Exile and the prophetic: Amos Oz leaves out Edward Said and Sara Roy

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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.

Is Hebrew Infected With Violence and Atrocity?

If we enter a guilty plea before we’re brought to The Hague – Jerusalem would be the place – then the special Jewish therapy can begin.  Once in The Hague, however, we’re in the international docket. 

International courts aren’t interested in Jewish history and Jewish ethics.  They won’t listen to rabbinic interpretations of the Torah or be swayed by Holocaust pleadings. 

Jewish uniqueness and Jewish destiny don’t play in international courts.  I doubt they’ll accept Elie Wiesel or Amos Oz for that matter, as expert witnesses. International courts aren’t interested in ‘Jewish.’ Maybe that’s the kind of Empire Shock Therapy we need now. 

I have argued that the Israel/Palestine clash is between two particularities.  Israel is quite Jewish in its claims and assertions.  Without Jewish before Israel there isn’t any reason for Israel as a state.  The Palestinian cause isn’t universal.  Palestinians aren’t Arabs in general.  The Palestinian quest for human and political rights is, rightfully, for themselves.

The universal is often a particular bias in disguise.  Nonetheless, the thoroughly (biased) universality that international courts represent is crucial in disciplining other particularities – when they can’t discipline themselves.

So we have come to this.  We need a biased and disguised universality to discipline – theoretically and practically – a mobilized and militarized Jewish particularity.  Only then will our Jewish particularity reclaim an ethical shape.

By the way, thinking about how out of touch Jewish particularity is, I return to Amos Oz. Have you seen his latest book Jews and Words?

For those who don’t know of Oz, he is the Israeli novelist and commentator instrumental in shaping progressive Jewish views on Israel over the last thirty plus years.  His influence has been most important in Europe and America.  Oz argues the basic two-state solution, now with ‘adjustments,’ as a needed ‘divorce’ between Jews and Palestinians. 

Besides the politics, there’s an undercurrent that characterizes Oz’s view of Arabs.  To put it bluntly, the undercurrent is one of disdain.  For Oz and Progressive Jews in general, this translates into a patronizing view of Arabs and the need for a strict separation between Jews and Palestinians.

Oz, with a few others, has set the parameters of thinkable thought on Israel in the West. Go the left of him politically and you are anti-Israel.  You are also anti-Semitic.  Though his influence wanes as the political situation continues to devolve, he hasn’t changed his politics or his disdain.

Last year he was invited to give a keynote address to J Street’s convention.  If you listen to his words, Oz hasn’t changed at bit.  As troubling is the J Street audience reaction to his unchanged words.  You can feel their disdain as well.

As I was writing about Israel’s coming date in The Hague, NPR was playing in the background.  On comes Oz and his daughter to discuss their latest book, a celebration of Jewish involvement with words and texts.  The description of the book is instructive, especially read against the Jewish future in The Hague.

Why are words so important to so many Jews? Novelist Amos Oz and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger roam the gamut of Jewish history to explain the integral relationship of Jews and words. Through a blend of storytelling and scholarship, conversation and argument, father and daughter tell the tales behind Judaism’s most enduring names, adages, disputes, texts, and quips. These words, they argue, compose the chain connecting Abraham with the Jews of every subsequent generation.

Framing the discussion within such topics as continuity, women, timelessness, and individualism, Oz and Oz-Salzberger deftly engage Jewish personalities across the ages, from the unnamed, possibly female author of the Song of Songs through obscure Talmudists to contemporary writers. They suggest that Jewish continuity, even Jewish uniqueness, depends not on central places, monuments, heroic personalities, or rituals but rather on written words and an ongoing debate between the generations. Full of learning, lyricism, and humor, Jews and Words offers an extraordinary tour of the words at the heart of Jewish culture and extends a hand to the reader, any reader, to join the conversation.

Does the book – so full of learning, lyricism and humor – extend a hand to the readers in the International Criminal Court?  The description advises readers that you don’t have to be Jewish to join the Jewish conversation.  Everyone is welcome.  Does that welcome include Jews of Conscience, Palestinians and eventhe International Criminal Court?

I can’t see the Court’s text fitting under ‘Continuity’ or ‘Timelessness.’   When the indictments are handed down, no doubt entirely new topicswill surface.  Perhaps the next edition of Oz’s book will include a postscript topic – ‘Jewish Power.’  After all, power is redefining the contemporary Jewish tradition.  Or ‘Jewish Civil War’ – that’s the ongoing debate between the generations and within our generation that the book description advertises but doesn’t address.

I do like Oz’s suggestion that Jewish continuity and uniqueness is less dependent on central places, monuments, heroic personalities and rituals than it is on words, texts and the ongoing debate between the generations.  But, then, anticipating the Court’s indictment and in the face of so much literature already written on the Israeli abuse of Palestinians, it’s hard not to notice that his book’s index doesn’t include the subjects:  Ethnic Cleansing, Occupation, Settlements or Military Invasions. 

If Palestinians are mentioned in the book, they aren’t front and center.  The index doesn’t list Edward Said as a contributor to the discussion of what it means to be Jewish.  Think of Jewish life today without Said’s challenging words. Nor is Sara Roy listed.  Her commentaries on Gaza, so crucial to the future of Jewish life, are part of the debate between generations.  Why isn’t she included?

Since Jewish continuity and uniqueness isn’t dependent on places, monuments, heroic personalities and rituals – the subtext of which is that other cultures and communities are dependent on them – does this mean that for Oz, Jews aren’t dependent on Israel as a Jewish state? That Jewish continuity and uniqueness is based on words and texts rather than land?

On the way to The Hague, Oz should think of this as well.  One of the arguments in Holocaust literature is that once a culture is militarized and commits crimes, the culture represented by words, language and texts, is infected by that violence and atrocity.  Once mobilized for violence and atrocity, then, there isn’t any going back to words, language and texts as they were.  Infected by violence and atrocity, other layers of meaning and possibility are permanently in place.

Thus in the Holocaust, the words, language and texts of German history are permanently altered.  The German language itself is infected by violence and atrocity.

That’s an easy one.  Now think of Hebrew – as the language of sacred texts – as the language of Star of David helicopter gunships.  Think of Hebrew as the language used in torture.

Since Jewish continuity and uniqueness is so infected, doesn’t this affect the way we ’roam the gamut of Jewish history to explain the integral relationship of Jews and words’? 



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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