When myths about Jews collide with Jewish reality

Israel/Palestine
on 31 Comments

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

I’m preparing lectures for an upcoming trip to Jeju Island and Busan, South Korea. Several weeks later, I’ll be lecturing in Vienna, Austria.

It’s always exciting to travel but taking “Jewish” on the road isn’t for the faint of heart.  Many folks are tired of hearing from and about Jews.  Conspiracy theories are out there, too. The Jewish “control of the world” discourse can be heard even on the Left.  In some circles, Jewish control of the United States is considered a no-brainer.

I’ve been traveling Jewish since 1987.  I can tell you from experience that it isn’t getting easier.

The Korean lectures are for an anti-imperialist international religious network, Peace for Life, and the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches.  There, I will be exploring the possibility of a broad-based anti-imperialist interfaith solidarity with representatives of the Christian and Islamic communities.  In Vienna, too, an interfaith solidarity is the subject, this time focused on Israel/Palestine.

Korea is an imperialist goldmine.  The South and North are dependent respectively on America and China.  Imperial Japan is always lurking in the background of Korean sensibilities as well.  Vienna, of course, is part of Holocaust history.  When speaking in Vienna, it’s difficult to shake the past.  Yet to stay in the past is Jewishly impossible now.  We Jews come after the Holocaust and after Israel.

How to speak about Jewish particularity and the contemporary Jewish civil war over Israel/Palestine in such varied contexts?

Both Korea and Austria are microcosms of the increasing difficulty of speaking about Jewishness in the world.  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s latest UN performance and his continuing attempt to discipline and isolate Iran hardly helps.  Presenting the other side of the Jewish coin is becoming almost impossible.  Nonetheless, it’s important.

At least I think so.

After I return from these travels, sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth the bother.  No matter what I say – and what Jews of Conscience do – stock in ethical Jewish discourse continues to plummet.  Just when I think our ethical standards can’t descend lower, they do.  It’s much like the situation of Palestinians.  Some believe it can’t get worse for Palestinians than it is right now.  It will.

Many Jews of Conscience think discussing Jewishness is a waste of time.  Some think it’s misguided.  The issue is justice not Jewish.

But it isn’t just Netanyahu and Israel policies that make it next to impossible to discuss Jewishness in the international arena.  It’s the Jewish establishment’s love affair with American power.  And as this site has reported, it’s the incredibly silly, really pathetic, internal American Jewish discourse on the Jewish liberal left.

If listening to lectures about Jewishness means having to wade through incredibly self-indulgent, self-serving and myopic arguments about what is and isn’t allowed to be thought and expressed in Jewish life, who in their right mind wants to go near it?

The so-called “breakthrough” thinking on Israel/Palestine is likewise obtuse.  If you couldn’t follow the torturous path of Ian Lustick’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, join the club.

You might as well take a pass on his second attempt published in Peter Beinhart’s Open Zion. Most of Lustick’s second try is spent gathering up the loose ends of his first piece – then splitting them once again.

Here’s Lustick with the questions he has for Israelis and Palestinians.  Judge for yourself where this kind of argumentation is going:

For Israelis: Is statist Zionism the only framework for satisfying Jewish national and cultural ambitions? Can the fundamental inconsistency between “Jewish stateness” and principles of citizen equality be the actual basis for stable relations between equal and powerfully mobilized Jewish and non-Jewish communities? Can those who live in a villa survive in a jungle unless the jungle is transformed into villas or the villa becomes part of the jungle? Can the Jews of Israel ever expect to win an endless competition in brutality with the other peoples of the Middle East?

For Palestinians: Can Palestinians as a people survive an all-out struggle between a Muslim Middle East and a Jewish state capable of using weapons of mass destruction? Can a Palestinian Zionist movement, intent on achieving the “return” to its land generations after the loss of that land, be more successful, humane, or stabilizing in its effects than the Jewish version? Can the category of Palestinian embrace Jews in a way that the category of Zionist was unable to embrace Palestinians?

Anyone who has experienced university programs in Jewish Studies know they are even worse than Lustick’s end-around logic.  Lustick sits on a fence of his own making.  Jewish Studies programs don’t even show up on the “to be seriously considered” radar screen.

So the landscape of Jewish discourse goes.  When the Jewish community squandered its collective wisdom by latching on to a state that knows no boundaries, the fall was inevitable.  Jews of Conscience – and everyone else involved – are reaping the fruits of that squandering.

This doesn’t make it easier to swallow.  For when Jews took this collective plunge into perpetrating the cycle of violence and atrocity in Palestine – and then defend it – real Jewish crimes and myths about Jewish menace and conspiracy were bound to coalesce.

Which they have.

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.

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31 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    October 7, 2013, 10:24 am

    Good luck in Korea and Vienna. But present your own views AS your own. Safer that way.

    ” Presenting the other side of the Jewish coin is becoming almost impossible. Nonetheless, it’s important. At least I think so.”

    THE Jewish coin? Is that where, if there are two coins, there are three opinions? Is thuis E PLURIBUS UNUM (or E PLURIBUS DUUM: Pro-Imperial-Israel and — what? Anti-Israel? Pro-Israel but Anti-Imperialist? Pro-Israel but Anti-Occupation? Pro-Occupation but anti-Settlements? Pro-theocratic-Israel v. Pro-democratic-Israel?

    The Jewish coin? Orthodox v. Secular v. reform, etc.?

    Seem like many sides of a single (“the”) Jewish coin.

    Good luck in Korea and Vienna. But present your own views AS your own. Safer that way.

    • pabelmont
      October 7, 2013, 10:35 am

      My quibble above aside, I find this a very valuable essay. Thanks so much.

      Even if there is more than one way to be a “Jew of Conscience”, as I assume, nevertheless it is far better to try to fall into that category than to persist in the ancient Jewish practice (I’m told it is ancient, and told that it is taught in Jewish communities) of industriously protecting other Jews from attack or from punishment — even or particularly when they are basically criminals busy getting themselves and (in guilt-by-association fashion) getting all other Jews, in trouble.

    • German Lefty
      October 7, 2013, 12:43 pm

      But present your own views AS your own. Safer that way.

      I agree. I really hate it when a Jew refers to Jews as “we”. For example: “We Jews were slaves in Egypt.” or “We Jews were victims of the Holocaust.” This sounds like all Jews who have ever existed and who will ever exist are an inseparable unit. Now, imagine that a non-Jew claimed that all Jews were the same. This person would be accused of anti-Semitism for failing to understand that Jews are individuals.

      • Citizen
        October 7, 2013, 3:52 pm

        @ German Lefty
        I too find the use of the collective “We Jews,” or “our people,” etc by a Jewish individual a blanket, the other side of which reveals “The Jews,” or “those people,”etc. The former side is all positive, the latter, all negative. What’s lost on both sides of this blanket is any sense of individualism. It’s a blanket, or is it a magic carpet ride with equal capacity to descend to the heights or depths?

      • tokyobk
        October 7, 2013, 8:30 pm

        I know you do but guess what? Some US Southerners hate hearing from collective black people and some Israelis don’t want to hear anything about the Nakba. Just suck it up because the consequences of tragedies do last generations. Its true you are not individually responsible and no individual alive today can use a past legacy as an excuse for their behavior. But legacies matter to people. And by the way, no country in the world has done a better job of dealing with its own past than yours, than Germany. Certainly not where I live, Japan which has been terrible at this.

      • German Lefty
        October 8, 2013, 5:38 am

        @ tokyobk

        Just suck it up because the consequences of tragedies do last generations.
        Citizen understood what I mean. You didn’t. I was merely talking about the double standards that a lot of Jews have, usually Zionist Jews. On the one hand, they view Jews as a collective and say stuff like “we Jews”. On the other hand, they find it anti-Semitic when non-Jews view Jews as a collective and say “you Jews”. If these Jews want to be treated as individuals, they need to start talking about themselves as individuals.

        no individual alive today can use a past legacy as an excuse for their behavior.
        Tell that to the Zionists.

        no country in the world has done a better job of dealing with its own past than yours, than Germany.
        I very much disagree with that. It’s true that Germany dealt with its past. But Germany didn’t do it properly. German politicians and media falsely believe that the solution to anti-Semitism (Nazism) is philo-Semitism (Zionism). However, the actual solution is equality and democracy.

  2. hophmi
    October 7, 2013, 10:36 am

    ” It’s the Jewish establishment’s love affair with American power. And as this site has reported, it’s the incredibly silly, really pathetic, internal American Jewish discourse on the Jewish liberal left.”

    That’s right, Marc. That’s a real academic, adult way to deal with political POVs that are not yours. Don’t argue with them. Just call them names.

    “If listening to lectures about Jewishness means having to wade through incredibly self-indulgent, self-serving and myopic arguments about what is and isn’t allowed to be thought and expressed in Jewish life, who in their right mind wants to go near it?”

    OMG. Irony alert! Have you listened to lectures by intellectuals and professors on the far-left? Have you ever read this website? You think the Jewish community is the place where people have arguments about red lines?

    “Anyone who has experienced university programs in Jewish Studies know they are even worse than Lustick’s end-around logic. Lustick sits on a fence of his own making. Jewish Studies programs don’t even show up on the ‘to be seriously considered’ radar screen.”

    I’m sorry, so sorry. I forgot how seriously we take academic discourse in American society. Whose radar screen are we talking about, Professor Diffuse? Yours? CNN’s? You should take a writing course, maybe. They’ll teach you how to, you know, not be vague.

    • talknic
      October 8, 2013, 2:54 am

      @ hophmi This is a gem

      “That’s right, Marc. That’s a real academic, adult way to deal with political POVs that are not yours. Don’t argue with them. Just call them names”

      Then

      “OMG. Irony alert! Have you listened to lectures by intellectuals and professors on the far-left? Have you ever read this website? You think the Jewish community is the place where people have arguments about red lines? “ …. “Don’t argue with them. Just call them names” Irony alert indeed!

      ” I forgot how seriously we take academic discourse in American society” … slowly a profile emerges

  3. Dan Crowther
    October 7, 2013, 11:16 am

    Hannah arendt writes the same thing about 19th Europe in origins of totalitarianism. “When the racism of myth meets the racism of experience”

    Scary shit. Best thing Ellis has written here.

    • seniorpunk
      October 7, 2013, 12:54 pm

      Respectively I suggest that the key is confusion between the individual and social meaning of being Jewish. On the individual level, people can be anything they want-no problem. However when people with a particular identification are viewed by others, those others will see them as part of a social group. The social reality, at least in the U.S., is that Jews are seen as strong supporters of Israel. This is not due to anti-Semitism but simply to the social reality that almost all parts of the Jewish communal world take that position. In other words, the Jewish communal world is what people perceive when they hear the word “Jewish.”

      While some Jews are certainly trying to challenge this situation, so far they have not been very successful. In part this lack of success has been a reluctance to publicly challenge the Jewish institutional structure, perhaps from fear of being called anti-Semitic. I spend a good deal of my happily retired time riding my bike around Chicago; one of the views I often encounter is a sign in front of a synagogue; “We Stand with Israel.” I’ve never seen a sign in front of any Jewish institution saying “Justice for the Palestinians.” Need I say more?

      • pabelmont
        October 7, 2013, 2:21 pm

        SeniorPunk: Wonderful point, those signs.

        The same commandment to protect the Jewish people, everywhere, no matter what (that I mentioned above) probably explains the “if you are not with us you are against us” business whereby all Jews are required (by the institutional power-brokers) to support Israel [1] so as to avoid being called self-haters and [2] with the effect, noticed in this blog, that DISCUSSION is suppressed, in synagogues, in community centers, in the grand organizations, at J-Street (except its meetings, happily!), and so on. Also in USA’s MSM. LOCK-STEP is required. The LOCK-STEP political system seems to require those “We ♥ Israel” signs, or at least to prevent any “We Support Palestinian National Rights” signs.

        [What a wonderful political system, LOCK-STEP! Oddly, given that, Israel is still a democracy for its Jews, although even this is going down the tubes due to lock-step imposed by settlers.]

      • marc b.
        October 7, 2013, 5:31 pm

        i’d disagree with your assessment of identity. it’s a 20th century myth that one can forge an identity completely independent of their ‘social’ identity. see Sartre or the same social scientists of the early advertising industry who both promulgated the myth of an independent identity, while simultaneously exploiting the weakness of personal identity that relies on society to affirm individual identity. I don’t see how someone can consider themselves ‘jewish’ without reference to the collective jewish identity, even if the collective definition is fuzzy.

      • Citizen
        October 8, 2013, 12:01 pm

        @ marc b
        Seems, once upon a time and place, being a Jewish male meant marrying a shiksa–latest ashkenazi DNA study points to this : link to nytimes.com

      • marc b.
        October 8, 2013, 4:48 pm

        so they married ‘up’ then, citizen? good for them.

        I married an irish-american roman catholic girl, me being of polish-French-American roman catholic heritage. despite me ma’s worrying, the mixed marriage turned out fine.

    • MRW
      October 7, 2013, 2:45 pm

      Best thing Ellis has written here. I agree.

  4. Danaa
    October 7, 2013, 1:01 pm

    I think I understand Marc Ellis’ predicament:

    Once upon a time, shortly after the great War, Jews and Conscience were taken as a tautology. How could Jews not know Conscience? did they not stand there as a rebuke to the rest of the world of what happens when Conscience takes a break?

    Now, the mere fact that there has to be a special movement called Jews of Cosnscience is a testimony to how far jewish fortune has fallen in the moral department.

    To make matters worse, it is but small movement, one that may not grace the vaunted debate tables of J Street, and cannot come within 2 blocks of the hollow halls of great jewish establishment.

    Worse yet, the multitudes of other people with more or less faith, the many who struggle with their own Consciences, given history, know about the marginalization of Conscience among the very Jews who once, not long ago, wrapped themselves in universal conscience’s flag, as they stood lecturing about it from the lecterns. From South Korea and to Vienna, they watch Conscience being exiled from Israel, and from the hearts of those who support Israel’s depraved arrogance as it wallows ever more deeply in dark deeds that can barely be mentioned among the civilized. Then marc Ellis has to talk to these same audiences who just watched Netanyahu, the epitome of a man-without-conscience throw a temper tantrum because the time for bombing appears to have dropped back just a tad.

    • Keith
      October 7, 2013, 2:30 pm

      DANAA- “…Israel’s depraved arrogance as it wallows ever more deeply in dark deeds that can barely be mentioned among the civilized.”

      If by “civilized” you are referring to the Western “democracies,” I would suggest that the history of Western imperialism has massive “dark deeds” that, in fact, surpass anything that Israel has yet done. That this dark history is rarely discussed is a consequence both of historical ignorance and of an effective doctrinal system which transforms these dark deeds into noble acts of humanitarian intervention and the white man’s burden in regards to “uncivilized savages.” Israel’s fault isn’t that it deviates significantly from this bloody tradition, but that it conforms so closely to historical norms of imperial brutality and self-righteous callousness.

      • Citizen
        October 7, 2013, 4:11 pm

        EW: “Israel’s fault isn’t that it deviates significantly from this bloody tradition, but that it conforms so closely to historical norms of imperial brutality and self-righteous callousness.”

        I’d say that said Israeli conformity arrived after, and persists after the hard won norm established at Nuremberg & by its international progeny agencies, Geneva, etc. The German leaders were tried under ex post facto law to a significant extent. There’s nothing ex post facto about the international legal norms Israel has been violating. Worse, the USA has followed suit to a significant extent.

      • Donald
        October 7, 2013, 5:59 pm

        “If by “civilized” you are referring to the Western “democracies,” I would suggest that the history of Western imperialism has massive “dark deeds” that, in fact, surpass anything that Israel has yet done…Israel’s fault isn’t that it deviates significantly from this bloody tradition, but that it conforms so closely to historical norms of imperial brutality and self-righteous callousness.”

        Agreed. On your other point, that the West’s dark history is rarely discussed, it’s complicated. Some of it is discussed and some isn’t. We’re getting more and more info about the ugliness of US treatment of blacks–when I was young there was still a lot of whitewashing (pun not intended) on that subject. On the other hand, I think books like, for instance, “Late Victorian Holocausts” never get the sort of attention given to, say, the Nazi Holocaust or the Soviet crimes. (Some people here apparently never knew of Stalin’s famine in the Ukraine until recently, but I knew about it almost as soon as I knew about the Holocaust. It’s not exactly a secret–rightwingers have been talking about it ever since it happened, along with some leftwingers). Also, there’s some sort of built-in time delay with all this stuff—information about a major US atrocity sometimes comes out at the time, and then seems to be forgotten for decades and then is uncovered again when it is at least a century old and there are no longer any living American perpetrators who can express “outrage” when their crimes are condemned. I fully expect America’s terror war torture scandal to recede into the mists sometime in the next decade or so, and then be rediscovered by mainstream historians sometime around 2113.

      • Danaa
        October 8, 2013, 1:51 am

        Keith – I honestly did not mean to be quite so encompassing – the “civilized” I had in mind were more in the sense of politeness-laden soiree’s of the ever-so-well intentioned. Or just your average dinner table for six where all can be discussed, except you-know-what.

        I used to just love them soiree’s. Funny I don’t get invited quite as often. In revenge i spend time with assorted barbarians where anything at all can be mentioned – in the hope that most are too far gone to take note of the etiquette violation (sorry, couldn’t resist. trying to fill in for Mooser here. Failing, I know…).

        As for your comment that; “Israel’s fault isn’t that it deviates significantly from this bloody tradition, but that it conforms so closely to historical norms of imperial brutality and self-righteous callousness.” – there’s much truth to that, but I’ll up you one: israel’s other fault is that it keeps forgetting that there’s internet around now, and what dark deeds were once passed over by virtue of not too many knowing, nowadays it’s all over the front pages of blogs, if not the papers-of-record (too delicate, those). That being said – sensibilities do change. Slavery is no longer palatable, though in various forms it’s still happening effectively (cf. Qatar?). And darker people, not of our caste or religion or group did acquire a measure of humanity, if an incomplete one.

        So back to your comment: Israel runs afoul of some kind of collective desire – in many, if not all parts of the world – to not step back into the past. But a day doesn’t go by that we don’t seem to be dragged back into something we’d rather not confront or deal with. Darkness was everywhere, indeed, for all those centuries past ( the 14th century in Europe is but one favorite example). Must this one little country keep throwing icky, if mythical, biblical times in our face?

      • Stephen Shenfield
        October 8, 2013, 6:19 am

        Well put. But this was always part of the rationale of Zionism. By conforming to imperial norms and taking part in the great enterprise of colonizing “backward” peoples, the Jews would acquire status and respect in the eyes of the imperial powers. However, the Zionists won their state just as the anti-colonial backlash was maturing, jeopardizing their legitimacy as colonialists. Just as they were finally on a winning streak the rules of the game changed. Bad luck!

  5. MRW
    October 7, 2013, 2:38 pm

    Shorter Danaa: Jews throughout history had a moral compass. The moment they got a State, they threw it away.

    • Citizen
      October 7, 2013, 4:12 pm

      The test of virtue is power.

    • Danaa
      October 8, 2013, 1:56 am

      MRW, can I hire you to shorten all my comments?

      An aside: in the biblical admonitions by god to the israelite tribes, he did warn them of the evils of centralized power (be it a king or a state). But did they ever listen?

  6. Kathleen
    October 7, 2013, 2:47 pm

    Good piece Marc. When the “chosen people” myth gets dropped far more inclusion could take place. Instead of cultivating exclusive, superior standings based on myths cultivate inclusive “we’re all god’s children” thinking, beliefs.

    Talk about how all nations including Israel should sign the NPT, play by the same rules etc. You all ready know that when anyone cultivates more we all have similar struggles and yet you point out the facts about the trials and tribulations of Jews without making excuses for Israel’s brutal behavior folks are bound to be more empathetic..because the person speaking is

    Good luck…

  7. marc b.
    October 7, 2013, 5:24 pm

    agreed. one of the professor’s best, both in style and substance.

  8. Annie Robbins
    October 7, 2013, 6:14 pm

    I’ve been traveling Jewish since 1987. I can tell you from experience that it isn’t getting easier.

    you’re a jewel marc ellis

  9. Robert
    October 7, 2013, 6:29 pm

    Message to Marc Ellis about Jewish “conspiracy theory”: many have a lot of proof and justification. I won’t give details here because I don’t want to be filtered. I have changed my views almost 180 degrees on the issue of conspiracy in the past 2 years.

    Take a look at what I wrote 2 years ago on Mondoweiss at July 5, 2011 at 1:01 pm.

    link to mondoweiss.net

    The fact was, I hadn’t read anything at the time and showed a usual physicists’ skepticism of conspiracy theories.

    Zionist infiltration of the United States government and many other governments at the highest levels is an extraordinarily serious issue. Take a look at this

    link to middleeastmonitor.com ,

    where General Amos Yadlin openly states that “the Military Intelligence Division has established networks for collecting information in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco which are able to have a positive or negative influence on the political, economic and social scenes in the countries.” That’s straight from the General’s mouth, it’s no “conspiracy theory”!

    Regarding the United States, Veterans Today has confirmed that John Kerry genuinely believed that the Assad government had used chemical weapons because of bogus intelligence that was *falsely confirmed by a high level Israeli mole* in the national security apparatus.
    link to veteranstoday.com

    I feel sorry for your situation with your lectures, Marc, but truth is truth you need to adjust to the grim reality. Your audiences are not at fault.

    • Danaa
      October 8, 2013, 2:21 am

      Robert, glad to see you have moved your position in view of more evidence. This is as it should be. You will likely be attacked though if you bring up Veterans Today (not by me, mind you).

      Thanks for the stroll down memory lane to that old interesting post by Phil and the ensuing interesting conversations. Gosh, I do so miss Jeffrey Blankfort at times….(and the old me, who, prompted by jeff, went far and wild into matrix land, OT and all. And, of course, the old free-ranging comment boards, even if they still had Witty. Boy, those were the days!).

  10. tokyobk
    October 7, 2013, 8:22 pm

    Korea is a funny place re: Jews (so is Japan but Korea moreso). Lot’s of intense shared Chosen people feelings– no pun intended as “Cho-sen” is one old name for Korea, and creepy would be emulation of small “obviously” superior nation surrounded by obviously jealous enemies. Plus intense Christianity which makes Jews seem special in themselves as a relic from the time of Jesus, and also as potential converts with bonus points. Look forward to hearing about your experience and if you encounter this variety of philo-semitism/self love.

    PS: That is not what Chosen is supposed to mean so while I agree with you somewhat Kathleen, it is only to the same extent I don’t want to be told Jesus is -the- way and the truth or that the shahada is what separates those bound for Janna or Jahannam (plus lots of earthly distinctions between us and them.)

  11. mcohen
    October 8, 2013, 5:16 pm

    When myths about Jews collide with Jewish reality

    Marc H. Ellis on October 7, 2013 29

    “When the Jewish community squandered its collective wisdom by latching on to a state that knows no boundaries, the fall was inevitable.”

    this guy I know,not jewish, just got back from Israel,lots of stories to tell,said he went to yad vashem,and noticed the rifles hanging up at the reception -they belonged to a soldiers tour group
    I told him that sums it all up, right there,

    page 1 from the “collective wisdom book”

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