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.
So what if Britain, France, Spain, Denmark and Australia called Israel’s ambassadors in for a talking to after the retaliatory Jerusalem/West Bank settlement plans were announced? Even the American government had harsh words for Israel’s actions. Israel’s attitude: ‘Get lost. We’ll do what we want.’
Israel is pouting over the international support for Palestine in the United Nations. What Israel needs is counseling sessions on anger management – before Israel’s anger pushes it off the Empire Cliff of its own making.
Anger can create empire – when you have power. Anger can create facts on the ground – when you have power. Anger can increase your status – when you have power. Anger can create a way of life – when you have power.
What anger can’t do is help you embrace others and yourself at the deepest levels of our common humanity. Anger can’t create justice. The political powers of the world have little interest in embrace or justice. The contemporary Jewish world doesn’t seem to have any interest in either.
How sad it is to write these thoughts. How far we’ve strayed from our deepest sense of what it means to be Jewish.
When the power goes, as it will, what will be left? Because we’re not sure we have anything left, we cling to anger as a shield.
At what risk? What’s interesting about anger once it’s institutionalized is that it’s often quite rational – up to a point. We all need a place in the sun and sometimes the only way to reach it is through strength. Left unchecked, however, anger becomes irrational. Anger overreaches. Everything built up is at risk.
So Israel is created in violence, defended through a society-wide militarization and then expanded in war, occupation and settlements. A nation is built, fortified and extended.
Now what? Peace through strength? Peace through balancing Jewish and Palestinian needs? A joint enterprise that invests Jews and Palestinians in a future that secures both?
Just the opposite occurs. With victory and consolidation, aggression increases. Language and action become more and more bellicose.
What happens because of this? To start, the real, more complicated, history of Israel, the history that includes the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, a history could have been recovered and explored in another era after the co-existence of Israel and Palestine was assured, is exposed, first by Palestinians and then by Jewish Israelis. Exposing Israel’s real history of its birth blew the lid off of Israel’s innocence.
What followed? Decades of Jewish denial and anger. Did denial have the desired effect? Was the new history of Israel’s origins rejected? Not at all. That history is now accepted internationally. It’s also accepted by more and more Jews.
Israel’s overreach opened a Pandora’s Box of history that needed time to absorb and a place of safety to be considered. Now the historical issues raised threaten to derail Israel’s entire enterprise.
The ‘new historians’ on the Jewish side – Ilan Pappe is a prime example – rewrote Israel’s origins, highlighting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians once subsumed under the rubric Israel’s ‘War of Independence.’ In turn, the history of Israel’s origins – Israel’s original sin – helped give rise to Jews of Conscience.
Jews of Conscience embody the Jewish prophetic in our time. It was awakened by the injustice witnessed in Israel’s post-1967 occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands. That injustice, though, only made sense when seen through the historical lens of Israel’s origins that the new Israeli historians uncovered. To the question of why Jews were settling the West Bank, the historians responded: Because Israel in its origins is a settler state.
To make a consistent and organized Jewish resistance possible a link had to be established between now and then, present day Israel and the creation of Israel. What differentiates Progressive Jews and Jews of Conscience is this linkage.
With the new Israeli historians another part of Pandora’s Box opened: The contradiction of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state. Was the fact that Palestinians were cleansed from Palestine so that Israel would be a Jewish majority state have anything to do with Israel’s continual expansion after the 1967 war and its continual denial of a Palestinian state? Jews of Conscience answered in the affirmative.
How did the Jewish establishment respond to this linkage? With decades of Jewish denial and anger. Did denial have the desired effect? Was the connection between Israel’s origins as a Jewish state, its expansion and the continual denial of Palestinian statehood rejected? Not at all. That history is now accepted internationally. It’s also accepted by more and more Jews.
Connecting the dots makes the critique of Israel more honest and incisive. It does away with Jewish innocence. What are you left with when Jewish innocence is undermined? The Jewish prophetic.
If the injustice hadn’t continued in the present and thus became so urgent to confront, would the initial injustice, already known by Palestinians, have become so prominent in Jewish life? Probably not. The prophetic would have awakened but remained truncated. Jews of Conscience wouldn’t be contemplating the one-state solution.
It might be that it was inevitable that the new history was uncovered and thought through by Jews of Conscience. It might also be that, though for Palestinians it was a belated awakening, Israel’s expansionist policies forced a Jewish reckoning that was fortuitous. We don’t know if the uncovering of the original sin of Israel by Jews of Conscience will actually force Israel to come to grips with the real history of Israel and stop, perhaps even reverse its trajectory. What we do know is that more and more Jews are contemplating such a scenario.
It turns out that the history the Jewish establishment called upon to justify its power was more complicated than they knew or were willing to admit. Within decades of Israel’s establishment as a state, the use of the history of Jewish suffering as a lever of power was unmasked by its use of history to oppress Palestinians. In a strange way, the misuse of the Holocaust undid Israel’s claim to innocence.
Over reach is Israel’s middle name. So far, it has survived and even thrived. Nonetheless, that same overreach introduces unpredictability into the logic of power. Just when inevitability is assumed, a wild card arrives.
Most historical wild cards don’t change the situation immediately. Often they come into the world without much fanfare. Then one day notice is taken. The wild card has eaten away the foundations of injustice.
The new history of Israel’s origins is that wild card. Interesting it was first published during the same years that Amos Oz began arguing for an Israeli/Palestinian divorce. I haven’t seen J Street’s overall program but I doubt that Israel’s ethnic cleansing is a featured subject at any of its conferences. How far behind the times they are. Is J Street the last rear-guard action to keep Israel’s innocence – and anger – alive?
Whereas once the Holocaust shadowed everything Jewish, today Israel’s origins are that shadow.
Or both are, since Israel’s origins and history raise questions about what the lessons of the Holocaust really are.
This is a very important, real – and political – question for our Jewish and non-Jewish world. One lesson is the need for all peoples to be empowered. Another lesson is that no community should be disempowered. Is yet another lesson that no people can be prioritized over another?