and American Jewry to be relieved of the empire role they have voluntarily and, because of Israel’s policies, necessarily taken on?  The problem is that this empire stance in Israel and America is now so longstanding – I would say it harkens back to the 1967 war – that pre-empire Jewishness has to be studied historically in order to be recovered. 

As well, pre-empire Jewishness has been so vilified for so long, and considered non- or even anti-Jewish, that theoretical recovery isn’t enough.  There has to be a politics of recovery where what has been defined as betrayal is once again seen as affirming of Jewish identity. 

This task is difficult if not impossible to achieve, though.  Once communal ways of being are vilified, they are almost impossible to resurrect as viably re-embraced.  It’s more probable that any future Jewishness will be negotiated within the confines of empire and a sense of isolation. 

Empire detoxification will take decades if not longer to accomplish.  The task is made even more difficult because the problem isn’t only about the role of Israel in the militarization of Jewish life.  American Jews live within empire, too.  Empire detoxification for Jews means breaking with both the American and Israeli empire more or less simultaneously.  Not an easy task.

The task is made even more difficult by the contradictions in Israel’s political life.  The primary challenger to Benjamin Netanyahu in January’s election may be Tzipi Livni, who has just thrown her political hat into the ring.  Her pledge is to ‘fight for the peace,’ the ‘peace of the sober, and for ‘the Jewish Israel,’ and ‘for the democratic Israel, a state in which all, but all of its citizens, with no difference of nationality and religion, are citizens with equal rights.’  Livni’s statement carries a hope and a boatload of contradictions.  Like Jewry without empire, how can a Jewish state and democracy for all its citizens function in practical terms?

What can be done with these time-bound and long range contradictions?  As with life in general, Jews have to live through these contradictions, with focus and without blinders that seek a place of rescue.  There is no return to a previous place or thought or way of life.  There can be a future where the contradictions are resolved through a practice of justice that makes life livable and preserves hope that soon a different Jewish will be achieved.

But here are the conundrums that seems impossible to transcend:  

Jews cannot go back before Israel, as if it doesn’t exist; Jews cannot move forward with Israel as it is. 

Jews cannot pretend that our success in America hasn’t skewed our sensibilities toward the benefits and status of empire; Jews cannot turn our back on America as if it hasn’t been a place of freedom and flourishing for Jews.

The way forward?  With Israeli Jews and American Jewry becoming more and more aware of these conundrums, thought and action can be formulated in light of that awareness.  Thus, small achievements in consciousness-raising over the long run might make the difference between a Jewish that is laden with empire and a Jewish harkening to its prophetic core. 

The exile that Jews of Conscience experience is part of that difference, most especially when there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.  Like now.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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