This is part two of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Just a few days after I arrived at the Cape, as a rocket was lifting off nearby my apartment, the news of Yitzhak Shamir’s death crossed the wires. When a rocket lifts off, I hear the rumble in my apartment. It’s so loud, the apartment shakes. It’s feels like a minor earthquake, at least that’s the sensation as I hear it from others who live in earthquake zones.
At first, I experienced Shamir’s death as an afterthought. As in, is he still around? But in his prime Shamir was important. As Prime Minister of Israel in the late 1980s, early 1990s, Shamir sealed the deal against a Palestinian state. Under his leadership, the settlement explosion in Jerusalem and the West Bank continued. Then he ordered the crushing of the first Palestinian Uprising which was carried out courtesy of his cabinet minister and recently minted saint, Yitzhak Rabin. On crushing Palestinian aspirations, the right and left-wing of Israeli parties have always come together. Rhetoric differs. Actions are virtually identical.
Shamir was an early and controversial terrorist against the British in Mandate Palestine. At his order, executions were commonplace. His early career as a terrorist didn’t disqualify him from political leadership in the state of Israel. On the contrary, his terrorist credentials promoted it. Like the other Prime Ministers before and after him.
Who of the early Prime Ministers of Israel could have served if terrorism or ethnic cleansing disqualified them? This includes Rabin who was honest enough to admit his role in “removing” Palestinians from their homes to create a Jewish state. There is no use singling him out though. The whole pantheon of Israel’s heroes is involved. This answers the current question I’m often asked as to whether Jews can be ethnic cleansers. Since Jews have experienced similar horrors so often at other’s hands, it seems like a contradiction. Like the mezuzah on the door post?
As I say, in history practice trumps theory. In theory, Jews cannot be ethnic cleansers. In fact, we are. Can Jews participate in ethnic cleansing? The answer – “Yes.”
I remember Shamir vividly because I was often on the road during those years speaking on the Palestinian Uprising. For me the Uprising was our last possibility as Jews to forge an ethical future. Israel and Jews around the world faced a clarion call: “Stop oppressing the Palestinian people!” The Jewish response (at least from those in power): “Crush them! Teach the Arabs a lesson in the only way they know – through force.”
That was part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s eulogy of Shamir. His refrain, more or less: “The Arabs are as they are. Does this also mean: “The Jews are as they are?” How often this is said about Jews. Now we specialize in saying it about others. Curiously, we seem to have become what we say others are. We have become frozen into the image and reality of empire builders and enablers. Without admitting this to ourselves, of course. This is what Shamir was. What Netanyahu is. Is this our fate as Jews? Is this what our history boils down to?
Traveling during these years, I had the sense that this was our last chance to turn around. Today I am even more certain that the Uprising years were the last possibility. Shamir wanted to close that door shut, tighter than tight. He did.
Another memory during those Uprising years. Wherever I went to speak the most hostile groups, especially at universities, were progressive Jews. They also wanted to close the door shut, tighter than tight, on any Jewish dissent that was to the left of them.
This is a lesson we should ponder. The problem wasn’t only the identifiable ethnic cleansers of Palestinians. They knew what they had done and why. One might even admire their clarity while disagreeing with their policies. Shamir didn’t have a doubt in his mind that what he did was right.
If progressive Jews have second thoughts, they keep them to themselves. They want everyone else to keep it to themselves as well. Thus they are part of the problem. Progressive Jews fought against views that might have substantively addressed the Israel/Palestine issue. Examples abound from that time period. They were against: cutting off American aid to Israel; sending Witness for Peace delegations into the occupied territories; criticism of the Oslo Accords as too limited. What is now commonly held sometimes even by them, progressive Jews labeled anti-Semitic and self-hating.
The ethnic cleansing/permanent occupation facts on the ground left the station decades ago. So why, oh why, can’t progressive Jews admit it? My own sense is that they are so involved in American and Israeli empire, so deeply dependent on and benefitting from it, that like other Jews they are blind to what has already occurred to the Jewish ethical tradition. Instead, they invoke that tradition at every turn. Even against those Jews who believe that its very invocation covers over its violation.
I don’t exempt myself from this critique. How can I? Jews identity today is characterized by imperial sensibilities to such an extent that they are invisible to us. As in, who me? Us? No way.
Imperialism has penetrated so deeply into the core of what it means to be Jewish that calling them out provokes an intense reaction. It’s like a traumatic wound that cannot withstand the light of day. Like the idea that Jewish history has collapsed and that our post-Holocaust era is marked by atrocity, then – against us – and now – against others.
We live in the Golden Age of Empire Judaism. Shall we hide ourselves from this knowledge? Traveling globally, it’s like a secret known all over the world block. The question is our own awakening. To know and speak what is already known. By others. By us.