When myths about Jews collide with Jewish reality

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

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