Exile and the Prophetic: Jewish warrior culture and Israel’s unraveling

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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.

Historically speaking, the thought that the Jewish community’s life is now bound up with war is a mind blower. There’s very little precedent for this outside the Bible and, unlike today, we know that most of the stories in the Bible are mythologized.

In contemporary Jewish life, the warrior isn’t talked about much. There are few, if any, coffee table books featuring Jewish warriors.

The exception was right after the 1967 war. Jews did celebrate Israeli military prowess then. As I remember, though, the featured photos muted the military aspect. The physical backdrop, usually Jerusalem or another ancient site was predominant. Those sights and the moral backdrop, the Holocaust, was the message.

Sure there was Moshe Dayan, the eye-patch wearing Israeli military leader and mischievous thief of antiquities. His ubiquitous picture became a staple of the glory day’s right after the 1967 war. But, then, Dayan didn’t look like a warrior. He looked like a man who had something up his sleeve.

Do you remember the ‘purity of arms’ describing the ethics of the Israeli army? Meaning: Israel’s army wasn’t really an army at all. Jews could celebrate Israel’s 1967 victory precisely because, in their eyes, it wasn’t a military victory at all. Israel won because history and ethics was on its side.

Non-Jews could celebrate Israel’s ‘moral’ victory, too. For Christians in the West, Israel’s victory became a victory for the West over the forces of Arab darkness. It also became part of the Christian redemption narrative after the Holocaust.

By surviving and winning, Jews had outlasted the sin of Christian anti-Semitism. Christians celebrated that victory, too, because it meant their repentance had been earned. The credibility of Christianity had been restored

Those days ended quickly. By the mid-1970s the glorification of the Israeli ‘moral’ military was over. The ‘purity of arms’ talk diminished. Today we hear only of Israel’s power to punish.

For much of Jewish history, Jews have been caught up in wars. We lacked the means to conduct war. Many Jews took the high ground. We thought that only foolish and ignorant cultures – ‘them,’ and in the West, read ‘Christian’ – would make warriors heroes.

In ancient times our heroes came from the Bible and the Rabbis. More recently they come from philosophy and science. Even today, with Israel conducting ‘defensive’ war after ‘defensive’ war, for the most part the Jewish warrior is hidden. Among American Jews, name the equivalent Jewish warrior for any American warrior. There aren’t many to be found or, better, acknowledged.

So a Jewish warrior culture without warriors? Not easy to construct.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t Jewish bullies. Listen to these statements, as quoted in the New York Times yesterday:

‘We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces in the days ahead,’ the Israel Defense Forces said in a Twitter message. Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the military spokesman, said ‘If I were a senior Hamas activist, I would look for a place to hide.’

Tough – bully – talk. Warrior talk? I don’t think so.

Years ago, I was walking toward the arrival baggage claim at the old Ben-Gurion airport when sirens sounded. Tourists like me stood around confused. Israelis coming home shrieked and fled in horror. It was a bomb threat. They were afraid for their lives.

‘Sabra,’ like the ‘purity of arms,’ is another theme rarely sounded anymore. In the airport running for cover, sabras were nowhere in evidence. If the fleeing Israelis were soft on the inside, they weren’t hard on the outside. They were frightened. If the bomb was real, they had lost the upper hand. They were defenseless.

If I had known it might be a bomb, I would have been frightened, too. But, then, I don’t carry myself with military bravado. When it came to Vietnam, my parents were ready to ship me to Canada.

American Jews haven’t seen the military as the place for their sons and daughters to reach heroic status.

My son, the soldier?

Israel was a military game-changer in Jewish history. But the warrior still doesn’t command center stage. In Israel, the army is too mixed up with the overt state politics. The army is a way-station for other advancements.

In the end, perhaps all warriors are bullies. What we’re seeing in the Gaza threats – and strikes – is bullying on parade. The Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere are totally defenseless. They are at the mercy of Israel’s ‘moral’ military.

In Jewish culture, the bully cannot be disguised. Despite war after war, Jewish warriors aren’t being produced or accorded accolades.

This is part of Israel’s unraveling.

To be consistent and powerful warriors you need a culture and a religion to support what in normal life would be designated as wasteful and destructive.

For Jews that hasn’t happened. This means Jewish support for Israel’s war, real support not rote emotions and statements, and is bound to wane.

The great distance from the victory celebrations after the 1967 war and the ‘punish them’ rhetoric of today should alarm the leaders of Israel and the Jewish establishment in America.

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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