Exile and the Prophetic: Introduction to Jews and Empire 101

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.

It isn’t just Jewish Israelis that have to come out. Israel is built upon an original injustice. That’s obvious. Jews in America have to come out as well. We benefit from all sorts of injustice.

Best to think of it as a collective Jewish coming out – with global implications.

Jews can’t really hide in plain sight, at least not for long. When injustice becomes the norm of Jewish life, the prophetic reappears. It happens repeatedly. I call it the persistence of the prophetic.

What happens when the Jewish prophetic reappears? It has reverberations for the global prophetic.

To be a Jew without borders – the poet, Adrienne Rich’s desire – and without state violence – the philosopher, Judith Butler’s desire – is the ideal. But since we have borders and state violence; since we benefit from both; since we can’t build a future worth bequeathing to our children unless we dismantle both; since we won’t be able to dismantle either in our lifetime or beyond, we are left with our haunting present.

What is to be done?

First we announce our location. In Israel, Jews admit they are citizens of a state which ethnic cleansing made possible. While ethnic cleansing took place in the United States as well, here the Jewish responsibility is different. In the main, Jews in America came after the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans. In Israel, it was a hands-on affair. Jews did the ethnic cleansing.

Second, Jews in America admit that we are citizens of a state, significant portions of which were built by slave labor and other forms of class oppression. Today, we benefit from Empire America. More than passive beneficiaries, Jews in America are empire enablers for self-serving reasons. One reason is affluence. Another reason is American support for the mini-empire Jewish Israelis control.

There is a difference here, too. In America, Jews benefit from and enable empire. In Israel, Jews exclusively build, maintain and extend Israel’s empire.

The startling fact is that 75% of world Jewry live within, benefit from and enable empire. Mark this as the most significant change in Jewish history.

Is this change discussed, confronted, investigated, critically evaluated or even admitted to by the Jewish community at large? Have you ever read this discussion in texts that introduce contemporary Jewish life to Jews or the broader public? Personally, I’ve never heard of a college course in Jewish Studies – “Introduction to Jews and Empire 101.”

This unacknowledged empire involvement hardly inhibits Jews in Israel and America from offering highly sophisticated security, military technologies and commentary of all sorts. We offer these empire services proudly, as if we had developed the last defense of civilization. It is our rendition of the White Man’s Burden.

There’s more, much more. What we can say as a third point – and here Jews of Conscience stand tall even with our contradictions – is that increasing numbers of Jews in Israel and America are announcing and evaluating our empire location as a cautionary note to Jewish and world history.

The explosion of the prophetic voice is directly related to naming our location. Naming empire is the point of departure for the prophetic voice in our time. Therefore it is right for Jews to call out the powers that be and each other, as long as it is in the spirit of embracing a future different than the present we currently inhabit.

Emphasizing the Jewish trauma of controlled borders and state violence is rightly ridiculed when it is used to evade responsibility. But if trauma it is, then let it out, tremble, state it boldly, recoil from it, crawl into a fetal position and lambaste others – for a time. After suffering from and perpetrating the cycle of violence and atrocity, these are authentic responses. Why pretend to be in control?

Even the hint of our empire location is seen by some as the first step on the slippery slope toward our unacknowledged history. Is this the reason that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was booed at a conference in New York City, organized by the Jerusalem Post, last weekend? That he, a former Prime Minister to boot, dare suggest Israel would have to make “painful concessions” to create a Palestinian state so Israel could remain a Jewish state and live in peace, frightens some Jews. This first acknowledgement might not end there.

The denial is deep. Yet what a light unto the nations when Jews admit where we have arrived.

At least Biblically-speaking, we were the first ones to admit our empire location, as slaves within it, exit from empire to build a new socially equalitarian society, rebuild empire and be told – by the prophets – that rebuilding empire was an offense against God.

Here we are again.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of Future of the Prophetic: Israel's Ancient Wisdom Re-Presented.
Posted in American Jewish Community, Israel/Palestine

{ 3 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. pabelmont says:

    The issue is not (to my mind) the fact of state violence (that is what police, armies, prisons, et al., are for) — but the fact of state violence assessed as ILLEGITIMATE.

    The USA and Israel are notable for use of illegitimate state violence, indeed for the apparent abandonment of any standard of legitimacy or mechanism of limitation to avoid illegitimate use of state violence.

    These two states are not the only ones, but are notable, and the oddly-chosen word “exceptionalism” perhaps describes the mental set by which these states say (to their detractors and their consciences) “We are special, what we do MUST BY DEFINITIION be legitimate because we are exceptions to the rule — the rule that illegitimate use of force is natural, a danger to be avoided.

    Jews are not the only people who profit from illegitimate state violence. The USA’s major early use of state violenmce, including assassination and instalation of dictators, was to benefit banana companies, oil companies, mining companies.

    I am not sure that american Jews profit from Israel’s state violence, but it appears that many of us think so — and the very, very few, very, very rich Jews who largely fund the Israel Lobby evidently think so.

    And yes, we (and all other Americans) should learn the truth and speak up about it, rock the boat a bit. Indeed.

  2. hophmi says:

    “Israel is built upon an original injustice. That’s obvious.” So’s America. So when are we boycotting that?

    “When injustice becomes the norm of Jewish life, the prophetic reappears. ”

    Injustice isn’t the norm in Jewish life any more than it is in Muslim life.

    “To be a Jew without borders – the poet, Adrienne Rich’s desire – and without state violence – the philosopher, Judith Butler’s desire – is the ideal. ”

    Says you, and few others outside of the far left.

    ” In Israel, Jews admit they are citizens of a state which ethnic cleansing made possible. While ethnic cleansing took place in the United States as well, here the Jewish responsibility is different. In the main, Jews in America came after the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans. In Israel, it was a hands-on affair. Jews did the ethnic cleansing.”

    As did the enemies of the Jews, when they had the chance. So this is pointless.

    “Second, Jews in America admit that we are citizens of a state, significant portions of which were built by slave labor and other forms of class oppression. Today, we benefit from Empire America. More than passive beneficiaries, Jews in America are empire enablers for self-serving reasons. One reason is affluence. Another reason is American support for the mini-empire Jewish Israelis control.”

    Sorry, not our job. This is an American responsibility, not an exclusively Jewish one. You can’t say on the one hand that Jews are wrong to be exclusive and then burden them with exclusive responsibilities. Jews, without question, are overrepresented in the ranks of those standing up for the oppressed. That you suggest otherwise is nonsense. We are not collectively “empire enablers.” That’s antisemitic nonsense.

    “There is a difference here, too. In America, Jews benefit from and enable empire.”

    How, exactly? Because we have more money as a community than others? Because we don’t agree with the fashionable leftist position on the Arab world?

    “Is this change discussed, confronted, investigated, critically evaluated or even admitted to by the Jewish community at large? Have you ever read this discussion in texts that introduce contemporary Jewish life to Jews or the broader public? ”

    Yes, all the time. Every day, in just about every liberal Jewish forum that I know of.

    “Personally, I’ve never heard of a college course in Jewish Studies – “Introduction to Jews and Empire 101.””

    And I’ve never heard of course in Islamic studies with that title either, even though there are 1.5 billion Muslims in 57 Muslim countries and 15 million Jews, mostly in 2.

    “Even the hint of our empire location is seen by some as the first step on the slippery slope toward our unacknowledged history. Is this the reason that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was booed at a conference in New York City, organized by the Jerusalem Post, last weekend? ”

    No, it’s because most of the audience is far to the right of American Jewish community, and they are not interested in the two-state solution, just as you aren’t interested in it, Mark.

  3. RE: “Therefore it is right for Jews to call out the powers that be and each other, as long as it is in the spirit of embracing a future different than the present we currently inhabit.” ~ Marc Ellis

    ALSO SEE: The Albatross of Israel, by Norman Pollack, Counterpunch, 5/01/13

    [EXCERPTS] . . . Growing up in the 1940s I was intensely proud of being Jewish. . .
    . . . [M]y ties to Judaism, not necessarily as one who was observant, remained virtually absolute, to the extent of being blind to what we now can see as a form of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people with the formative stages in the establishment of Israel.
    Still, in the late 1940s, I travelled in rare circles, shaking hands with Abba Eban at a fund-raising event, etc., and into the next decade admittedly taking pride in Israeli militarism as necessary and desirable in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Only very gradually did my perception of Israel change—far later than was the case of fellow radicals. I will not, in this May Day moment, elaborate further on the progression of my thinking during the intervening period, but rather turn to the present, and pose the question: Can one be Jewish (and by that I mean, proud of its radical heritage, conversant with and respectful of Torah, and therefore, comfortable with and not defensive over an identity as a Jew) and at the same time be unalterably opposed to the policies and actions of the State of Israel? I think, Yes. Obviously, the political-cultural-ideological scene argues the diametric opposite: one must be a staunch supporter of Isreal or one is a self-hating Jew. Simple as that. And further, one must not only ignore Israeli atrocities, but also champion retrograde forces on the world scene—from US interventions on a global basis to assassination as an acceptable practice, whether Mossad or CIA.
    I remain defiant when I say, not only can and should Judaism be disentangled from Israel in all things pertaining to its militarism and the persecution of others, but also, that Judaism as a noble religion cannot survive with the albatross of Israel around its neck—and the corresponding rightward turning of Jews in America. The best thing American Jews can do, and I say this for the sake of Israel, but a truly democratized Israel, and one that would be a blessing to Judaism, is to cut through the patriotic verbiage, the cant, the playing upon Holocaust memories, and unceremoniously condemn Israel where condemnation is warranted, starting with the victimization of the Palestinian people—but not stopping there, because at present Israel is the flash point of an explosive region, isolated largely from its own doing, for which its nuclear arsenal will not protect it and just may be provoke a world conflagration. . .

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – link to counterpunch.org