Exile and the Prophetic: Introduction to Jews and Empire 101

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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.

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

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