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Exile and the prophetic: Israel’s original sin

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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.

So what if Britain, France, Spain, Denmark and Australia called Israel’s ambassadors in for a talking to after the retaliatory Jerusalem/West Bank settlement plans were announced?  Even the American government had harsh words for Israel’s actions.  Israel’s attitude:  ‘Get lost.  We’ll do what we want.’

Israel is pouting over the international support for Palestine in the United Nations.  What Israel needs is counseling sessions on anger management – before Israel’s anger pushes it off the Empire Cliff of its own making.

Anger can create empire – when you have power.  Anger can create facts on the ground – when you have power.  Anger can increase your status – when you have power.  Anger can create a way of life – when you have power.

What anger can’t do is help you embrace others and yourself at the deepest levels of our common humanity.  Anger can’t create justice. The political powers of the world have little interest in embrace or justice. The contemporary Jewish world doesn’t seem to have any interest in either.

How sad it is to write these thoughts.  How far we’ve strayed from our deepest sense of what it means to be Jewish. 

When the power goes, as it will, what will be left?  Because we’re not sure we have anything left, we cling to anger as a shield.  

At what risk?  What’s interesting about anger once it’s institutionalized is that it’s often quite rational – up to a point.  We all need a place in the sun and sometimes the only way to reach it is through strength.  Left unchecked, however, anger becomes irrational.  Anger overreaches.  Everything built up is at risk.

So Israel is created in violence, defended through a society-wide militarization and then expanded in war, occupation and settlements.  A nation is built, fortified and extended. 

Now what?  Peace through strength?  Peace through balancing Jewish and Palestinian needs?  A joint enterprise that invests Jews and Palestinians in a future that secures both?

Just the opposite occurs.  With victory and consolidation, aggression increases.  Language and action become more and more bellicose. 

What happens because of this?  To start, the real, more complicated, history of Israel, the history that includes the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, a history could have been recovered and explored in another era after the co-existence of Israel and Palestine was assured, is exposed, first by Palestinians and then by Jewish Israelis.  Exposing Israel’s real history of its birth blew the lid off of Israel’s innocence. 

What followed?  Decades of Jewish denial and anger. Did denial have the desired effect? Was the new history of Israel’s origins rejected?  Not at all.  That history is now accepted internationally.  It’s also accepted by more and more Jews.

Israel’s overreach opened a Pandora’s Box of history that needed time to absorb and a place of safety to be considered.  Now the historical issues raised threaten to derail Israel’s entire enterprise.  

The ‘new historians’ on the Jewish side – Ilan Pappe is a prime example – rewrote Israel’s origins, highlighting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians once subsumed under the rubric Israel’s ‘War of Independence.’ In turn, the history of Israel’s origins – Israel’s original sin – helped give rise to Jews of Conscience. 

Jews of Conscience embody the Jewish prophetic in our time.  It was awakened by the injustice witnessed in Israel’s post-1967 occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands.  That injustice, though, only made sense when seen through the historical lens of Israel’s origins that the new Israeli historians uncovered.   To the question of why Jews were settling the West Bank, the historians responded: Because Israel in its origins is a settler state. 

To make a consistent and organized Jewish resistance possible a link had to be established between now and then, present day Israel and the creation of Israel.  What differentiates Progressive Jews and Jews of Conscience is this linkage. 

With the new Israeli historians another part of Pandora’s Box opened: The contradiction of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state.  Was the fact that Palestinians were cleansed from Palestine so that Israel would be a Jewish majority state have anything to do with Israel’s continual expansion after the 1967 war and its continual denial of a Palestinian state?  Jews of Conscience answered in the affirmative.

How did the Jewish establishment respond to this linkage?  With decades of Jewish denial and anger.  Did denial have the desired effect? Was the connection between Israel’s origins as a Jewish state, its expansion and the continual denial of Palestinian statehood rejected?  Not at all.  That history is now accepted internationally.  It’s also accepted by more and more Jews.

Connecting the dots makes the critique of Israel more honest and incisive.  It does away with Jewish innocence.  What are you left with when Jewish innocence is undermined?  The Jewish prophetic.

If the injustice hadn’t continued in the present and thus became so urgent to confront, would the initial injustice, already known by Palestinians, have become so prominent in Jewish life?  Probably not. The prophetic would have awakened but remained truncated.  Jews of Conscience wouldn’t be contemplating the one-state solution.

It might be that it was inevitable that the new history was uncovered and thought through by Jews of Conscience.  It might also be that, though for Palestinians it was a belated awakening, Israel’s expansionist policies forced a Jewish reckoning that was fortuitous.  We don’t know if the uncovering of the original sin of Israel by Jews of Conscience will actually force Israel to come to grips with the real history of Israel and stop, perhaps even reverse its trajectory.  What we do know is that more and more Jews are contemplating such a scenario.

It turns out that the history the Jewish establishment called upon to justify its power was more complicated than they knew or were willing to admit.  Within decades of Israel’s establishment as a state, the use of the history of Jewish suffering as a lever of power was unmasked by its use of history to oppress Palestinians.  In a strange way, the misuse of the Holocaust undid Israel’s claim to innocence.

Over reach is Israel’s middle name.  So far, it has survived and even thrived.  Nonetheless, that same overreach introduces unpredictability into the logic of power.  Just when inevitability is assumed, a wild card arrives. 

Most historical wild cards don’t change the situation immediately.  Often they come into the world without much fanfare.  Then one day notice is taken.  The wild card has eaten away the foundations of injustice. 

The new history of Israel’s origins is that wild card.  Interesting it was first published during the same years that Amos Oz began arguing for an Israeli/Palestinian divorce.   I haven’t seen J Street’s overall program but I doubt that Israel’s ethnic cleansing is a featured subject at any of its conferences.  How far behind the times they are.  Is J Street the last rear-guard action to keep Israel’s innocence – and anger – alive?

Whereas once the Holocaust shadowed everything Jewish, today Israel’s origins are that shadow.

Or both are, since Israel’s origins and history raise questions about what the lessons of the Holocaust really are.

This is a very important, real – and political – question for our Jewish and non-Jewish world.  One lesson is the need for all peoples to be empowered.  Another lesson is that no community should be disempowered.  Is yet another lesson that no people can be prioritized over another?

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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13 Responses

  1. edwin on December 4, 2012, 11:22 am

    Is yet another lesson that no people can be prioritized over another?

    This is not the last, but the first. This is the key from which other lessons can be derived.

  2. seafoid on December 4, 2012, 12:15 pm

    “How far we’ve strayed from our deepest sense of what it means to be Jewish. ”

    Where does the reality of apartheid leave the mitzvot ? What is the correct Jewish response to apartheid in Erez Israel?

  3. tombishop on December 4, 2012, 12:27 pm

    Israel’s special status which bought into the Zionist narrative is over. Bullying will not work anymore! More evidence:

    UN calls on Israel to open nuclear facilities
    United Nations (AP) — The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution Monday calling on Israel to quickly open its nuclear program for inspection and backing a high-level conference to ban nuclear weapons from the Middle East which was just canceled.

    All the Arab nations and Iran had planned to attend the conference in mid-December in Helsinki, Finland, but the United States announced on Nov. 23 that it wouldn’t take place, citing political turmoil in the region and Iran’s defiant stance on nonproliferation. Iran and some Arab nations countered that the real reason for the cancellation was Israel’s refusal to attend.

    The resolution, approved by a vote of 174-6 with 6 abstentions, calls on Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty “without further delay” and open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Those voting “no” were Israel, the U.S., Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

    Resolutions adopted by the 193-member General Assembly are not legally binding but they do reflect world opinion and carry moral and political weight.

  4. pabelmont on December 4, 2012, 1:16 pm

    Excellent essay: The original sin was important, sure, but the DEFINING SIN is Israel’s refusal (ever) to say “enough is enough” in a way which grants the possibility of “enough” to the Palestinians.

    They say, keeping to the original rationalizations, that the creation of Israel was necessary as a rescue operation — and then suggest, fraudulently, that the rescue will not be complete (for Jews) until the possibility of rescue (for Palestinians) has been completely obliterated.

    For me, this makes the original rationalization appear fraud — independent of what may have been believed by a few Jews and others originally. The “A land without a people” expressed the fraud from the earliest days.

  5. john h on December 4, 2012, 3:07 pm

    I am so so very tired of this writer and his niceness toward the Zionist disaster. It was therefore so so good to read other articles, especially “Former Israeli diplomat…” and the comments there. Sanity restored.

    Anger management isn’t the problem, Zionism is. And it’s not a problem, it’s a disgusting evil that was and is shamelessly backed by the US, the land of the free.

    • bryan on December 4, 2012, 5:15 pm

      agree entirely, john h:
      “What anger can’t do is help you embrace others and yourself at the deepest levels of our common humanity. Anger can’t create justice. ”
      But injustice can create anger; a generation of decent, liberal, non-racist, non-antisemitic, open-minded and tolerant people are now seeing such indecent, illiberal, racist, oppressive cruelty, brutality, oppression, theft, murder and war-crimes that acceptance of the very existence of the Zionist regime is rapidly dwindling – those American and Western supporters of this awful regime must surely now worry that this hostility will spill over into hostility against those dual-nationals.

  6. Ariba on December 4, 2012, 5:06 pm

    Hello everyone,
    this is my first post, have been reading since atleast a year and awoke in year 2010.
    I have a general problem with several peices of Mr. Ellis, for example in the current one:
    “The political powers of the world have little interest in embrace or justice. The contemporary Jewish world doesn’t seem to have any interest in either.
    How sad it is to write these thoughts. How far we’ve strayed from our deepest sense of what it means to be Jewish….”

    Somehow I gather the impression that just being jewish always meant before zionism that all jews were angels and full of compassion for ALL. I really wonder if all religious jews are like him.

  7. Talkback on December 4, 2012, 8:35 pm

    “How far we’ve strayed from our deepest sense of what it means to be Jewish.”

    Uh. A year has past and my question remains: What does it mean to be Jewish besides being not Gentile?

  8. Rizla on December 4, 2012, 11:53 pm

    John, get your point but disagree. It took me a while to warm to it, but I’m enjoying the series. I don’t agree with every point but Marc is asking important philosophical questions, rather like an anthropologist working on the inside. It’s been useful to me and I don’t think he’s pandering to anyone.

    • john h on December 5, 2012, 4:18 am

      Each to their own, I guess, Rizla. Perhaps he’s meeting a need for you, but whatever that is, it doesn’t apply to me. Analysis does have its place, and it’s helped get me to where I am today, but nowadays I prefer to cut to the chase!

    • Castellio on December 5, 2012, 1:54 pm

      I appreciate this series as well. There is some overreaching within it, and tenuous jumps, but for me at least he is speaking clearly. Racism and anger are linked, and are mutually supportive. One can’t talk clearly about the one without recognizing the other.

  9. nssf on December 5, 2012, 11:09 pm

    Hi Philip (or someone else) ~ I’m still here, still admiring the work you all do, and still waiting to hear whether I’m finally registered and can leave an occasional comment; the instructions said I’d receive an email. (I never have, but every now and then, I try again.)

    Anyway, not knowing whether this will go through and be read, I want to say that while I had mixed feelings and questions about a few lines in the most recent ‘Exile and the Prophetic’ piece, I think today’s is extraordinary. Thank you Marc.

  10. mcohen on December 6, 2012, 6:26 am

    marc h ellis

    i read the “diceman” by luke rhinehart purely for the sex tex but by mistake i actually learned a little trick that i use to guide me and to try and understand the path i walk

    here is what you do

    every now and then when you feel strayed out go to synagogue on a friday night and instead of reading the prayer book pick up a chumash-the bible some call it -sit down ,put the book in front of you but do not open it
    then “throw the dice” so to speak… close your eyes and open it on any random page-

    say to yourself —this is what has been given to me by THE DICEMAN and then read the pages and accept that this message before you will guide you and remember it-

    this friday the 7/12/12 coming go to synagogue or try it at home -must be a friday and throw the dice

    post next week what you have read-let that be a prophecy for those who read this post

    gam yachad hagol vanash

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