Exile and the prophetic: Gaza and the ethics of Jewish power

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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.

The situation on the ground continues to move quickly.  First a rumored cease-fire, then a stepped up military campaign in Gaza.  The bus bombing in Tel Aviv.  Now a cease-fire.  Will it hold?

Meanwhile, J Street continues to thank President Obama for financing Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense.  If only Gaza had one, too.

What’s next?  After burying the dead and cleaning up the rubble, probably more of the same.  Gaza will remain in lock-down with some freeing-up around the edges.

As to the reporting on Gaza, even-handed is too far to venture.  Certainly there was enough said about Palestinian suffering to show how unequal the conflict is.  Unfortunately,consciousness raising and better reporting has done everything except alter the facts on the ground.  On the ground everything is worse.

I read with interest this site’s report on Jodi Rodoren, a New York Times reporter. She has an outdated, Orientalist and ill-conceived understanding of how Jews and Palestinians view life.  To wit, Palestinians have a higher tolerance for death.  Her Facebook page is telling:

The strange thing is that while death and destruction is far more severe in Gaza than in Israel, it seems like Israelis are almost more traumatized. The Gazans have a deep culture of resistance and aspiration to martyrdom, they’re used to it from Cast Lead and other conflicts, and they have such limited lives than in many ways they have less to lose. Both sides seem intensely proud of their military “achievements” — Israel killing Jabari and taking out so many Fajr 5s, Hamas reaching TA and Jeru. And I’ve been surprised that when I talk to people who just lost a relative, or who are gathering belongings from a bombed-out house, they seem a bit ho-hum.

Yes, American Jews – and Israelis – were brought up with these understandings.  I discarded most of those notions on my second visit to Israel/Palestine in 1984.  When I visited Palestinian hospitals in 1988 during the first Palestinian Uprising it was all over. 

The Palestinian parents who wept as they stood by the bedsides of their children – paralyzed and brain dead after being shot with Israel’s ‘rubber’ bullets  - didn’t seem a ‘bit ho-hum’ or ‘used to it’ to me.  I didn’t think they wept because Palestinians were leading ‘limited lives.’  I did think of Israel’s limited vision and limited morality.  I asked myself what happenedto Jewish ethics once we achieved power.  We Jews had become a ‘bit ho-hum’ and ‘used to it’ – that is, to our own violence.

The 150 Palestinians who were killed this week experienced the violence that Israelis use to dish out.  Happiness about a cease-fire won’t change their deaths or the loved ones they left behind.

The violence we’re used to wasn’t always the case. During the first weeks and months of the first Palestinian Uprising in 1987- 1988, Jews were not ho-hum about Israeli violence.   Check the major American newspapers of that time for the full page paid statements by Jews arguing back and forth about Israel’s actions.  Check the Israeli press for stories that used analogies to Nazism for actions Israeli forces were ordered to take.  Often they were written by Israeli soldiers.

Israel’s creation as a Jewish state was dependent on ethnic cleansing.  Yet the consciousness of Jews and the world had changed when Israel’s policy of force, might and beatings was promulgated during the Uprising. 

How short our memories are.  J Street lauds the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the martyred saint of the Oslo Accords.  J Street forgets that Rabin was an ethnic cleanser in the birth of Israel and as Defense Minister ordered the crushing of the Uprising. 

If we compare the smattering of dissent in the Jewish community over Gaza with the upset that Israel’s policies caused during the Uprising, it seems that Jews have become used to perpetrating violence.  It’s become a ‘bit ho-hum’ for us.

Jews of Conscience continue the tradition of Jewish dissent.  They are loud and clear about Israel’s violence.  This was in evidence this week.  However, the broad middle of American liberal Jewish life has dropped out.  I’m not sure who J Street, the last gasp of that broad middle, represents. 

Whether the liberal stream of Jewish life in America was based on ignorance of the real history of Israel from its origins or a fraud to protect Israel by allowing for dissent that would enable its continued expansion is a judgment for history to make.  Perhaps it was a last gasp effort among liberal Jewry from actually acknowledging the truth.  ‘Ignorance’ protected Jews from a self-knowledge they couldn’t deal with. 

I remember Rabbi Irving Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi and Holocaust theologian, addressing this question in a powerful, though disturbing essay, titled, ‘The Ethics of Jewish Power.’  His main question was how Jews, who needed power after the Holocaust, could adjust to the demands of power.  After all, power could never be pure.  Sometimes power was immoral.  Often power was too complicated to make an absolute judgment.

Greenberg’s basic plea:  Jews are undergoing the difficult process of ‘normalization.’  Jews need to get used to the ambiguities of power – especially in relation to Israel.  Prophetic judgments made against our oppressors are too easy – and dangerous – when Jews apply the same judgments to Israel.  If such prophetic judgments are made, Israel’s power might be challenged and collapse.  According to Greenberg, this collapse could lead to another Holocaust.

Greenberg wrote his essay in 1988 as a response to the uproar within the Jewish community over Israel’s crushing of the Uprising.  Over the years the Jewish mainstream has undergone the normalization process Greenberg wrote about.  Mainstream Jews seem unbothered by Israel’s use of power in Gaza or in the West Bank and Lebanon for that matter.  For the most part, they aren’t even trying to justify Israel’s power with an ethical gloss.  Whatever needs to be done, do it.  Get it done.

So, to our New York Times reporter, I reverse the question.  How did Israel and mainstream Jewry get so used to targeted assassinations and bombing cities as if it was normal?



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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15 Responses

  1. seafoid
    November 22, 2012, 9:25 am

    Rabin was also IDF chief of staff in 1967 . 1967 ultimately killed him.


    There was a time, some decades ago, when the works of Rabindranath Tagore were popular in Israel…..
    Those were the happier days before the occupation when Hebrew nationalists could still think of themselves as benevolent idealists committed to refashioning the Jewish person in a healthier, modern mode in sharp contrast with the pallid, sexless model of the Jew from the European ghettos.
    Tagore was mildly erotic, exotically Asian, entirely unfamiliar (this was also long before young Israelis started flocking to India after their army service).

    In retrospect, such innocence looks ludicrous, perhaps disingenuous; we know that the seeds of the occupation were sown before 1967 and that Israel’s decision to embark upon the last of the Western colonial ventures was solidly rooted in the prehistory of the state and its prevalent attitudes toward Palestinian Arabs


    But there is a Reuters picture that I wish I hadn’t seen. I looked at it, almost by accident, and it has been seared into my memory ever since. It shows 6 year old Jamal Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, 4 year old Yousef Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, 7 year old Sarah Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, and one year old Ibrahim Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, all lying together, faces bruised, eyes closed, breaths extinguished, on a steel gurney in a Gaza morgue.
    They were killed in an air force bombing raid in what Israel says – and I am absolutely convinced – was a regrettable human error.
    But most Israelis haven’t seen this picture. They wouldn’t want to, even if they could. They may have heard of, but they certainly haven’t devoted too much attention to, the killing of the 8 members of the al-Dalu family. Many of them were harshly critical of Haaretz for having chosen to devote a main headline to their demise.
    The righteous indignation sparked and stoked by many years of Israel’s belief in its own victimhood has made most Israelis willfully turn a blind eye to the tragedies of the other side.
    Nowadays, it is considered a sign of weakness, even a form of collaboration, to accord too much sympathy or to express too much sorrow at the loss of life, however innocent, however young, among those that Israel is fighting against.

    • peeesss
      November 22, 2012, 1:47 pm

      Seafoid, , “absolutly convinced”? Don’t be so sure. The Israeli commander probably had a suspicion that a “militant” i e “terrorist” might have been in that home. Maybe a tip from a collaborator. A “suspicion”. But he knew full well, more than a suspicion, that a family, women and children was most likely huddled in that apartment praying to get through the night alive. Targeting the “terrorist” to this commander was more important than the likely resulting deaths of innocents. One thousand , 2000 thousand pound bombs, missils do not differentiate between “Terrorists” and children.

      • seafoid
        November 22, 2012, 2:13 pm

        Isn;t that absolutely convinced absolutely nuts ? They should keep that sort of thinking to hebrew. It looks cruel and deluded in english.

      • MHughes976
        November 22, 2012, 2:57 pm

        The nature of these campaigns is not to find and eliminate innocents, including children. It is to invite and accept, for the sake of the objectives in view – objectives so necessary, perhaps so sacred – the risk of injuring or eliminating them if they are in an unlucky place. The same with Hamas rockets. The more the activity is repeated and the bigger the weapons used the higher the percentage risk becomes and the worse the damage is.

    • peeesss
      November 22, 2012, 1:58 pm

      And all one hears from these repugnant Israeli spokesmen and women are anger that Hamas is using their children as “human shields” and Hamas is responsible for their deaths and incineration and the, “by the way, we are sorry for any collateral damage”. The obvious insincerity stares you in the face. Dersh BTW call this the Hamas “double baby’ stategy.

      • seafoid
        November 22, 2012, 2:23 pm

        There is no equivalence between jews murdered by terrorism and palestinians who die in unfortunate accidents that happen when the idf takes the utmost care according to the dersh and bibi. What a crock of shit. Where is the israeli equivalent of monty python?

  2. pabelmont
    November 22, 2012, 10:40 am

    Marc Ellis: Perhaps “I asked myself what happened to Jewish ethics once we achieved power.” might better have said, “I asked myself what happened to the Jewish ethics, if any, of those Jews who achieved power in Israel.”

    Sometimes some people “buy” the (IMO noxious) view that “we” are the same as “those Jews who achieved power in Israel”. Permit me to say that “the things that you’re liable to read in” the Zionist Bible “ain’t necessarily so”. And ask yourself why it took so long for Zionism to become popular, in many circles not until 1967. (I hate the answer to the cognate question, “Why did Zionism become popular in 1967”). It was because the “we” (American Jews, say) were NOT the same as, not identical to, and especially not ethically identical to, the Zionists. Perhaps because we had not been brutalized as much, or as recently, as the Europeans. But Zionism started in 1900, and did not establish itself (e.g. in America) for a long time.

    On the other hand, Zionism is wildly popular in America among aging Jews. So maybe we need to ask about their ethics. But, if so, don’t forget to ask FIRST about their INFORMATION. The propaganda war inside synagogues and later in the MSM has been fierce. Most American Jews are probably know-nothings and are perhaps excused (if their is any excuse for not knowing) the misery Zionism has created.

    • Mooser
      November 22, 2012, 12:11 pm

      “Most American Jews are probably know-nothings and are perhaps excused (if their is any excuse for not knowing) the misery Zionism has created.”

      Especially when you consider that most Jews in the US have been denied a college, or even high-school education. How would they know anything of colonialism or other types of oppression?

      • Yitzgood
        November 23, 2012, 2:49 am

        Especially when you consider that most Jews in the US have been denied a college, or even high-school education.

        “Most Jews”? Would you mind explaining this?

      • Cliff
        November 23, 2012, 4:41 am

        He’s being sarcastic.

      • Citizen
        November 23, 2012, 9:23 am

        Explain what? Do you dispute it? If so, how so?

  3. chinese box
    November 22, 2012, 11:10 am

    What is that supposed to prove, OlegR?

  4. dbroncos
    November 22, 2012, 12:52 pm

    Mr. Ellis points out that Jodi Rudoren’s “ho-hum” and “gotten used to it” should be applied to those who look at Israeli state violence and yawn. I agree.

  5. talknic
    November 23, 2012, 9:13 am

    “The Gazans have a deep culture of resistance and aspiration to martyrdom, they’re used to it..”

    Yes, one can develop callouses from an occupier bashing your head against the wall for 64 years

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