Exile and the prophetic: No dissenter is an island

Israel/Palestine
on 13 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.

There’s a sadness about it all, what we Jews have become, at least on the American and Israeli side, where most Jews live.

But if we’re holding out for some nostalgic return to a European/Arab/North African pre-Holocaust/pre-Israel Jewry or an internationalist postcolonial Frantz Fanon Left– as if there’s a purity in either – it’s unlikely to happen.  

Traveling back in time is for the cinema.  Back to the Future is unreal for any identity, including Jewish.

Besides, geographically and ethically, Jews were all over the map then, too.  Ethnicities and religiosities are like nation-states.   Memory makes them better than they were.

Is European – American – Israeli – and every Jewish group sucked into that now normative vortex we might call Empire Jewish – fated to declare war on everyone outside of Europe, America and Israel?  Sometimes it looks like that. 

When I read Joseph Massad, the intrepid Jordanian-born Palestinian and professor at Columbia University, I try hard not to extrapolate from his analysis.  Read him for yourself, you’ll see it’s easier said than done.  I consider this a tribute to his challenging words. 

I’m also following a series on Mondoweiss regarding Jewishness and how Jewish activists wear and/or discard their identity.  It’s fascinating to read how Jews identity Jewish.  Even when they distance themselves from Jewish, they do so in such an identifiable – Jewish – way. 

Mossad and the Mondoweiss series challenge Jews everywhere.  What is Jewish identity and where do certain Jewish identity configurations lead?

Even in the most intimate of circumstances being Jewish is rarely simple.  As a Jew, have you ever been with someone who loves your Jewishness when you take on the Jewish establishment but values you personally in so far as your Jewish identity doesn’t exist beyond being born Jewish? 

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will.  When it does, think how far we’ve travelled in identity’s Time Machine.  Moving forward, you find yourself experiencing the past you thought was left behind. 

Palestinians need all the allies they can get.  Nonetheless, I would be wary of those who prize Jews as fighters of the Jewish establishment only.  When Palestinians come into their own, these same folks will expect Palestinians to be street fighters in public and universalists at home.

The Palestinian cause has never been a human and political rights issue – only.  The Palestinian cause has never been a non-White world issue – only.  The Palestinian cause has never been an Islamic and Arab cause – only.  First and foremost, the Palestinian cause is a Palestinian cause.  Palestinians shouldn’t apologize for this, should they?

Palestinians shouldn’t be Palestinians in public and universalists at home.  Nor should Palestinians be universalists in public and Palestinians at home.  If either option is adopted we’re back to the European Enlightenment wherever Palestinians live.  We’re back to 18th and 19th century Europe and Jewish “emancipation.”  Talk about traveling back in time!

There’s a discourse out there that sees Euro-American White Zionist Jewishness as criminal in and of itself.  Like there’s something inherent in Jewishness that pre-disposes Jews to criminal alliances when the opportunity arises.  Historically, though, I’ve noticed that every particularity, including Palestinian, faces the same alliance temptations whenever that opportunity presents itself.

Massad is clear on this when he speaks of the Palestinian Authority and Arab dictatorships.  Jews who seek to jettison their identity for justice – and who know Massad to be right – are caught up short here.  Because if every identity configuration is tempted to align itself with unjust power, including the universalist Left, where are identity’s resources to break this headlong fall into power’s original sin?

I doubt that jettisoning Jewishness will accomplish the “I’m not complicit” trick.  Even that jettisoning is historically identifiable as Jewish. 

Here’s what I think about identity and justice: 

When an individual can’t locate her resistance somewhere beyond her individuality, she needs to broaden her search.

Without a rooted identity, there is no resistance. 

No man is an island – as the saying traditionally goes.  No dissent is an island either.   

All of this goes for Palestinian dissent – and Jewish dissent as well. 

Where does this lead?

Much more reflection is needed.  What we should know by now is that neither particularity without universalism nor universalism without particularity will move us closer to a justice that is achievable and livable.

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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13 Responses

  1. Don
    May 18, 2013, 12:34 pm

    “Read him for yourself, you’ll see it’s easier said than done. I consider this a tribute to his challenging words.”

    Most definitely a tribute…and in the same spirit…reading you, Prof Ellis, is not always a piece of cake.

  2. Citizen
    May 18, 2013, 2:06 pm

    Every child I ever met, including myself way back in the day, had a keen sense of fairness–aka justice. This cut across cultures, race, ethnicity, wealth, etc. I think humans are born with this awareness, although early education of every sort slants it in matters of impact beyond the immediate individual self, that is, we are taught as children to empathize with some, not others, to walk in X’s shoes in imagination, but not Y’s shoes. I don’t think Mr. Ellis’s logic takes enough account of this situation. No man is an island, nor is a man simply a tiny part of the main. Both are the roots of human self-identity, the main is happenstance. I don’t think the main is primary unless one has not grown in the Maslow pyramid context. Adults are just old kids, or more, or less, depending on the context–their choice.

  3. SQ Debris
    May 18, 2013, 6:59 pm

    So simple and simultaneously baroque Professor.
    “Without a rooted identity, there is no resistance. ”
    ?#*$^#+! We all have a firmly rooted identity – we’re Earthlings. The rest is decorative delusion. Universalism seems to rub the wrong way? How about we give it a shot both in public and at home? If we as a species understand that “as long as one person is oppressed then no one is free” we don’t need to cling to narrow tribal/religious/racial/nationalist identities. We can simply struggle to end that oppression. You don’t need to be a “Hawking” to get your head around that.

  4. Stephen Shenfield
    May 18, 2013, 9:04 pm

    Your first proposition (“When an individual can’t locate her resistance somewhere beyond her individuality, she needs to broaden her search”) at least admits that an uprooted individual is capable of resistance. But your second proposition retracts this admission: “Without a rooted identity, there is no resistance.” Am I alone in detecting a logical contradiction here?

    What is “identity” anyway? You seem to be talking about ethnic identity, because you insist on “roots” and an identity based on convictions, for instance, lacks roots. Nevertheless, resistance based on individual conviction is quite possible. On what “rooted identity” was Galileo relying when he told his inquisitors: “Eppur si muove” (the earth still moves, not the sun)?

    Trees have roots. People have legs.

    Stalin was also opposed to “rootless cosmopolitans” — perhaps you would clarify the difference between his view and yours?

  5. DICKERSON3870
    May 19, 2013, 12:14 am

    RE: “There’s a discourse out there that sees Euro-American White Zionist Jewishness as criminal in and of itself. Like there’s something inherent in Jewishness that pre-disposes Jews to criminal alliances when the opportunity arises. Historically, though, I’ve noticed that every particularity, including Palestinian, faces the same alliance temptations whenever that opportunity presents itself.” ~ Marc Ellis

    GEORGE ORWELL CONCURS*: “Notes on Nationalism”, by George Orwell, 1945

    [EXCERPTS] . . . All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. . .

    . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind. . .

    SOURCE (“Notes on Nationalism”, by George Orwell, 1945) – link to orwell.ru

    * Catch Me If You Can Movie CLIP – “Doctor…, Do You Concur?” (2002) [VIDEO, 01:53] – link to youtube.com

  6. DICKERSON3870
    May 19, 2013, 12:50 am

    RE – “Exile and the prophetic: No dissenter is an island

    STING CONCURS IN AN EARLY SUMMER NIGHT’S MUSICAL INTERLUDE, proudly brought to you by the makers of the new Über-Xtreme Ziocaine Ultra SR (Sustained Release) Transdermal Patch®: Let The Good Times Roll!™

    ♫ Just a castaway
    An island lost at sea
    Another lonely day
    With no one here but me
    More loneliness
    Than any man could bear
    Rescue me before I fall into despair

    I’ll send an SOS to the world
    I’ll send an SOS to the world
    I hope that someone gets my [x3]
    Message in the bottle, yeah [x2]

    A year has passed since I wrote my note
    But I should have known this right from the start
    Only hope can keep me together
    Love can mend your life
    But love can break your heart

    I’ll send an SOS to the world [x2]
    I hope that someone gets my [x3]
    Message in the bottle [x2]

    Walked out this morning
    Don’t believe what I saw
    A hundred billion bottles
    Washed up on the shore
    Seems I’m not alone in being alone
    A hundred billion castaways
    Looking for a home

    I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world [x2]
    I hope that someone gets my [x3]
    Message in the bottle, whoa…oh
    Message in the bottle, yeah
    Message in the bottle, oh
    Message in the bottle
    Sending out an S.O.S.
    Sending out an S.O.S.
    Sending out an S.O.S.
    Sending out an S.O.S. . . [ad nauseam] ♫

    ● The Police: “Message In A Bottle” [VIDEO, 04:06] – link to youtube.com

    P.S. To the best of my knowledge I’m not significantly Jewish (at least from the standpoint of DNA). Nevertheless, I do consider myself a “Jew of Conscience”.
    Go figure! ! !

    • DICKERSON3870
      May 19, 2013, 1:41 am

      P.P.S. RAY McGOVERN REFERRING TO RABBI ABRAHAM HESCHEL AND “AMERICANS OF CONSCIENCE” [AUDIO, 38:00]
      5/15/13 Ray McGovern
      Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern discusses the scores of Guantanamo prisoners being denied the right to “escape” by starving themselves to death; how Obama could close Guantanamo – if he really wanted to; using civil disobedience to effect political change; why Americans remain almost completely ignorant of Israel’s attack on the USS Liberty in 1967; and Mearsheimer and Walt’s incomplete analysis of the Israel lobby.
      LINK – link to scotthorton.org

  7. RJL
    May 19, 2013, 1:28 am

    Ellis, you have some serious double speak here. As to Jewish identity, you are a reductionist; you have filtered it down merely to the act of dissent. Really? How do you define traditional Jews, who live by the Torah guidelines? We aren’t your kind of Jews; but then, how do you define us? We don’t live primarily for zionism, but the defense of our people, and their survival, makes us defacto zionists. Dirty word for you. So, in your words, how do you explain us orthodox Jews? We’re not disappearing, thank G-d. I think your type will be gone long before, dissolved into the assimilationist pool of “gone, left no forwarding address”. What kind of Jewish generation are you leaving behind, after you’re gone?

  8. American
    May 19, 2013, 11:37 am

    Why do you have to have a identity to be a ‘resister or for ‘justice or have ‘compassion? I don’t see it.
    I’m hiking along a road in Burma when I see a old man being attacked by thugs, I intervene…..what’s my identity in that?

  9. yourstruly
    May 19, 2013, 12:20 pm

    trying to decipher “If every identity crisis is tempted to align itself with unjust power, including the universalist left, where are identity resources to break this headlong fall into power’s original sin”.

    first of all, what universalist left? if there were (or ever has been) such a left, wouldn’t it always (without exception) have sided with the oppressed, never with the oppressor? Example, por favor (aside from jc)? based on an ideal, seems to me this would be a well rooted identity.

    and what was power’s original sin? was it the initial oppression of one or more individuals by some more powerful individual(s)?

  10. RoHa
    May 19, 2013, 8:37 pm

    Oh, no. I take a day off, and more tripe about “identity” gets plastered on to MW.

    And poor John Donne gets dragged into it without even an acknowledgement. “As the saying traditionally goes” – Pah!

    (Did you take the first line of Holy Sonnet XI literally?)

    Here’s where it comes from:

    ‘No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….”

    (In modern spelling, here: link to luminarium.org)

    In mankind, not some tiny, involuted, self-obsessed, subsection.

    And being involved in mankind is all the rooting one needs for compassion, justice, and resisting injustice.

  11. RJL
    May 20, 2013, 6:25 pm

    Professor Ellis, we are certainly at opposite poles. But, I’d still like a response to my posted question. How do you make sense out of us orthodox Jews? We’ve been around for a very long time; mode of dress changes, and the food and music of the varied countries have made their impact. But, whether from Yemen or Belarus, the Torah scroll is virtually identical; even the old melodies sung on the high holidays are very similar. Who are we? Can we all be “descendents” of the Khazars? Who “converted” us so thoroughly, even making the trip all the way down to Yemen and further east? Come on, you laugh at national loyalties, but you’d never say that to a Palestinian. Why?

  12. RoHa
    May 21, 2013, 8:29 pm

    “Come on, you laugh at national loyalties, but you’d never say that to a Palestinian. Why?”

    Ellis can speak for himself*, but I do not laugh at national loyalties. I expect people to be loyal to the country that sustains them. (Though not “my country right or wrong”, of course.) This sense of loyalty is that of providing mutual support for fellow citizens. In this sense, I expect Australians to be loyal to Australia, and Bolivians to be loyal to Bolivia.

    But neither orthodox nor non-orthodox Jews are a nation.

    And if an Australian citizen, born and brought up in Australia, tells me s/he is a Palestinian, my response will be “No, you’re an Australian.”

    But this does not mitigate the injustices that the Zionists commit and have committed, and nor does it deny the rights of the Palestinians in Palestine (including that part of Palestine which is now Israel), the Palestinians in the camps, or those Palestinians who have not taken citizenship in other countries.

    (*Or at least quote English poets without knowing that he is doing so.)

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