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What are Jews to do with our newfound imperial/colonial identity?

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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.

As the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators once again try to resolve the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fundamental differences remain.  As part of the initial negotiating sessions in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry framed his hopes this way:  “The parties have agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation.  They are on the table with one single goal:  a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims.”

The goal of ending the conflict through negotiation is obvious, though most observers of Israel/Palestine remain skeptical.  Though Kerry singled these “passionate skeptics”as people he doesn’t have time for, the issues go beyond those Kerry seeks to make final.  For Kerry, ending the conflict means ending the Palestinian claims on Israel.  He echoes the oft repeated statement of Israel’s lead negotiator, Tzipi Livni, who believes that when a Palestinian state is born, Palestinians should celebrate its birth and cease referring to Israeli’s birth as the Palestinian Nakba, their catastrophe.

Directing settlement terms when you are the overwhelmingly dominant power is one thing.  It’s straight-up politics, especially when you have the global superpower in your corner.  Directing how Palestinians should frame their defeat and remember their history is something else.  “Ending the claims” is a convenient way of finalizing historical grievances politically.  Memory is off limits.

Jews in Israel and beyond have refused to relinquish claims on the world regarding the Holocaust.  In Jewish empowerment, the Holocaust looms ever larger.  As part of final settlement terms, what would Jews think if Palestinians demanded Jews around the world drop the Holocaust as a reason for Israel’s existence?

In this context I thought of The Village Under the Forest, a recently released film made by two South African Jews, Mark Kaplan and Heidi Grunebaum.  Kaplan, the director, is an award winning filmmaker whose career has been committed to human rights.  His work explores themes of memory, social justice and the search for accountability.  Grunebaum, the writer and narrator of the film, is a senior researcher at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.  Her work focuses on memory and trauma, the afterlives of war and genocide and pycho-biographies of displacement in South Africa, Germany and Israel/Palestine.

I met Heidi Grunebaum a few years ago at a conference in South Africa celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Kairos Document.  The Kairos Document was written by dissident South African clergy of diverse racial backgrounds and signaled a break within the Christian churches over apartheid.  Importantly, the Kairos Document labeled apartheid a Christian heresy, therefore a sin.  The document’s importance went beyond church circles.  Within and beyond South Africa, the Kairos Document established apartheid as a moral and ethical issue on the international political scene.

The conference was a celebration of a singular moment in the struggle to end apartheid.  It was also an occasion to critically analyze post-apartheid South Africa.  A main issue discussed was post-apartheid South Africa and where it is heading politically and economically. Many of the conference participants felt their revolutionary moment had become  stuck in ordinary politics.  Class and status difference continue in South Africa even as the color barriers fall.  Ironically, the post-apartheid government is made up of many from the Kairos Document generation.  Have they become the new oppressors in South Africa?

In my discussions with Heidi Grunebaum, I came into contact with a searching and poetic person, a scholar but also a free spirit.  As a South African, she is troubled with the direction South Africa is taking.  As a Jew, she is troubled with the direction Israel is taking.  During the conference I only touched the surface of her discontent.  And her depth.

The Village Under the Forest is about the South Africa Forest in the Galilee in northern Israel that as a child, Grunebaum with other South African Jews, contributed money to have planted.  It’s a beautiful forest, resembling the lush landscape of Europe.  With a group of teenage classmates, Grunebaum visited there on a class trip in 1983.  As she toured an Israeli military museum she celebrated Israel’s victory in its 1948 War of Independence.  She had little idea of what lay beneath the forest she contributed to.  Years later she discovered the awful truth.

South Africa Forest is located on the ruins of a Palestinian village that was conquered by Jewish forces in 1948 and subsequently destroyed. The Palestinian village was Lubya, a village located ten kilometers west of Tiberias.  Lubya had a long history, with early population statistics dating back to 1596.  In 1945, Lubya had a population of 2,350 Arabs, almost all of them Muslim.  In the formation of Israel, the residents became refugees, mostly in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.  Since then Lubya’s refugees have scattered beyond the Middle East.  

Grunebaum was haunted by the discovery of a history she couldn’t have imagined existed.  Raised in a transplanted European family that fled pogroms, Nazi persecutions and the Holocaust, Israel and South Africa Forest were points of pride for her.  Yet travel to Israel began a reckoning with her roots and identity.  Early in the film, Grunebaum narrates with foreboding:  “What I did not know was that between the passing of seasons and layers of pine needles lay the remains of the Palestinian village called, Lubya.”

The reckoning came to fruition later in Grunebaum’s home country, South Africa,as apartheid was dissolving. As a child the South African government had cautioned whites to be prepared for “terrorist” attacks.  With other whites, she was taught to fear black people and that the police, the government and the armed forces would protect her and her family.  The prospect of apartheid’s end raised fears higher.  Without the protection of the apartheid state what would be the fate of white – and Jewish – South Africans? 

Yet the protection the apartheid South African state offered was deeply conflictive.  As Grunebaum relates in a soon to be published reflection, her entire being was being rent asunder: 

I was silent, fearful and content to abide by childhood and adolescent life in the cocooned world of middle-class ‘white’ privilege, the fatal illusions of impunity it created. Whilst I knew well that apartheid was a vicious, greedy and dehumanising system, as a rebellious and questioning teenager, I chose to pour my energy into writing angry poetry and listening to music by Rodriguez, éVoid and Bob Marley, rather than finding a way to become active against apartheid. Politics seemed estranging, utterly illegible and menacing. And it took place in another world, far removed from mine.  Whilst the broader structural/conjuctural conditions of the 1970s and 1980s were extremely complex and merit a thoroughgoing analysis, the wider social milieu of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, and my family, affirmed the strategic value of individual silence for “the community” as a whole. It was a milieu which affirmed that as the generation of Jews who had barely escaped with their lives from the Nazi genocide, we, the next generation, would do well to keep our heads down, and not draw attention to ourselves, as Jews, as a group raced “white” living in an obsessively racialized and militarized society. 

For high school, I moved from the public school system to attend an orthodox Jewish day school run according to the principles of the Bnei Akiva movement and ideologically aligned to the Gush Emunim settler movement in its Zionist orientation. It was a school that I chose to attend because of its intensive focus on Limmudei Kodesh, studying closely the texts of the Tanach. By the mid-1980s, and after a school visit to Israel in 1983, Zionism became my way out of the moral conundrum of being “white” in South Africa, despite not noticing, let alone questioning the militarisation of civilian identity in either context. And by the time I finished high school in 1985, I was ready to explore Israel with an eye to immigrate after further studies.

Along with fear, the massive change in South Africa and her imagined emigration to Israel, Grunebaum gradually began to acknowledge a series of contradictions which she relates in the film:  “I began to unthread all of the narratives of my history:  a history where I had one foot in South Africa, and one foot in Israel.  Now I found myself questioning both.” 

Grunebaum’s questioning was far from easy.  It still isn’t.  The film traces her unthreading in deep and poetic terms.  When one foot is in a country, South Africa, where apartheid reigned, and the other foot is in an apartheid state, Israel, that is expanding and consolidating its reach, one’s roots are unearthed.  For Grunebaum, Lubya underneath South Africa Forest is more than a symbol.  It represents a history she grew up with in South Africa and lives today in her struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine.

In the film, Grunebaum’s personal story is veiled.  She is anonymous; her face is never clearly shown.  This anonymity allows the film to represent the larger story of South African Jews and their relation to South Africa and Israel.  Yet the filmextends beyond South African Jews as well.  The great majority of Jews live in America and Israel. Both countries have more in common with South Africa than either population is willingly to admit.  The Village Under the Forest has a message for global Jewry. 

For Jews around the world the film is an indictment and a challenge. Like South Africa, America was an apartheid state. Much of America’s color line remains intact. Israel was founded in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the forced separation of Jews and Arabs.  It continues to expand its own brand of apartheid.  The vast majority of Jews around the world live within imperial and colonial states – within America as an imperial power on a global scale and Israel as a Western-oriented colonial power in the Arab Middle East.

The Village Under the Forest rarely ventures there. Yet since Jews wherever they live are increasingly privileged, mostly identify as white in countries and regions where people of color now or will soon predominate and exert power over others as a matter of entitlement, Grunebaum and her South African Jewish counterparts offer a window into a larger Jewish conundrum.  What are Jews to do with their new found and increasingly bellicose imperial/colonial identity?

For the most part, Jews continue to see themselves as innocent and justice oriented.  However, Jews are increasingly viewed by others as aligned with unjust imperial and colonial powers, doing empire’s bidding and benefitkng therein.  Jews often charge that such views as anti-Semitic in nature. After a long history of anti-Semitism it is difficult to separate fact and myth in public discourse about Jews.  But what if the fact of contemporary Jewish life is closer to culpability than innocence? 

Often the Holocaust is used as a justification for Jewish privilege.  How can Jews be held accountable after the Holocaust?  The abuse of power by Jews over others is rarely considered.  When empowered, though, even the memory of suffering has to be held to account.  Grunebaum’s narration and the film itself suggest a way of entering the central question of contemporary Jewish identity from the perspective of Jewish and Palestinian suffering.  Has Jewish empowerment – and the consequent suffering of the Palestinian people – brought Jews closer to a healing after the Holocaust or increased the Holocaust trauma? 

The Village Under the Forest is a clarion call for the necessity of a re-working of Jewish identity for Jews everywhere.   Where Jews once suffered, Jews now oppress.  Denying the oppression that Jews enable means that Jews are in deep denial.  It is doubtful that a healthy and productive Jewish identity can be formed when the center of Jewish identity is one of enabling oppression and denying that very fact.

Jews live after the Holocaust.  Yet Jews also live after Israel and what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people. As Grunebaum and other South African Jews were contributing money for forests under which other destroyed Palestinian villages remain, Jews around the world were doing the same.  This destruction of Palestinian life, culture and land is at the heart of contemporary Jewish life.  The Village Under the Forest raises the question as to what Jews will do with the violence at the heart of contemporary Jewish identity.

The film’s major premise is that a re-rooting of Jewish identity may come after but not before a reckoning with Jewish history in Israel/Palestine. The fate of Lubya and the Palestinian Nakba is that reckoning.  Along with Grunebaum and South African Jews, the film portrays this through interviews with Palestinians who survived Lubya’s conquering, some of whom regularly visit the grounds of the destroyed village in which they were born.  These interviews are a counter to the haunting, narrative of South African/Jewish self-discovery.  Some Palestinians interviewed are bitter about the Jews that conquered them.  However, their most caustic comments are about the Arab countries that ineptly and corruptly “defended” them.   Still others are wistful, fondly remembering their childhood memories in Lubya.

Grunebaum’s conclusion is clearly drawn.  Hers is an indictment of the violence that attended the formation of Israel and the aftermath of its creation.  Grunebaum asks what has become of Jews and what Jews can do to redeem what has happened to the citizens of Lubya and the Palestinian people.  Here Grunebaum’s narration moves far beyond sentimentality and wishful thinking.   The situation is dire.  The oppression of the Palestinian people is deep, ordered and backed by state power: 

Our coins from the diaspora have not only planted Jewish trees, uprooted Palestinians ones, they have contributed to a forest of a very different kind.  A vast forest of bureaucracy where the force of law is a weapon:  regulation rules, procedures, permits, planning by-laws – all regulate the tiniest minutiae of everyday life for Palestinians who are slowly choked, inched off the remainder of their lands. Corralled into ghettos, building permits refused, Palestinians watch as their homes are demolished.

I see God’s warriors occupying roofs and roads; land and sky; permits and passes.  The guardians of the gates chew gum, hold semi-automatics.  They look my daughter, my uncle, my brother.

 The film closes with Grunebaum’s challenge: 

What happened in 1948 has not ended.  It continues.  To commemorate the Nakba is both an act of memory and a protest against what is still happening. 

The state has outlawed the Nakba as a day of mourning.  So commemorating it has been made a crime.

Against prohibition and the force of violence, Lubya’s ruins are a fragile house of memory where resistance to the speech of conquest are the voices of poetry and return.

 With me at the Kairos Document conference was my oldest son, Aaron, who also had the occasion to meet and speak with Grunebaum.  When I told him about the film and her moving narration he wasn’t surprised. 

A Jew of yet another generation, Aaron with Jews of Conscience everywhere have a different vision of resolving the conflicts and claims that John Kerry and Tzipi Livni seek to impose.  Aaron and Jews of Conscience know that the conflict and claims on Jewish ethical life do not end in a political settlement that allows Jews and Israel to wipe the historical slate clean. Jewish violence against Palestinians will have to be dealt with over many generations.  We are just touching the surface of what has been done in the name of Jews and Jewish history. 

The Village Under the Forest is a haunting reminder that the future of Palestinian and Jewish life is inextricably bound and that the ancient Jewish prophetic, though battered and seemingly on its heels, is alive and well.  This is the other side of Israel’s abuse of power – with the emergence of Jews of Conscience the Jewish prophetic is exploding in our time. 

The Jewish prophetic always arrive at the end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it. It arrives when everything ethical in Jewish life is being squandered.  We are at such a time.  But the Jewish prophetic also signals a new phase of struggle and witness.  The Jewish prophetic is an end. It is also a beginning.

A Village Under the Forest is about this end and beginning.  And despite her desire for anonymity, Heidi Grunebaum is a witness to the fact that the Jewish prophetic voice will never die.    

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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8 Responses

  1. guyn
    August 4, 2013, 4:06 pm

    Great text Marc, thank you.

  2. DICKERSON3870
    August 4, 2013, 4:18 pm

    RE: “In this context I thought of The Village Under the Forest, a recently released film made by two South African Jews, Mark Kaplan and Heidi Grunebaum.” ~ Marc Ellis

    where greening is an act of obliteration
    Unfolding as a personal meditation from the Jewish Diaspora, The Village Under The Forest explores the hidden remains of the destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya, which lies under a purposefully cultivated forest plantation called South Africa Forest.
    Using the forest and the village ruins as metaphors, the documentary explores themes related to the erasure and persistence of memory and dares to imagine a future in which dignity, acknowledgement and co-habitation become shared possibilities in Israel/Palestine.
    Directed by Emmy-winner Mark J Kaplan, The Village Under The Forest is written and narrated by scholar and author Heidi Grunebaum.
    Audience Award: Best South African Film at Encounters Documentary Festival 2013
    LINK –

    ● FACEBOOK: The Village Under The Forest
    Unfolding as a personal meditation from the Jewish Diaspora, The Village Under The Forest explores the hidden remains of the destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya, which lies under a purposefully cultivated forest plantation called South Africa Forest.
    215 likes · 36 talking about this

    ● TWITTER: Village Under Forest (VUFdoc) on Twitter
    Where greening is an act of obliteration… The Village Under The Forest documentary is directed by Emmy-winner Mark J Kaplan and written by Heidi Grunebaum
    South Africa/Palestine/Israel ·

  3. DICKERSON3870
    August 4, 2013, 4:30 pm

    RE: “Jews in Israel and beyond have refused to relinquish claims on the world regarding the Holocaust. In Jewish empowerment, the Holocaust looms ever larger.” ~ Marc Ellis

    SEE: “Injustice Collecting”, By Nando Pelusi, Ph.D.,, published on November 01, 2006
    You can’t let go of a grudge, says Nando Pelusi, Ph.D., because there are deep-seated emotional payoffs.

    [EXCERPTS] We have a complicated relationship with the grudges we hold. We get obsessed and aggravated by the many slights [not to mention far more grievous victimization – J.L.D.] that befall us, but we’re ever reluctant to bury our pain and move on. Like an illicit affair, our beloved grudges usually end up creating misery for all involved.
    The tendency to itemize every unfair knock we’ve ever suffered is known as injustice collecting. Sometimes the injustices are personal, as in, “My boss unfairly promoted Rick over me.” This kind of self-talk leads to anger. At other times, the catalogued outrages lead to overwrought generalizations, such as, “Nothing ever goes well; this is too unfair.” This type of thinking leads to hopelessness and rage.
    Enough grudge holding and soon you’ll see more iniquity than actually exists. The injustice collector becomes a trigger-happy perceiver. If you walk down the street recounting the affronts you’ve suffered lately, you’ll kick up quite a cloud of dejection.
    Injustice collecting springs from a sensible motive: the monitoring of fairness as a form of self-protection, an impulse that evolved among social creatures who depended on one another. Nursing grudges may have raised our odds of survival and reproduction, however unconsciously. . .
    . . . But injustice collecting is about more than just resentment toward cheaters; just as often, it’s resentment on a mass scale—about anger at the very order of the universe. If a tree falls on a school bus or an earthquake levels our home, we’re stricken by the absolute injustice of it all. Islamist radicals, for example, resent the West’s development, and many are willing to die for their version of justice.
    Self-pity plus religious outrage—a combination that fuels suicide bombers—might also be a cognitive virus, replicating itself because humans are so easily attuned to believing in absolute justice.
    Fairness is a desirable abstraction, and one we’d better reach for, but it is not a concrete measurement, however much we might wish the courts, God, or the Constitution to decree it. . .


  4. Blank State
    Blank State
    August 4, 2013, 11:24 pm

    What are those, like myself, to think about all of this????

    You see, I have no idea what a “jew” is. I grew up in a family atmosphere that was extremely bigoted. My mom was from the deep south, so I learned “Eenie meenie miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe…..” in my early youth.

    Jews? For whatever reason, I have no idea why, in junior high and high school jews were insulted, criticized, ridiculed as being miserly, penny pinching, greedy. Of course, being with a peer group meting out such ridicule and derision, I too joined the chorus, having no idea why, or even questioning whether or not the ridicule was warranted.

    I’m now in my sixties, and have managed to shed my bigotries, to the best of my ability, as I have wisened with age. Replacing the bigotry is confusion. What is a “jew” I ask myself. Am I to judge jews by the actions of Israel? Is judaism yet one more fanatical religious mindset? Is it an ethnicity? A theological pursuit? I read articles, essays, such as this one, and it does little to ease my confusion. Steeped in history, the whole thing, the whole Israeli/Palestinian/conflict ball of wax, seems archaic, a kind of interaction that mankind should have long ago abandoned as futile.

    I am not confused about one thing, though. This archaic and futile struggle between “jews” and “muslims” corrodes and tarnishes the entire global social patina. We are headed for no good ending. Our nation’s leaders have picked a “side”, and in so doing have immersed us deep into this pathetic and costly exercise in futility. It can only escalate, and it will. And people like me, who really don’t understand who, what, or why, can only go along for the ride. I want off, and there isn’t an exit ramp. While you’re looking for your “identity”, does the whole world have to suffer through your search?

  5. Dan Crowther
    Dan Crowther
    August 5, 2013, 7:41 am

    Interesting that Ellis asks his question while discussing white south african jews, folks who went to South Africa in the service of Empire.
    This idea that being a part of the imperial court is a “new” development in jewish history is absurd and in my opinion, dangerous. Ellis needs a history lesson.

    • Keith
      August 5, 2013, 2:11 pm

      DAN CROWTHER- “Ellis needs a history lesson.”

      Sadly, we all probably do! Alas, how to locate a knowledgeable and reasonably objective source? The truth is that most history reflects elite bias and mythology. There is a lot of “scholarly” crap out there to choose from. Do you believe Norman Finkelstein or Alan Dershowitz? It is easy to believe what is convenient to believe and self-deception is the rule, not the exception. Our self-perception is intimately tied to the group(s) we identify with, which, in turn, influences how we evaluate historical information and mythology.

      In “Jewish History, Jewish Religion,” by Israel Shahak, he indicates that throughout the period of Classical Judaism that Jews “…formed an integral part of the privileged classes.” Also, that in Eastern Europe “…their most important social function was to mediate the oppression of the peasants on behalf of the nobility and the Crown.” Of course, Jewish mythology tells a different tale, depicting Jews as unbelievably righteous folk suffering constant irrational anti-Semitic persecution. And while Marc Ellis is acknowledging Israel’s unsavory present, he seems incapable of discarding Jewish historical mythology. I suspect that too much of his identity is wrapped up in this mythology and his sense of the Jewish prophetic.

  6. gingershot
    August 5, 2013, 9:16 am

    This ‘prisoner release’ charade is ridiculous – it’s not as if Israel is not just going to go arrest a whole bunch of new bargaining chips (or keep the most important ones they have, like Marwan Barghouti)

    When is Marwan Barghouti going to be released so we can have Palestinian elections and get rid of Abbas?

  7. lukelea
    August 5, 2013, 10:36 am

    When it comes to a proper Jewish response to the Palestinian issue, Jewish readers might be interested this essay I wrote some years ago since, to my knowledge, there is nothing else like it out on the web:

    Gentile readers might be interested in a meme I’ve been pushing for an equal length of time, namely, that Europe must play a much larger role in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it can do in two ways:

    First it can acknowledge its historic responsibility for causing the conflict in the first place. It was European anti-Semitism, after all, that drove the Jews out of Europe. and it was the European Allied Powers during WWI * who decided to solve their “Jewish problem” by giving someone else’s land away.

    The second thing Europe can do (once the first is out of the way) is agree to fund a generous, on-going program of aid and investment in any future Palestinian state to bring about a rough parity in its standard of living with Israel. Such a program should be an integral part of any final settlement worked out between the parties to the conflict and its continuance should be contingent upon the Palestinian state honoring the terms of whatever final agreement it reaches with Israel. In short, the Palestinian people must have a real stake in the peace.

    Ezer Weizman’s memoirs had as an epigraph, “Zion shall be redeemed by judgment.” The words are from Isaiah and I agree with them. The substitution of principles of reason and equity in place of force and fraud as the only acceptable means for settling human conflict — to me this is the essence of the Jewish mission in the world and has been from the beginning. The final measure of success, however, is not whether the Jewish people themselves honor these principles by precept and example, though, of course, that will be essential, but rather the extent to which they have persuaded other peoples to honor them in their relations with each other. In this case those other peoples are the Europeans and the Palestinians. This is the ultimate test case.

    * For the details see The Question of Palestine by Isaiah Friedman.

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