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Exile and the Prophetic: Tighter than tight

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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.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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22 Responses

  1. chinese box
    chinese box
    July 6, 2012, 10:32 am

    Thanks for your perceptive observations Marc. In the same way that a segment of the American Jewish population seems to be stuck in a past where anti-semitism lurks around every corner, Israel seems to be regressing as well. The “security fence” reminds me of the city walls that were built in antiquity

  2. Rafi
    July 6, 2012, 12:06 pm

    They rejected partition, they wanted a Mongolian total war, they got it. It was a cleanse or be cleansed war, apologies for winning, and it still is. Between the Jewish tradition of being a “protected” minority and what you call “the Golden Age of Empire Judaism”, you choose the former, but the majority of Jews don’t. You talk about forging an ethical future, but we wouldn’t have a future to forge of any kind without our empire, ask the Bund.

    Shamir called Bibi “an angel of destruction”.

    • seafoid
      July 6, 2012, 12:12 pm


      do you have any hobbies?

    • chinese box
      chinese box
      July 6, 2012, 12:24 pm

      “It was a cleanse or be cleansed war, apologies for winning, and it still is.”


      I think you just made the author’s point. Ever heard of the Geneva Conventions? What century are you living in?

      • Citizen
        July 7, 2012, 6:19 pm

        yes, chinese box, and just think, “It was a cleanse or be cleansed war” right on the heels of the Nuremberg Trials, which outlawed such a thing, “and still is.”

        In a less hypocritical world, a bunch of Israelis would be tried, and a few dozen US neocons too. Then hanged.

    • Edward Q
      Edward Q
      July 6, 2012, 1:52 pm

      “They rejected partition”

      That is convenient. So Israeli misconduct is excused if this claim is true.

      In general, morality is based on the idea of a similar set of rules and standards applying to everyone. What exactly was the value of the property taken from the Palestinians in 1948? Is that a standard that everyone or anyone should accept?

    • American
      July 6, 2012, 1:52 pm

      “You talk about forging an ethical future, but we wouldn’t have a future to forge of any kind without our empire, ask the Bund.”…Rafi

      Such, such, such as fool you are. You do not understand that the world’s tiny Jewish population has no future with Israel’s evil ‘Empire’. Your empire is totally based on America’s empire, not your own and you are foolish to think that will last forever.
      You should pay attention to what Marc is telling you, that is the only way you will continue to exist…and even then it’s doubtful you will be entirely forgiven such evil hypocrisy.
      It’s becoming more and more obvious no one can stop you from self destructing so I guess it’s a waste of our energy to keep warning you away from what you are doing.

    • Light
      July 6, 2012, 2:07 pm

      Welcome Rafi. You appear new to Mondoweiss. When you say “they” do you mean Ben Gurion, Begin and Shamir?

  3. seafoid
    July 6, 2012, 12:35 pm

    They didn’t want to give their country to a cult of aliens. And they were right.

  4. W.Jones
    July 6, 2012, 2:05 pm

    Shamir was an early and controversial terrorist against the British in Mandate Palestine. At his order, executions were commonplace.
    Not cool.

    For me the Uprising was our last possibility as Jews to forge an ethical future.
    I think it still exists if they change.

    We have become frozen into the image and reality of empire builders and enablers. Without admitting this to ourselves, of course.
    Maybe you are wrong. What about the many people who equate empire with “Civilization”? Don’t they recognize this and like it?
    Ancient Rome is considered “civilization”, yet its oppression of subject nations (like Judea) and people it outlawed (like Christians) was extremely brutal and uncivilized. So just because a group considers itself glad to serve empire and “civilization” doesn’t really mean it is ethical after all.

  5. YoungMassJew
    July 6, 2012, 2:50 pm

    I admit that Jews have the capacity to be ethnic cleasnsers. They won’t shut me up, whether on here, or on Facebook, or in a Jewish neighborhood. They can’t pay me any amount to keep me quiet.

  6. RoHa
    July 6, 2012, 9:07 pm

    “the Jewish ethical tradition”

    I keep seeing this mentioned.

    • Citizen
      July 7, 2012, 9:49 am

      RoHa, where, in the Talmud? Not in Kant, nor in The Enlightenment.

      • RoHa
        July 7, 2012, 8:24 pm

        I see people on this site mentioning it.

      • wondering jew
        wondering jew
        July 8, 2012, 4:42 am

        The Talmud is some 5200 pages long. How many pages of it, have you studied? But I think despite its richness the Talmud’s wisdoms are too interspersed with negative un-wisdoms to cite it as the source for Jewish social consciousness. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos are usually cited as the Jewish sources of Jewish social consciousness.

      • Citizen
        July 8, 2012, 8:55 am

        Have you read it all, fredman? The scrubbed English version available to all?
        I agree with the wisdoms and “un-wisdoms.” And, how many angels are on the head of a pin is simply exercise in debate, not that that’s a bad thing. The bipolar world view re ethics in it, the double standard, is not highly praised today, at least in public. Koran has some similar problems.

      • wondering jew
        wondering jew
        July 8, 2012, 11:16 am

        Citizen- No, I haven’t read it all, but I’ve probably read 100 to 300 times as much as you. You think because you’ve read 3 pages worth of quotes of the evil stuff you can diss it. You can diss it, as in freedom of speech. But you can’t diss it, as in pretending to be knowledgeable, when in fact you ain’t.

        And unlike Christianity that limits the world to come to people who are saved by their belief in Jesus, the Talmud grants the world to come to all good people. So there are pluses and minuses in all the top 3 monotheistic religions.

        I think the enlightenment is the cat’s meow and it is the way forward, if indeed we head forward. but to ignore the social consciousness of the prophets and focus on the ugly Talmud and therefore there ain’t nothing in that Jewish book and the Jewish practice that added to human consciousness is ignorant and biased.

  7. Graber
    July 6, 2012, 10:33 pm

    Thank you so much for your writing and your voice here at Mondoweiss, Marc. I deeply appreciate it.

    I do believe that the Jewish Federation must be held accountable. This is becoming increasingly obvious, as they associate with the likes of Pamela Gellar these days. But how long have they promoted the blue boxes of the Jewish National Fund? How long has the Israeli Consulate been meeting with the Jewish National Fund, with AIPAC, and with the Jewish Federation?

    Another question I do find myself pondering more these days, particularly living in Philadelphia, is the resilience of white supremacy in United States (which I see as synonymous with W.Jones idea of “civilization”), as manifested in our support of the state of Israel, the prison-industrial and military-industrial complexes, and the genocide of the indigenous people of America.

  8. DICKERSON3870
    July 8, 2012, 8:13 pm

    RE: “That was part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s eulogy of Shamir. His refrain, more or less: The Arabs are as they are. . .” ~ Marc Ellis

    MY COMMENT: Like father, like son!

    SEE: “The Dilemmas of Israeli Power”, by Roger Cohen, New York Times Op-Ed, 2/13/12

    (excerpt). . . Some of the most fascinating pages of “The Crisis of Zionism” [by Peter Beinart] trace the ideological backdrop to the bitter clash between Obama and Netanyahu. Beinart demonstrates the strong liberal Zionist influence of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf on Obama during his Chicago years. Wolf hated the idea of “an Israel besieged by anti-Semites;” his teaching was “interfaith” and “integrationist.” It cleaved to the liberal roots of American Zionism and the ethical teachings of the prophets who, as expressed in Exodus, commanded Jews not to oppress strangers “having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
    The contrast with Netanyahu — raised in the Jabotinsky strain of Zionism by a father who viewed Arabs as “semi-barbaric”* and rejected an “emasculating moralism” [e.g. universal human rights] in favor of a new warrior breed of Jew — could scarcely be greater. . .


    * P.S. Bibi Netanyahu is a racist!
    Bibi Netanyahu’s father is a racist!
    Bibi Netanyahu’s son is a racist!

    SEE – “Bibi’s Father’s Answer to the ‘Arab Problem’: Hang’ Em in the Town Square”, By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 4/04/09

    (excerpts) Imagine, if you will, if Barack Obama’s real father was Rev. Jeremiah Wright and imagine, if you will, that Wright gave an eight-page interview to USA Today the week of Obama’s inauguration. Then you can imagine the “interest” with which such a Maariv interview with Bibi Netanyahu’s father was met in Israeli circles.
    Noam Sheizaf, who works for Maariv, has translated portions of the interview . . .
    . . . And without further ado, I give you, Ben Zion Netanyahu, the father of the man:
    . . . • Question: You don’t like the Arabs, to say the least.
    Benzion Netanyahu: “The Bible finds no worse image than this of the man from the desert. And why? Because he has no respect for any law. Because in the desert he can do as he pleases.
    The tendency towards conflict is in the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence. His personality won’t allow him any compromise or agreement. It doesn’t matter what kind of resistance he will meet, what price he will pay. His existence is one of perpetuate war.” . . .
    Question: Is there any hope of peace?
    Benzion Netanyahu: …No…The two states solution doesn’t exist. There are no two people here. There is a Jewish people and an Arab population… there is no Palestinian people, so you don’t create a state for an imaginary nation… they only call themselves a people in order to fight the Jews.”
    Question: So what’s the solution?
    Benzion Netanyahu: “No solution but force… strong military rule. Any outbreak will bring upon the Arabs enormous suffering. We shouldn’t wait for a big mutiny to start, but rather act immediately with great force to prevent them from going on…
    If it’s possible, we should conquer any disputed territory in the land of Israel. Conquer and hold it, even if it brings us years of war. We should conquer Gaza, and parts of the Galil, and the Golan. This will bring upon us a bloody war. . .” . . .


    AND SEE: “Netanyahu Family’s Racist History: Like Father, Like Son”, By Richard Silverstein, 07/12/11

    (excerpt) Jewish tradition declares that children shall not be punished for the sins of their fathers. But it didn’t anticipate a son like the 19 year-old Yair Netanyahu, who appears to retain some of the harsh Arab-hatred that characterizes both his father, Benyamin, and 98 year-old grandfather, Ben Zion. I have written here of the latter’s call for hanging Arabs in the nearest town square to teach them who’s boss, a punishment he contends that was quite effective in the Ottoman era. Apparently, he doesn’t realize that the despotic Muslim Ottomans may not be the political model he wishes Israel to emulate. In 1989, Benyamin, his father advocated expelling Israeli Palestinian citizens from the State in a comment I’d personally never heard until I read it and published it here.
    The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say. Here are a few of the choice racist comments (and a shorter English article) this excellent expose by Uri Blau attributes to Yair Netanyahu via his Facebook page…


    • DICKERSON3870
      July 8, 2012, 8:37 pm


      . . . SEE: “Board member of MEMRI– beneficiary of State Department grant– seems to approve racist claptrap”, By Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss, 8/15/11

      (excerpt) Many of you have checked out the GangreenTV videos of Israeli government ministers saying things that– if they were American public officials saying this stuff, they would be out of office tomorrow. In the second video, the Israeli Justice Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman says that African immigrants converting to Judaism are the great threat to Israel, whereas in the U.S. it’s all the Jews marrying non-Jews that’s the threat– “accomplish [ing] what the accursed Hitler did not.”
      Well Natan Sharansky shares a stage with both ministers making these repellent remarks, and in the second instance, he appears to approve the message
      , clapping Ne’eman on the back at the end of his statement against Africans (4:06)…

      SOURCE –

      AND SEE: “Anti-African Hysteria Sweeps Israel”, by Uri Avnery, Counterpunch, 6/15/12

      (excerpts) “We shall not be a normal people, until we have Jewish whores and Jewish thieves in the Land of Israel,” our national poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, said some 80 years ago.
      This dream has come true. We have Jewish murderers, Jewish robbers and Jewish whores (though most prostitutes in Israel are imported by international slave traders from Eastern Europe through the Sinai border).
      But Bialik was too unambitious. He should have added: We shall not become a normal people until we have Jewish Neo-Nazis and Jewish concentration camps.
      The central news item nowadays in all our electronic and print media is the terrible danger of “illegal” African migrants. . .
      . . .The government is now feverishly at work building huge tent camps in the arid Negev desert, in the middle of nowhere, in which tens of thousands of migrants will be imprisoned for three years in what cannot but be inhuman conditions. . .
      . . .As a citizen of a state that calls itself “Jewish”, or even “the state of the Holocaust survivors”, I am disgusted.
      I have heard innumerable times about Nazi Jew-hunts, as well as American lynch mobs and Russian pogroms. There is no comparison, of course, but the pictures are popping up in my mind. Can’t help it. . .


      AND SEE: “MK Danny Danon: Latest in Racist Legislative Fashion” ~ by Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 12/05/11

      (excerpt) If you want to check on the pulse of Israeli fashion–that is the “fashion” of Israeli racism–you can do no better than study MK Danny Danon’s legislative agenda. I don’t usually write about individual bills since there are so many far-right imbeciles who must have their say and they come up with more nonsense than you can shake a stick at. But for MK Danon, for whom Matan Lurey has developed an apt moniker, ‘MKKK,’ I make an exception.
      His new bill would demand that any Israeli seeking any sort of government ID whether a driver’s license, passport, graduation certificate, would have to sign a loyalty oath. The provision is designed to disenfranchise Palestinian Israelis who, Danon presumes, would not do so…


      AND SEE: “On racism, Foreign Ministry worried about image, not reality”, by Yossi Gurvitz, +972 Magazine, 6/13/12
      Diplomats warn that reports of Israeli attitudes and acts towards refugees may harm Israel’s image, ignoring the acts themselves.

      . . .They [Foreign Ministry officials] report that for the first time ever, the American media used the term “race riots” in order to describe what happens in South Tel Aviv. Israel’s image, complain the diplomats, suffered a heavy blow in the black community and among American liberals.
      And if the diplomats are afraid of what will happen to the Hasbara campaign in the United States – to the glittering lie that claims that the only Jewish state in the Middle East is a democracy, not an ethnocracy with strong theo-fascist elements – this is nothing compared to what will happen to Israel’s image in Africa. Many Africans may remember how Israel connived to help two fading colonial powers in their last attack on Africa, that there never was a dictator that it didn’t like, that it sold weapons to all the darkest regimes, that it was about the only ally of the Apartheid regime, Zionism’s twin. The next time our diplomats bemoan a staunch African anti-Israel position in the UN, maybe they should remember Eli Yishai and his “[Israel being the] land of the white man” comment. . .
      . . . Israeli hatred of Africans did not, of course, originate with Yishai. It is embedded in Jewish scriptures and in the concept that Africans are descendants of the Biblical Ham, and hence they suffer from his curse – “he should be a slave to his brothers.” Important rabbi and convicted felon Babba Baruch said a couple of years back that Obama is a “slave turned king, who came from a race of slaves.” . . .


      AND SEE: “Ilan Pappé: the boycott will work, an Israeli perspective” ~ Ceasefire Magazine, 6/16/12

      [EXCERPTS] . . . After almost thirty years of activism and historical research, I became convinced that the balance of power in Palestine and Israel pre-empted any possibility for a transformation within Jewish Israeli society in the foreseeable future. . .
      . . . there is really no other alternative [to BDS]. Any other option—from indifference, through soft criticism, and up to full endorsement of Israeli policy—is a wilful decision to be an accomplice to crimes against humanity. The closing of the public mind in Israel, the persistent hold of the settlers over Israeli society, the inbuilt racism within the Jewish population, the dehumanization of the Palestinians, and the vested interests of the army and industry in keeping the occupied territories—all of these mean that we are in for a very long period of callous and oppressive occupation. . .


      AND SEE: “Academic claims Israeli school textbooks contain bias” ~ By Harriet Sherwood,, 8/07/11
      Nurit Peled-Elhanan of Hebrew University says textbooks depict Palestinians as ‘terrorists, refugees and primitive farmers’

      (excerpt) Nurit Peled-Elhanan, an Israeli academic, mother and political radical, summons up an image of rows of Jewish schoolchildren, bent over their books, learning about their neighbours, the Palestinians. But, she says, they are never referred to as Palestinians unless the context is terrorism.
      They are called Arabs. “The Arab with a camel, in an Ali Baba dress. They describe them as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don’t pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don’t want to develop,” she says. “The only representation is as refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer.”
      Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied the content of Israeli school books for the past five years, and her account, “Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education”, is to be published in the UK this month. She describes what she found as racism– but, more than that, a racism that prepares young Israelis for their compulsory military service. . .


      VIDEO of interview with Peled-Elhanan (08:48) –

      P.P.P.S. ALSO SEE: Is Change possible in Israel? (VIDEO, 07:49) –
      Prof. Haim Bresheeth tries to answer this question – why can some Israelis change, and support the Palestinian cause, but change seems elusive in Israel? Should we wait and hope for such change?

  9. W.Jones
    July 12, 2012, 3:01 pm

    I agree when you write: “Progressive Jews fought against views that might have substantively addressed the Israel/Palestine issue… They were against… sending Witness for Peace delegations into the occupied territories”.

    The organization “Witness for Peace” says on their website that they focus on Latin America, so I think you don’t mean that. Instead, it seems to me that you mean the Ecumenical Accompaniment program, which describes itself as “A Christian Witness for Peace in Israel and PA”, or that you mean Jewish Witnesses for Peace.

    In any case, it seems that sending Witness for Peace delegations is important- obviously if someone is being mistreated, then having witnesses there makes mistreatment less likely. And if mistreatment is reduced, then there is a cycle of lowering mistreatment, since the opposite is true: a cycle of increasing mistreatment. It seems that with increased efforts at peace, one side helping the other can lead to reconciliation.

    Therefore, if witnesses for peace are being banned from the main area in conflict, then it seems that it also hurts views that would have substantially addressed the conflict, as you say.

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