Exile and the Prophetic: Israel’s failure and the Jewish civil war

Israel/Palestine
on 7 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.

Israel has already failed – in relation to Jewish history – there isn’t any doubt about that.  What remains to be seen are the contours of that failure. 

Rather than the victory of one side or the other, the failure of Israel and what that failure means for Jewish history is the essence of Jewish civil war.

On its face, fighting a civil war over failure seems ludicrous.  If you’re in the trenches, however, you know that fighting over failure is the most lethal kind of warfare.  Especially when it comes to a people whose self-identity asserts a destiny.

When you’re up against the wall, there isn’t much room to maneuver.  Everything is on the line precisely because there’s so little left.  One misstep means all the difference. 

History is dodging bullets on the macro-scale.  History is also taking a bullet if it has your name on it.  In history, it’s either now or then.  If you dodge one bullet, there’s another one on its way. 

The matter is survival, living another day.  So it is for the individual and for communities.  Peoples, religions, nations – no one is immune.

Israel fails on the moral and ethical front.  It happens everywhere.  So what? 

Since Israel has failed ethically, only survival remains.  That happens everywhere, too.  So what?

The ‘what’ are exile and the prophetic – the essence of what it means to be Jewish.  Survival without ethics and morals doesn’t do it – Jewishly.  That would mean living without a destiny.

Now, we want to say this is true everywhere.  We want to affirm that, for example, without an ethical center the United Kingdom or China wouldn’t have a reason to exist.  Instead, we believe that the failure of their ethical compass is correctable.  They can chart another more ethical course. 

Ultimately, the internal standard these nations are judged by is nationalistic.  Despite critique from some quarters, the yardstick is the nation-state.  What has each nation done for itself and, in doing this, contributed to the world?

Jews who beat their nationalistic chest are seen, correctly, as worldly wannabes. 

Take Holocaust literature as an example. Though Holocaust literature implicitly makes the case for Israel, its Jewish nationalism is disguised.  When nationalism is admitted it’s a peculiar – Jewish – kind of nationalism. 

I think of Jewish nationalism as a weak nationalism.  It harkens back thousands of years to a formative event that is revealed in a struggle for the liberation of a people from slavery.  It involves a promised land that is a promised future.  That future in the land has to be earned through justice and compassion.  If that future is betrayed the people Israel and their governmental structure are done for.  Israel doesn’t exist just to exist.

Weak nationalism is true of Jewish discourse beyond the Holocaust.  The great American Jewish champions of Israel – and Israeli power – speak of Israel as a moral cause, as good against evil, not nation against nation.

One of the functions of the state of Israel is to regularize Jewish nationalism or self-correct it so that ‘Jewish’ before nationalism is the same as British or French or Chinese or Japanese before nationalism.  Unfortunately for Israel as a nation-state, that substitution doesn’t work.

When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, those close to Rabin were invited to their home to sit shiva.  Yassir Arafat was invited and came.  Arafat sat as a mourner without his kafiya.  Benjamin Netanyahu was given the cold shoulder.  Leah Rabin’s comment about Netanyahu at that time ran something like this:  ‘If Netanyahu and his policies triumph in Israel, my grandchildren will not be living in Israel.’

If that’s nationalism, it’s a most peculiar kind.

Leah Rabin died as the second Palestinian Uprising brewed and as the Apartheid Wall was being considered.  Since her statement there have been invasions of Lebanon and Gaza as well as the crushing of the second Palestinian Uprising.  Meanwhile, the settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank have grown considerably.  Is it just coincidence that Israeli’s permanent leave-taking for other parts of the world – predicted by Leah Rabin – has grown as well? [See a new poll published today: "almost 40 percent of Israelis are thinking of emigrating."]

Israel is divided economically between the haves and have-nots.  It is divided between the secular and religious.  What has escaped our attention is perhaps the greatest division in Israeli society – the division between those who remain and those who leave Israel.

The ever growing Israeli Diaspora proves that Israel might be too big to fail but not too failed to leave.

What the Israeli Diaspora likewise proves about Jewish nationalism is that the failure of Israel has produced another exile, the exile Israel was supposed to end.  And strange as it might seem at first, the Israelis who leave Israel behind rarely identify with the nation they live in.

Israelis who have left Israel see Diaspora Jews as assimilated to their host culture, which they decidedly are not.  But then what are Jewish Israelis doing except replicating the history of the Jewish Diaspora before that assimilation?

Despite their assertiveness of a bold departure in Jewish history, Jewish Israelis live Jewish – Diaspora – destiny full-stop.  In the end, they are weak nationalists.

The Jewish civil war is about Israel’s failure.  Is it also about the break in Jewish history that Israel was supposed to represent and didn’t?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of Burning Children: A Jewish View of the War in Gaza which can be found at www.newdiasporabooks.com

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7 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    December 15, 2012, 2:48 pm

    I am no more a friend of Israel than, say, of Fiji, and I’m not fond of Jewish self-celebration either, but what is all this defeatism (for a state I rather detest), Israel: “Rather than the victory of one side or the other, the failure of Israel and what that failure means for Jewish history is the essence of Jewish civil war.”

    Where can we find “the failure of Israel”? On whose terms? Aren’t the right-wing absolutely jubilant? Don’t they control Israel, the USA, and the EU? Haven’t they achieved immunity and impunity w.r.t. international law and humanitarian law? Aren’t they on top of the world? Aren’t they trouncing the Palestinians? Do they desire anything else? So where is the failure?

    OK, you want Israel to correspond to your reading of the (old) Jewish religion, with ethics and morals, with a harkening back to this sort of thing: “This is what the LORD says to Zerubbabel: It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.” But that (old) religion has been declared “caduc” in Israel; Israel was founded by secularists of Jabotinsky’s stripe. Just as Arafat declared part of the PLO’s founding documents “caduc”, the Israelis have over 64 years showed that, for them, the (old) Jewish religion is “caduc”. This not “failure”, this is triumph of the (new) Jewish religion — the religion of the strong arm which ignores the law of its neighbors.

    Even if there were civil war — i.e., something more than the teensy violence of settler zealots against the IOF, which is but a small fraction of the settler zealot violence against the Palestinians and still smaller than the violence of the State of Israel against the Palestinians (since 1948) — how would this signal, and to whom and why would it signal, a “failure of Israel”?

    If you are disappointed that Israel is, today, not “moral”, then when was it ever moral? Is this “failure” in your view something new, recent?

    And if huge international forces should arise and force Israel to retract territorially back to its 1966 borders (or even farther: forces huge enough for the one are big enough for the other), how would this be a “failure” for Israel apart from the disappointment of its grandiose dreams of seizing territory by use and threat of war — which UN Charter and UNSC 242 deplore?

    So, I hope Israel is frustrated, does have civil war — though this would be a big danger for the adjacent Palestinians, always early victims and whipping boys of Israeli violence — and is finally forced to retract territorially. Sure. My dream. But I would not see that as a “failure” of the Jews or even of Israel, any more than losing WWII was a “failure” for Germany or Japan (beyond the disappointment of it all, and a little destruction along the way, of course). But those who so blatantly and energetically and joyfully “live by the sword” cannot complain too much if there is a subsequent re-arrangement brought about by other folks using swords or other forms of power (BDS, sanctions).

    On the other hand, the huge support (or lack of vocal criticism) of Israel by Jews in dispora suggests to me the most dreadful moral “failure” of the Jewish people in dispora. But this is nothing new, either.

  2. yourstruly
    December 15, 2012, 4:43 pm

    israel a moral cause?

    more like a lost cause

    what with 40% of israelis thinking of emigrating

  3. DICKERSON3870
    December 15, 2012, 7:01 pm

    RE: “Leah Rabin’s comment about Netanyahu at that time ran something like this: ‘If Netanyahu and his policies triumph in Israel, my grandchildren will not be living in Israel.’ . . . Since her statement there have been invasions of Lebanon and Gaza as well as the crushing of the second Palestinian Uprising.” ~ Marc Ellis

    SEE: “The Dogs of War: The Next Intifada”, By Uri Avnery, Counterpunch, 9/03/11

    [EXCERPT] . . . The second (“al-Aqsa”) intifada started after the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David conference and Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative “visit” to the Temple Mount. The Palestinians held non-violent mass demonstrations. The army responded with selective killings. A sharpshooter accompanied by an officer would take position in the path of the protest, and the officer would point out selected targets – protesters who looked like “ringleaders”. They were killed.
    This was highly effective. Soon the non-violent demonstrations ceased and were replaced by very violent (“terrorist”) actions. With those the army was back on familiar ground. . .

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – link to counterpunch.org

  4. DICKERSON3870
    December 15, 2012, 7:09 pm

    ● RE: “One of the functions of the state of Israel is to
    regularize Jewish nationalism or self-correct it so that ‘Jewish’ before nationalism is the same as British or French or Chinese or Japanese before nationalism. Unfortunately for Israel as a nation-state, that substitution doesn’t work.
    ~ Marc Ellis

    ● THE WORDS OF A FORMER ISRAELI BACK DURING ISRAEL’S ATTACK ON GAZA IN 2009 DURING “OPERATION CAST LEAD”: “The only thing that could unite people [in Israel] and temporarily brought out more kindness and a sense of cooperation was a feeling of being under collective threat, and in particular a ‘good wholesome war’” ~ Avigail Abarbanel

    ● SEE: “Israel’s Trauma Psychology and the Attack on Gaza”, By Avigail Abarbanel, Sunday 4th January 2009

    [EXCERPT] . . . Israel has been itching for a ‘good war’ for a while now. The botched attack on Lebanon in 2006 was a psychological disappointment that did not fulfil its purpose, and only led to a deepening chasm between the political and military arms in Israel. An Israeli friend told me in disgust the other day, that there is an atmosphere of ‘national orgasm’ in Israel about the prospect of attacking Iran. While people are being bombed in Gaza, all Israelis can talk about is the coming attack on Iran. But there is a link between the two.
    Israel’s social problems have grown exponentially over the past 15 years. It’s a very different Israel now than the one I grew up in. There is more violent and organised crime than ever before, and more domestic violence and abuse of children than ever. There are more drugs and drug use, and they have drunk-driving, something I have never encountered while I was still living there. This is reflected in official reports as well as in the daily newspapers.
    My brother who lives in Israel described to me how soldiers who spend their military service in the Occupied Palestinian territories implementing Israel’s brutal occupation, come home on weekends only to get involved in drunken armed brawls and murders. This was unheard of in my time.
    Israelis have never been particularly kind to each other. It’s one of the reasons I left actually. In my late twenties I started to grow weary of the unkind, harsh and unforgiving atmosphere around me. It was a tough place to live in not because of our ‘enemies’ but because of how people treated one another. You would believe that we were all enemies rather than people who have some kind of a shared heritage. The only thing that could unite people and temporarily brought out more kindness and a sense of cooperation was a feeling of being under collective threat, and in particular a ‘good wholesome war’ . . .

    SOURCE – link to avigailabarbanel.me.uk

    AVIGAIL ABARBANEL’S SITE - link to avigailabarbanel.me.uk

    • DICKERSON3870
      December 15, 2012, 7:29 pm

      ● RE: “The only thing that could unite people [in Israel] and temporarily brought out more kindness and a sense of cooperation was a feeling of being under collective threat, and in particular a ‘good wholesome war’” ~ Avigail Abarbanel
      ● AND RE: “Israel is divided economically between the haves and have-nots. It is divided between the secular and religious.” ~ Marc Ellis

      ● SEE: “Another Superfluous War”, By Uri Avnery, OpEdNews, 11/16/2012

      [EXCERPTS] . . . One of the more miserable sights of the last few days has been the TV appearances of Shelly Yachimovich and Ya’ir Lapid. The two shining new stars in Israel’s political firmament looked like petty politicians, parroting Netanyahu’s propaganda, approving everything done.
      Both had hitched their wagons to the social protest, expecting that social issues would displace subjects like war, occupation and settlements from the agenda. When the public is occupied with the price of cottage cheese, who cares about national policy?
      I said at the time that one whiff of military action would blow away all economic and social issues as frivolous and irrelevant. This has happened now.
      Netanyahu and Barak appear many times a day on the screen. They look responsible, sober, determined, experienced. Real he-men, commanding troops, shaping events, saving the nation, routing the enemies of Israel and the entire Jewish people. . .
      . . . the real remedy is peace. Peace with the Palestinian people. Hamas has already solemnly declared that it would respect a peace agreement concluded by the PLO — i.e. Mahmoud Abbas — that would establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, provided this agreement were confirmed in a Palestinian referendum.
      Without it, the bloodletting will just go on, round after round. Forever.
      Peace is the answer. But when visibility is obscured by pillars of cloud, who can see that?

      ENTIRE COMMENTARY – link to opednews.com

  5. DICKERSON3870
    December 15, 2012, 7:39 pm

    ● RE: “One of the functions of the state of Israel is to
    regularize Jewish nationalism or self-correct it so that ‘Jewish’ before nationalism is the same as British or French or Chinese or Japanese before nationalism. Unfortunately for Israel as a nation-state, that substitution doesn’t work.
    ~ Marc Ellis

    ● MY COMMENT: Uri Avnery refers to this to Herzl’s “white lie”.

    ● ZIONISM’S “WHITE LIE” ACCORDING TO URI AVNERY (VIA BERNARD AVISHAI), Feb. 2010:

    [EXCERPTS] The Israeli Interior Ministry recognizes 126 nations, but not the Israeli nation. An Israeli citizen can be registered as belonging to the Assyrian, the Tatar or the Circassian nation. But the Israeli nation? Sorry, no such thing.
    According to the official doctrine, the State of Israel cannot recognize an “Israeli” nation because it is the state of the “Jewish” nation. In other words, it belongs to the Jews of Brooklyn, Budapest and Buenos Aires, even though these consider themselves as belonging to the American, Hungarian or Argentine nations. Messy? Indeed.
    THIS MESS started 113 years ago, when the Viennese Journalist Theodor Herzl wrote his book “The State of the Jews”. (That’s the true translation. The generally used name “The Jewish State” is false and means something else.) For this purpose he had to perform an acrobatic exercise. One can say that he used a white lie.
    Modern Zionism was born as a direct response to modern anti-Semitism. Not by accident, the term “Zionismus” came into being some 20 years after the term “Antisemitismus” was invented in Germany. They are twins. . .
    . . . Herzl understood that the new reality was inherently dangerous for the Jews. In the beginning he cherished the idea of complete assimilation: all the Jews would be baptized and disappear in the new nations. As a professional writer for the theater, he even devised the scenario: all Viennese Jews would march together to St. Stephen’s cathedral and be baptized en masse.
    When he realized that this scenario was a bit far-fetched, Herzl passed from the idea of individual assimilation to what may be called collective assimilation: if there is no place for the Jews in the new nations, then they should define themselves as a nation like all the others</b, rooted in a homeland of their own and living in a state of their own. This idea was called Zionism.
    BUT THERE was a problem: a Jewish nation did not exist. The Jews were not a nation but a religious-ethnic community. . . Herzl had to ignore this difference. He pretended that the Jewish ethnic-religious community was also a Jewish nation. In other words: contrary to all other peoples, the Jews were both a nation and a religious community; as far as Jews were concerned, the two were the same. The nation was a religion, the religion was a nation.
    This was the white lie. There was no other way: without it, Zionism could not have come into being. The new movement took the Star of David from the synagogue, the candlestick from the Temple, the blue-and-white flag from the prayer shawl. The holy land became a homeland. Zionism filled the religious symbols with secular, national content. . . The first to detect the falsification were the Orthodox Rabbis. Almost all of them damned Herzl and his Zionism in no uncertain terms.
    When Herzl originated the Zionist idea, he did not intend to found the “State of the Jews” in Palestine, but in Argentina. Even when writing his book, he devoted to the country only a few lines, under the headline “Palestine or Argentina?” However, the movement he created compelled him to divert his endeavors to the Land of Israel, and so the state came into being here.
    When the State of Israel was founded and the Zionist dream realized, there was no further need for the white lie . . .

    . . . [W]hy do the words “Jewish state” appear in our [Israel's] Declaration of Independence? There was a simple reason for that: the UN had adopted a resolution to partition the country between an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state.” That was the legal basis of the new state. The declaration, which was drafted in haste, said therefore that we were establishing “the Jewish state (according to the UN resolution), namely the State of Israel.”…
    . . . LIKE MOST of us at the time [of the founding of Israel in 1948], David Ben-Gurion believed that Zionism had supplanted religion and that religion had become redundant. He was quite sure that it would shrivel and disappear by itself in the new secular state. He decided that we could afford to dispense with the military service of Yeshiva bochers (Talmud school students), believing that their number would dwindle from a few hundred to almost none. The same thought caused him to allow religious schools to continue in existence. Like Herzl, who promised to “keep our Rabbis in the synagogues and our army officers in the barracks,” Ben-Gurion was certain that the state would be entirely secular. . .
    . . . BUT THE white lie of Herzl had results he did not dream of, as did the compromises of Ben-Gurion. Religion did not wither away in Israel, but on the contrary: it is gaining control of the state. The government of Israel does not speak of the nation-state of the Israelis who live here, but of the “nation-state of the Jews” – a state that belongs to the Jews all over the world, most of whom belong to other nations.
    The religious schools are eating up the general education system and are going to overpower it, if we don’t become aware of the danger and assert our Israeli essence. Voting rights are about to be accorded to Israelis residing abroad, and this is a step towards giving the vote to all Jews around the world. And, most important: the ugly weeds growing in the national-religious field – the fanatical settlers – are pushing the state in a direction that may lead to its destruction. . .

    SOURCE – link to bernardavishai.blogspot.com

  6. pabelmont
    December 17, 2012, 6:51 am

    I have read the comments here with interest, especially the descriptions of violence, drunkenness, etc., among Israeli soldiers. My sense has long been — but based on my own speculation, not on experience or reading — that a country built and based on violent robbery, a country which especially prizes military toughness but whose military is better at crushing its victims with over-the-top excesses of violence than at taking (obeying) orders, a country which does not punish excessive violence by soldiers but prizes it: that SUCH a country is bound to abound in internal violence, because the people (at least the soldiers, mostly men) are trained to excessive violence, and prize it.

    American soldiers may suffer from similar transformations of character as a result of military service, but — until recently — American wars have been brief and the proportion of Americans involved as fighters has been small. I think America sees quite some violence-against-others from returned soldiers, especially against wives, and also violence-against-the-self, often partly a result of PTSD, brain-damage, and other wounds.

    Israel, by contrast, has maintained itself as on a war-status in perpetuity. War fever must be maintained. The capacity for soldiers to behave with extraordinary cruelty and arbitrary violence must be constantly trained and supported socially.

    So, all in all, small surprise that the society is quite violent. It is in essence a deliberate choice made by a country which has elected to live among — and ever to increase the anger of — enemies (that is, its permanent victims).

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