Exile and the Prophetic: Is Israel too big to fail?

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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.

The huge British bank, HSBC, just agreed to a $1.9 billion settlement with the United States government.  Its crime: transferring billions of dollars for nations like Iran and allowing Mexican drug cartels to launder money in the US and beyond. 

Yet crime it isn’t, at least as defined officially by those prosecuting the case.

Government officials have decided that HSBC is too big to fail.  Because it is one of the largest banks in the world, they’ve concluded that criminal prosecution might destabilize the global financial system. The risk is too great.  A rap on their financial knuckles rather than prison for bank officials is the order of the day.

‘Too big to fail’ is the international mantra now.  Though it first surfaced during the final months of the Bush administration and early days of Obama’s first term, ‘too big to fail’ is a huge part of our future.

This isn’t just about financial institutions.  Reading the news reports on HSBC, I thought of the European debt crisis and countries like Ireland, Greece and Spain.  The European Union made the decision that these nations were too big to fail.

Is Israel too big to fail?  In all our considerations of the Israel/Palestine ongoing crisis, we don’t often consider this as part of our equation.  We should.

Obviously we’re not talking about the size of Israel’s economy.  Israel’s relative size and the region it’s situated in doesn’t make it that kind of player.  Other considerations are more important. 

With Israel, we often think about Middle Eastern oil.  Israel is a strategic asset of the West in a turbulent region.  This has been true and remains so – up to a point.  Recently, commentators have emphasized how the diversity of energy resources is diminishing the centrality of the Middle East to the world’s energy future.

If we consider how the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem play in the world imagination we begin to see other parts of the picture.  Now factor in how Jews and the Holocaust play in the world’s imagination.  ‘Too big to fail’ isn’t only about finances or oil.

In the world’s imagination Israel, Jerusalem, Jews and the Holocaust play in different ways.  It isn’t all positive by any means.  Though it seems counterintuitive, the negatives may make Israel even bigger than the positives would have it. 

Those who want Israel to fail help secure Israel’s ‘too big to fail’ status. They place too many chips on the historic and religious table.  Likewise they play the political instability chip that even Arab countries opposed to Israel’s existence don’t want cashed in.

Any significant change in the world threatens someone’s stability.  Those in power want stability.  Even when they push the stability envelop – think of President Morsi of Egypt – the powerful seek to create another form of stability more to their liking.

Is this why Israel floats above criticisms of its policies toward Palestinians?  These policies are roundly condemned by the international community.  And since they are at the very heart of Israel’s existence as a state in its founding and ongoing policies of expansion and consolidation, it’s quite curious that the challenge to Israel is so contained. That is, unless you understand Israel’s ‘too big to fail’ status.

Is Israel too big to fail in terms of Jewish history?  In my view, the answer is yes.  This may be the reason for the mainstream Jewish ‘Israel, right or wrong’ attitude.  Though most Jews, including Jewish leadership, know little about Israel in real terms, their commitment to virtual Israel is clear.  Jews have a subconscious sense that Israel’s failure would represent the collapse of Jewish history.

The irony is that most Jews know that Israel has already failed. Jewish history has already collapsed.

Is that we’re stuck in a Jewish civil war?  Where both sides know that Israel can’t fail and already has?

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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