Exile and the Prophetic: The Jewish community’s entire life is bound up with war

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 15 Comments

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.

With the Gaza war winds blowing once again, we may not have much time to ask: What would Israel look like if peace broke out?

Talking about peace right now might be considered academic. Then again, it might be extremely important.

Targeted assassinations aren’t very precise as we know. Often that’s just a prelude. Israeli officials are threatening an invasion.

Gaza has been in lock-down forever. Lock-down is war by other means.

Interesting, once again Israel is using its American-election timing. Like 2008, after the election and before the oath of office, is Israel throwing down the gauntlet to the President-elect?

Again we ask: Where is the American political constituency that can force Obama’s hand?

1948. Now. For Israel, it’s been mostly war and rumors of war. How many invasions, occupations, blockades have there been of Gaza? Count them if you can.

Still, we have to broaden the question beyond Israel. What would Judaism and Jewish life look like if peace broke out?

Admit it, there’s no way of knowing.

What would Israel, Judaism and Jewish life look like if peace broke out? I have no idea.

In the coming days, such a question might seem even more out of place for Jews. This raises another series of issues.

When you’ve been on a war footing for so long, your psyche has been militarized. You can’t leave the war on the battlefield. You can’t even leave it in Israel. The Jewish community’s entire life is bound up with war.

Peace presents a huge challenge for Jews. It’s a new and challenging landscape. You have to look around and see what’s what.

So often the Holocaust is used as the backdrop for the need for Jews to go to war. The Holocaust has become a series of formulaic assumptions about the need to protect Jews. Is anyone listening anymore?

If you noticed in the letter regarding Israel’s occupation and its violation of American law that Church leaders sent to Congress last month, the Holocaust was downplayed. I’m not sure it was even mentioned.

Without the Holocaust as backdrop, Israel is just hanging out there on its abuse of power limb. Israel’s very foundation for war is wearing thin. Is that why it’s involvement with war is increasing?

As the state of Israel was born, Hannah Arendt warned that Israel was destined to become a new Sparta. Then what would we do?

Warnings are one thing. You look ahead and ask whether you want to take this or that route. Once you’ve arrived, there’s no turning back. Israel is the new Sparta ready to strike again. What should we do?

Constructing Sparta is one project. Deconstructing Sparta is another. Both have specific dangers.

In constructing Sparta, the danger revolves around the possibility of adopting militarism as a way of life. If we did that, what would our life look like?

In deconstructing Sparta, the danger revolves around rejecting militarism as a way of life. If we do that, what will our life look like?

In both cases, we don’t know until it is done. Yet once it’s done, once Jewish life was militarized, there isn’t any going back.

Now that the Holocaust is receding, we are left with only power. Power is our guide. However, we know that power is limited.

Power always needs more than it can deliver. Why? Because power carries an anxiety that power itself cannot assuage. The anxiety is that power is not enough, that there is no after when power is diminished.

Is this the reason for the Gaza madness Israel is embarking on once again?

War as madness is overrated. War is rational – with a specific objective; to keep the more difficult questions at bay.

Like whether Jews would affirm their Jewishness without the militarism that defines us.

Imagine Jews today without the militarized memory of the Holocaust and the militarized state of Israel. We can’t.

So we’ve arrived again. Even the threat of war is enough to keep the Jewish home fires burning.

Yet more and more Jews are waking up to the fact that embracing war as a way of life leads nowhere – except to more war.

Gaza is once again on the Jewish (militarized) horizon.

Israel – our very Sparta. There has to be another way.

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 15, 2012, 2:26 pm

    Superb. Ruthlessness, cruelty and nihilism do not sit well on jewish shoulders. There is something deeply dysfunctional about shatnez workers screaming for bombs.

    • Mooser
      November 15, 2012, 3:42 pm

      “Ruthlessness, cruelty and nihilism do not sit well on jewish shoulders.”

      I know. Mine slope like crazy.

  2. Citizen
    November 15, 2012, 3:10 pm

    Among Greek cities in levels of aggression. Sparta was militaristic and authoritarian, but did not seek imperial expansion: Spartans gave first priority to controlling their helots.


    A Helot was a slave belonging to the Spartan state. The Helots, rather than belonging to individual owners as in the slavery of the modern west, were an entire state owned class of unfree workers who formed their own communities. This has often led them being called serfs. Sparta’s first helots were probably the Messenians, whom they conquered.

    Does Ellis’s analogy hold? I think not. Look to the key crime of aggressive war, breeder of all other crimes against humanity, as defined as ultimate in the Nuremberg Trials.

    • Mooser
      November 15, 2012, 5:10 pm

      “A Helot was a slave belonging to the Spartan state.”

      I have more than once seen ‘helotry’ used as a description for the state of the Palestinians under the Zionist regime.

      • seafoid
        November 15, 2012, 5:25 pm

        I think Israelis are like ants with Gaza as aphids.

  3. Mooser
    November 15, 2012, 3:54 pm

    “Israel – our very Sparta. There has to be another way.”

    And next time, we’ll find that other better way, and do it that way! But, uh, in the meantime, what do you suggest we do with the actual reality at hand?

    • gamal
      November 15, 2012, 5:50 pm

      avoid via bland generalization and non-sequiturs,

      “Still, we have to broaden the question beyond Israel. What would Judaism and Jewish life look like if peace broke out?” er broaden? isnt this a narrowing, back to vexed question of what this slaughter oppression and injustice mean to the Perpetrators and their many accomplices, tell me how do you feel about it? hope its not too upsetting, not one mention of the victims.

      the Holocaust receding, while Gaza burns I do wonder how are Jews feeling, ok i hope and what this means for the them, yet again the Holocaust referenced as an explanation for inhumanity, it is irrelevant to the current situation, the post traumatic psychology of the Jews provides no rationale for this bestiality. If the Holocaust had any value quite the opposite in fact.

      Militarism? in case you hadnt noticed these are not “wars” if so where is the opposing army? This a colonial massacre against the all but defenseless, Sparta at least fought real wars, not against comprador ersatz armies and citizen militias , this is more like a Jefferey Dahmer state gone on an insane killing spree, when war comes Israel will realize they have never fought wars, you dignify the appalling inhumane arrogance of the current Israeli polling booth massacre as war, why?

      targeted assassinations are not very accurate, eh? dont you mean murder from the air and they are tolerably accurate, as if that was the issue. His name was Jabari.

      Militarism or whatever one could call the attitudes of the Jewish/Israeli community are given ample voice in your pointless intervention, oh sorry its all about you, how silly of me, how utterly depressing.

      As Movado sings on alliancefilife’s “Destroy Gaza” “The peace treaty done, the bloodclat war start again”

      “Now that the Holocaust is receding, we are left with only power. Power is our guide. However, we know that power is limited.”
      you mean many are no longer buying this rationalization, how many Ugandans could be slaughtered in the name of the Holocaust, its about as relevant a question as how many Palestinian and Arab societies can be despoiled and held in thrall and burned down, “receding” or turning in to a toxic mess whose contagion is going to carry off many, many people, you seem mostly concerned that as few as possible of them be Jews, why, are we not your brothers and sisters of equal value and if not what is the value in these Jews, whose welfare, mood and culture seems your only concern?

      You have no answer, defeat is going to be the only salvation.
      The imperium is turning the whole region in to a charnel house, while various voices both Jewish and Muslim, complicit and mouthing revolting and shallow perversions of their own cultural heritage, semitogedden, white people must be laughing at our insane barbarity, or those who dont justifiably hold us all in contempt must be appalled.

      Rabbi’s and the Ulema, what are they good for?

      “Without the Holocaust as backdrop, Israel is just hanging out there on its abuse of power limb.” are you mad Marc, when one unpacks this statement what is one left with, how did you manage to become so inhuman. “Backdrop” then “abuse of power”, anodyne phrases dont conceal the horror.

      And so on to victory and re-election, the “war” is between Israeli politicians, the backdrop is Gaza not the Holocaust. Which i hope i have mentioned a sufficient number of times to secure my place amongst the elect. To whom are you speaking?

  4. pabelmont
    November 15, 2012, 4:31 pm

    “As the state of Israel was born, Hannah Arendt warned that Israel was destined to become a new Sparta.” And earlier, Judah Magnes warned that a state based on bayonets etc. was not worth working toward “even if the effort succeed” (meaning that he could see the suffering at least of the birth and maybe also the long and deadly future). And Albert Einstein, Arendt, and others wrote their famous letter to the New York Times warning against the Herut party of Manachem Begin.

    They were all right. At what point will American Jews choose decency over support for this endless militarist madness?

  5. seafoid
    November 15, 2012, 4:59 pm

    The State of Israel wasn’t born. It was stolen.

  6. lysias
    November 15, 2012, 5:37 pm

    I wonder if Obama told Israel that he wouldn’t stop her attacking Gaza, if they just waited until after the election.

    • pabelmont
      November 15, 2012, 7:49 pm

      lysias: That’s a good question. Hard to guess, because Israel has ALWAYS “tested” like kids trying to get a later bed-time from indecisive parents. This war is for N-hu’s re-election, of course, but it is also to test new weapons (the very sharp shrapnel reported elsewhere might be something new), to intimidate Hezbollah, BUT ALSO to test the USA and UN and EU. So far, the “parents” are saying, “go ahead, pull the wings off all the flies you can catch, no skin off our back”. It is also to persuade the PA not to go for quasi-statehood.

      So, did they get permission, a “green light”? Who knows and who cares if the USA acts as if it gave a green light.

  7. yourstruly
    November 15, 2012, 9:04 pm

    peace breaks out and what would jewish life be like? same as it would for everyone else, once all of us turn the world into a just and peaceful place.

  8. Steve Macklevore
    November 16, 2012, 3:18 am

    “Yet more and more Jews are waking up to the fact that embracing war as a way of life leads nowhere – except to more war.”

    I see no evidence for this assertion – in Israel the attack on Gaza is wildly popular.

  9. Citizen
    November 16, 2012, 9:06 am

    Fox Business News is carrying the Gaza story all day today. So far it’s been entirely a hasbara spin. Now, the channel is showing us rockets coming into southern Israel by Hamas, going on about how the Israelis have been living under intense fear. Showing you a damaged Jewish kitchen; Jews have 10 seconds to get the hell out. Lots of this visual stuff, but their claim to be fair and balanced is limited to an occasional word banner that Egypt Prez is calling Israel an attacker of humanity. All the visuals call for emotional support for innocent Jewish victims. Been watching it all morning. No visuals shown of Palestinian victims or their devastated homes, or even a bit of metal from a US paid-for Israeli missile.

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