Exile and the Prophetic: An acknowledged future

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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.

If Israel – and Jews in general – are shadowed by the Holocaust and Israel’s birth in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, if we and the world admit both as essential to thinking through a future worth bequeathing to our children, what is to be done to create that future?

At this stage of history it’s ridiculous to think of communities and nations as either innocent or guilty. The very notion of either/or can’t be taken seriously. Every community and nation has either been born in sin or committed sins along the way to think of separating good and evil decisively.

We need to focus on the present. The past as it was and the past as we imagine it is one thing. What the past means is found in the present. What the past might mean will be only become known in the future.

More than the original sin itself, the continuation of the crime after the emergency years are over is unforgivable. Even there, if the crimes at the origins and along the way were truly repented of in action that corrects the injustice, there’s a way to move forward.

Over time a different history is lived and remembered. In the end, the present always win over the past. Individuals and communities have to get on with life.

Granted it’s self-interest for the victors to want to move on but even the oppressed begin to let go of the past when there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The remembered past isn’t static. It shifts with the evolving patterns of life.

Israel/Palestine is endlessly complicated and simple at the same time. In my experience, what Palestinians want is an acknowledged future. Acknowledged in the sense that Israel admits the wrongs it committed; future in the sense of movement toward justice and the ability to live ordinary lives. The details can be worked out if Israelis and Jews outside of Israel are serious.

That’s the trouble. The government of Israel and the Jewish establishment in America doesn’t have a clue as to the way forward. Unfortunately, many Progressive Jews don’t have a clue either.

When Israel’s original sin is factored in the Jewish discussion the equation changes. The fault line in Israel/Palestine is ours – once we get out of the Holocaust equation. In the Holocaust, the world – at least the fascist world – was out to get us. If we think of Israel as our God-given right because of the Holocaust, then Palestinian resistance can only be seen as a form of Jew-hatred.

In our hearts of hearts, Jews know that Jew-hatred isn’t the reason for Palestinian resistance. We know what the Palestinians are faced with and what we do in their place. After all, the Holocaust and the birth of Israel are too close in proximity to ignore the obvious. In Europe, Jews were unable to organize resistance. I wonder if we ‘punish’ Palestinians in direct proportion to their resistance because it touches deep fissures in our previous vulnerability.

I’m wary of psychologizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wince when I hear the often repeated comment that the ‘abused grow up to be abusers’ when it is used as a way of explaining why abused Jews abuse Palestinians.

However, since there aren’t many rational explanations for Israel’s bellicose overreach other than power and empire and, since both conjure up numerous historical examples of dissipated power and defeated empires – we have to raise psychological questions. What are Israeli and Jewish establishment leaders thinking?

Increasingly I’m left with answers that are so troubling I no longer rely only on rational explanations. Other options need to be explored. Nonetheless, to leave the rational and strike out into a Freudian analysis of the Jewish community in Israel and beyond is too little, too late. The point is to stop the oppression of Palestinians before it’s too late. The Freudian couch comes after.

What I would consider fascinating, if the consequences weren’t so dire, is to truly understand why Israel isn’t going to stop its descent into the ethical abyss. It’s already too late to stop Israel in a real sense – that is for Israel to withdraw to create enough space for Palestinians to resurrect their lives. Is it thus too late for Palestine to live and Israel to survive and embrace the truth of its existence?

It’s upsetting for many Jews that the suffering we’re causing now takes precedence over our own historic suffering. It’s even more difficult for many Jews to face the fact that solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is the key to solidarity with the deepest reaches of Jewish history. Regardless, this is where we’ve arrived.

Recycled Jewishness is the only kind of Jewish fed to us by the Jewish establishment. It isn’t fit for our journey into the future. But, then, neither is the deconstruction of our identity by Israelis commentators like Sholmo Sand.

In so far as the new Israeli historians only provide a framework for deconstructing the Israeli – and along with Sand – the Jewish narrative as well, Jews won’t be able to imagine a future where the freedom of Palestinians is understood as essential to the future of Jewish life. Creating a democratic secular society in Israel/Palestine where all are equal regardless of ethnic and religious background may be a laudable goal. Yet if we reach that point even theoretically by deflecting the deeper questions of Jewish identity we’ll have arrived without any depth. There will be no ground for this society to take root.

In The Hague, Jews will experience a kind of Jewish nakedness akin to the Holocaust years though, as well, in a substantially different way. The Hague is the nakedness of the powerful brought to account. Yet the international court of public opinion and its tribunals are only levers that can help strip away the accumulated anger and junk that pervades Jewish life.

For why would Jews want to share power when they think empire is ours for the taking if not for a Jewishness that is more than suffering and a perpetrator of ethnic cleansing – if not for a Jewishness that is more than Holocaust and Israel’s birth – if not for a Jewishness that is more than a false identity or pure construction and never amounted to anything more than naked aggression?

No, in my mind, The Hague is there to remind us that Jews are not above the law, yes, and that Jews are not above – or below – ourselves. Placed in the international docket, Jews are reminded how far we’ve come in the world of nations and how far we’ve fallen in the world of nations, precisely because the people Israel’s vocation is found somewhere else.

It’s always been like this in Jewish history. When others think of Jews as everyday players, like them in every way, and when Jews think of themselves as everyday players, like others in every way – it’s here that the age-old Jewish refusal to assimilate kicks in.

Once the assimilation gets realer than real, it’s off to the races. The rediscovery of Jewish has begun.

If The Hague is our warning against assimilation in the era of Jewish empire, let the cases come quickly. Then an acknowledged future – with justice and compassion – will be right around the Jewish/Palestinian corner.

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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One Response

  1. pabelmont
    December 5, 2012, 10:41 am

    Marc: If this “sermon” could be read to every Jewish congregation in America, we might see the tentative movements toward an ethical (rather than tribal or fear-based or hatred-based or us-versus-them or zero-sum) Jewish response to Israel/Palestine develop even more quickly than it now seems edging toward, millimeter by millimeter. Thanks.

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