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 She has an outdated, Orientalist and ill-conceived understanding of how Jews and Palestinians view life.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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