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

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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.

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

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