Exile and the Prophetic: What kind of future does empire and isolation hold for Jews in Israel and beyond?

Israel/Palestine
on 14 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.

I have been resisting change, it’s true. Sometimes you can view a situation from a certain point of view for so long, you need to look again.

In this post-Gaza lull, it’s important to think out loud. What if Israel reversed or even modified its course?

With the fate of Gaza being negotiated, or rather the parameters of Gaza’s fate being determined, since Gaza will remain, more or less, in lockdown, Israel’s situation in the Middle East and globally needs to be reconsidered. Negotiating Gaza with Egypt and the United States is only one manifestation of this reconsideration. Nonetheless, it is significant. Only time will tell in what way.

Over the last decades, Israel has maintained military superiority in the Middle East. After the 1967 war, the only challenge Israel faced on the battlefield was the 1973 war with Egypt. How significant that challenge was is still debated by historians inside and outside of Israel. Regardless, Egypt was turned back. Israel won the war decisively.

Since 1973, Israel has dominated the Middle East and in the process negotiated several peace treaties, notably with Egypt and Jordan, which worked in its favor. During these years, Israel has consolidated its hold on Jerusalem and the West Bank while keeping its borders secure. Israel’s periodic invasions of Lebanon and Gaza have kept the region off balance and in fear.

Israel has sustained a constant war footing while expanding its borders and crushing Palestinian uprisings as well. In December, it will be twenty-five years since the first Palestinian Uprising. The second Uprising took place more than a decade ago. Though Palestinian resistance continues, with each day Israel tightens its hold on the territory it’s expanded into. What began as settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank have become, for all practical purposes, extensions of cities or cities themselves.

So, yes, Israel has consolidated its power and territory. It has reigned over the Middle East as only a military empire can. It remains far and away the superior power in the region. Nonetheless, Israel is considerably more vulnerable today that it was in its heyday after the 1967 war.

Part of this vulnerability is due to technological advances that can be used by Israel for its own superiority yet cannot be completely denied to its foes. During Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, for example, Hezbollah was able to strike Israel with its own missiles. Another example is the recent dust-up in Gaza which demonstrated an increased Palestinian missile capability.

With the civil war in Syria, the changes in Egypt and the unrest in Jordan, as well as Hezbollah’s consolidation of power in Lebanon, Middle Eastern politics is moving toward a more independent course. The dependence of the Arab countries on the United States remains but American foreign policy has to pay more attention to internal developments country by country. Whatever the Arab Spring turns out to be, it isn’t about Israel or Palestine. The Arab Spring and its aftermath are about a Middle East coming into being.

Where all of this will lead is unknown. Egypt is a prime test case of the future. The popular and diverse resistance to President Morsi’s recent power-grab is a warning that though a new Egypt isn’t guaranteed, the old Egypt isn’t returning without civil unrest. We don’t know whether the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood will bring Egypt closer to a religious state or if it will mobilize the opposition and even parts of the Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate a secular democracy with a distinctive Egyptian flavor.

If we factor in the rise of Asia and shift in global focus to that region, the Middle East is decreasing in significance. As well, after a decade of war in Iraq, the United States has little interest in intervening there again. American foreign policy is interested in containing Iran, not bombing or invading it. Insofar as Israel threatens to drag America into a war with Iran, Israel will be seen as an irritant with dangerous implications.

This means that upset in the Middle East will exist more on its own and that the United States – and Europe as well – will have less tolerance for disturbances that require its attention. This might translate into an American demand for Israeli discipline and the encouraging of a balance of power that stabilizes the region more or less as it is. The contretemps between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is a visual play on this dynamic.

All of this means that Israel no longer has the Middle East playing field to itself. Does this mean that Israel is more vulnerable?

It depends. A balance of power in the region may secure Israel’s future – if it doesn’t continue to act as a Middle East bully. If Israel was smart, it would simply consolidate its territorial expansion and announce its intent to negotiate the leftovers with the nations of the region. Since most of the region’s players are more interested in their own future than the future of Palestine, with some adjustments, Israel might be able to broker a deal.

To enter into such a deal, though, Israel would have to admit vulnerability. It would have to stake its future on an empowered interdependence. Israel would have to acknowledge that its future is in the Middle East. Though this is geographically obvious, Israel has never come to terms with its location.

Of course, the question for global Jewry would then be whether it can acknowledge its vulnerability and support Israel’s entry into an interdependent empowerment. Can Jews psychologically welcome this vulnerability and interdependence?

Historical risk assessment may counsel against this. Yet the question remains: What kind of future does empire and isolation hold for Jews in Israel and beyond?

What’s amazing is that a majority of Jews in the world live within and argue for an interdependent empowerment. This raises the question of whether Israel has become the last outpost of what Jews don’t want but need to hold onto.

In any part of life, we know that holding onto a reality we don’t want is limited. It only promotes anger and resistance. Then one day everything blows up.

In the fog of personal and collective war, anger begets anger. Whoever is the last person standing surveys the damage and wonders what victory means in a world of desolation.

Is that the precipice we Jews stand on in this post-Gaza lull?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of Future of the Prophetic: Israel's Ancient Wisdom Re-Presented.

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14 Responses

  1. seafoid
    November 28, 2012, 10:50 am

    Israel has hit the buffers in terms of its qualitative tech edge. It doesn’t matter how shit hot they are in the technion . Gaza will never be subdued. Israel has hit the buffers in terms of hasbara. It doesn’t matter how smooth michael oren is. Hasbara only works effectively on jews. Israel has hit the buffers in galutian public opinion. Tomorrow will show that. And Israeli politics is full of people who think it is 1969.

    • Chu
      November 28, 2012, 3:34 pm

      All true. This hot-air balloon is gradually sinking to the earth and Marc’s assessment seems clear enough. Six decades at war and occupation would make anyone want to return to a sense of normalcy, and drop the bubbling racism.
      I wonder where Al Quds fits into the Israeli plan -will Israel aim for control of the city?
      It doesn’t seem realistic, but I’m not a Zionist fanatic.

  2. pabelmont
    November 28, 2012, 11:12 am

    “Of course, the question for global Jewry would then be whether it can acknowledge its vulnerability and support Israel’s entry into an interdependent empowerment. Can Jews psychologically welcome this vulnerability and interdependence?” Marc Ellis asks: does “Jewishland fur immer uber alles” work for Jews outside Israel. He asks can American Jews and others accept Israel as a normal country among other countries.

    AIPAC says the Zionist billionaires cannot. But that is a different question.

    • Mooser
      November 28, 2012, 1:53 pm

      “Of course, the question for global Jewry…”

      Gosh, maybe if we knew by what process “global Jewry” considers a “question”, and how a consensus is reached, dessimanted, and inculcated into the world’s Jews, we’d be much better off. ‘pabelmont’, would you like to tell us.

      Oh maybe I’m oversensitive to the words, but where I grew up the concept “world Jewry” was only used by two kinds people- anti-Semites and Zionists. There are indeed Jews all over the world, but there is no “world Jewry”

      • Mooser
        November 28, 2012, 6:34 pm

        Gosh, maybe if we knew by what process “global Jewry” considers a “question”, and how a consensus is reached, dessimanted, and inculcated into the world’s Jews, we’d be much better off. ‘pabelmont’, would you like to tell us.”

        Whoops, not “pabelmonts” job to tell me, he was quoting Ellis, and I wasn’t keeping track of the quote marks. Or of the material in the post, either, apparently. I’m sorry and wrong. Yeow, what is it about that phrase “global Jewry” which pushes all my buttons?

    • seafoid
      November 28, 2012, 2:40 pm

      Israel would have to become a normal country first .

  3. AhVee
    November 28, 2012, 12:05 pm

    In addition to the factors mentioned in the article, there’s several more which point to an increasing decline in Israel’s importance and support. They’ve been trying and largely failing to garner support for their cause in Asia, probably because the Asians aren’t wracked with collective guilt over the Shoah like the west is, then there’s the cultural / ethnic divide too, their lore doesn’t attribute any importance to the holy land.
    The economy is another factor. I believe Israel has been able to feed off the tolerance and money of the west mostly because the latter part of the 20th century has been fairly golden in comparison with what came before, and the situation we are faced with presently. The persistent economical crisis forces many to look inward, and I doubt it’s as easy today as it was twenty years ago to persuade even the average american that feeding a foreign country billions of dollars a year instead of, you know, making sure the infrastructure doesn’t degrade into something you’d expect to find in the heart of Africa, is a spanking idea. That and more people in the West take a critical stance on Israel and are starting to debate things they weren’t before. (Hell, wasn’t it this rad thing to do in the 60′s and 70′s to fly over to Israel and try to outdo one another at Kibbutz-building?) Nowadays, sticking “boycott Israel” stickers all over town seems to be the favored activity among left-wing activists, at least where I’m from. (I’m aware of the fact that this is not so in the U.S., then again, the American conception of “left wing” has always startled me, over here the American democrats would be labelled centrists at best.)

    America too isn’t the ‘superpower’ it once was, and will almost certainly further decline in importance as time goes by. I’m pretty sure they’ll heavily cut their Israel-funding, too, at some stage. They simply can’t afford to go on like this forever. Taking all that into consideration, and the exponential growth of the Palestinian population, the fact that, as the article points out, Asia is shifting into view and the middle-east is increasingly taking up a position by the wayside, I’d say Israel cannot afford to continue this way for much longer. I’m skeptical of the fact that they’ll decide to communicate vulnerability, the way I know them they’re more likely to pull a Moshe Dayan and “go down with a bang™”.

    Here’s another consideration: The west will and cannot (oil reserves are definite) continue buying oil off middle-eastern countries. The oil-rich countries have a hold over the U.S. All they need to do is refuse to be paid in U.S. dollars and be too big to rape, or decide that selling the reserves they do have exclusively to e.g.China suits them better, and their reason for playing nice are all but eradicated. What will happen once the reserves run dry completely, or some awesome new fuel finally manages to take the upper hand, for purely economical reasons (e.g. much cheaper). The oil lobby won’t be able to resist this change forever. Then there’s common consensus that America can’t afford another war. Which ever way you look at it, independence will hurt the ME far less than it will the U.S.
    The oil will run out someday, every empire collapses sometime, and somewhere in the middle of all of that, there’ll be a big bang in the Levant, and when that day comes, I hope we’ll all be too busy doing something else to care.

    • seafoid
      November 28, 2012, 5:02 pm

      The country that suffered the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and accompanying famines that killed over 40 m is unlikely to buy Israel’s wares.
      The US is irreplaceable and Israel will really miss it when it drifts away.

  4. Mooser
    November 28, 2012, 1:23 pm

    “Of course, the question for global Jewry would then be whether it can acknowledge its vulnerability”

    To being preyed on by international political gansters masquerading under the banner of religion (and a bunch other stuff)? Yes, that can be a problem for a religion which is close to spiritual bankruptcy, especially if there are assets, oh, like the connection to the Holy Land and a history of persecution, they can use.

  5. Mooser
    November 28, 2012, 1:25 pm

    “Is that the precipice we Jews stand on in this post-Gaza lull?”

    Lone Ranger: We are surrounded, Tonto, Indians to the right of us, Indians to the left……

  6. seafoid
    November 28, 2012, 3:25 pm

    Things go from bad to worse. The Likud has been hijacked by people who don’t even value democracy.

    I wonder who will be the first mainstream AIPAC, ZOA or ADL Jew to break from the shtetl and call Israel what it is. A pariah , a disgrace to a wonderful tradition.

    • jl1
      November 28, 2012, 4:55 pm

      You hold that Stern, Begin, Sharon valued democracy? How do you define the practice?

      • seafoid
        November 29, 2012, 4:33 pm

        They valued democracy for jews. Danon doesn’t even value that. The loss of the old likud is a sign of how awful things are now. It is far worse than the impact of the tea party on the GOP.

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