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

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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.

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 The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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