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Israel’s apartheid isn’t just political, it’s ideology wrapped in history and religion

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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.

Abraham, Isaac – and Nathan Milikovsky.  Yes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s harassed grandfather and oratorical clincher in his address at the United Nations Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s understanding of Jewish history was a hoot, if it didn’t have such dire consequences for Palestinians – and Jews.  When Jewish history is reduced to this level by political and establishment figures like Netanyahu and Elie Wiesel, our ability to think is diminished.  Our history becomes constricted.  It becomes difficult to breathe.

Are there any JuBu’s available to counsel Israel’s second longest serving Prime Minister? Perhaps Netanyahu needs some time on a Zen cushion.  He might come to a different understanding of himself and Jewish history.

You don’t have to make a life of Jewish identity deconstruction like Shlomo Sand to realize that Jewish history isn’t 4,000 years old.  The likelihood of Abraham being a historical figure is next to zero.  Abrahamic history is for the synagogue.

When you have a state, synagogue history won’t do.  Otherwise you end up with state theologies like those European Jews experienced.   State theologies are for self-appointed guardians of all that is good and precious in the universe.  They’re not for citizens of a state in their ordinariness and diversity.

Netanyahu’s history sounded like the South Africa’s Afrikaners of previous times.  Jews as the latest – and last? – Afrikaner Calvinists doesn’t bode well for anyone.

South Africa’s apartheid wasn’t only a political system.  It was an ideology wrapped in history and religion.

Israel’s apartheid isn’t only a political system.  It’s an ideology wrapped in history and religion.

Every nation has a civil religion.  That’s how a national ethos is evoked.  Civil religion starts out with those who dominate the political landscape but, like the political process itself, evolves over time.  Civil religion expands as the nation expands its view of national history.

Israel’s civil religion was on display in Netanyahu’s address – in a primitive form.  It excluded the Palestinian citizens of Israel and left out millions of Palestinians, Israel occupies.  Netanyahu reduced Jewish history in and outside Israel to a series of myths that serve unjust political power.

The (not so) new Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe are seen primarily as insurgents because they address Palestinian displacement in the formation of Israel.  They’re also progenitors of a more accurate and inclusive history of the state of Israel.

When communicating Israel’s civil religion, Palestinians have to be included in all phases of Israel’s national life.  This includes the historical Nakba and the ongoing Nakba as well.

Like the new Israeli historians, Jews of Conscience expand our understanding of Jewish history.  They redefine what can and cannot be said about Israel.  They also redefine what can and cannot be said about Jewish history.

One day a Prime Minister of Israel will communicate that expanded view at the United Nations.  Then Israel will be quite different.  Its future will have taken on a different trajectory.

Netanyahu is a relic in real time.  He’s a throwback without a place to stand in the future of the state of Israel – if there is to be a future for Israel.  With time, Netanyahu’s standing in Jewish history will be diminished to the point of disappearing – if there is a Jewish histiory worth bequeathing to our children..

Think of Netanyahu as a Jewish Ronald Reagan without hair coloring.  His handwritten note signaling his dementia retreat can’t come soon enough.

In the meantime, endurance is the key.  We are living in the most scandalous time in Jewish history.

Even if you start with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

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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6 Responses

  1. seafoid on October 3, 2013, 9:58 am

    It is wrapped up specifically in JEWISH history and the religious notion that Jews are a people apart, a holy nation. Of course there is also the lack of any deep Jewish political history in terms of actually running a country. Put it all together and it looks very like apartheid.

    • Bandolero on October 3, 2013, 3:00 pm

      The famous German rabbi Felix Goldmann brought the contradiction of seeing judaism as a nation in his booklet “Der Zionismus, seine Theorien, Aussichten und Wirkungen” to the top, and called for the creation of an “association of jewish citizens of non-jewish faith” as soon as a jewish state Israel would be created.

      For those able to read German, I recommend to read that booklet, published by the “Antizionistisches Komitee Berlin” in 1913. I found it very eye-opening that much of today’s discussions about Israel were foreseen already a hundred years ago.

  2. Sammar on October 4, 2013, 2:12 am

    Netanyahu’s grandfather was beaten by thugs in the late 19th century.
    How many Palestinian grandfathers have been beaten in the 20th and 21st century by Israeli thugs?

  3. ziusudra on October 4, 2013, 3:08 am

    Greetings Mr Ellis,
    ….. the likeliness of Abraham being a historical figure is next to Zero…….
    Beautiful. Kudos, Mr Ellis.
    I’m able to consider accepting an Abraham as a figure who really came about,
    like Noah, he was Judaised, later Christianized & Islamised.
    Simply because his name is Sumerian & made no sense in Hebrew.
    He also journied to Canaan in ca. 1700BC, 500 yrs before the ‘tribes’ arrive in
    Canaan/Falesteena. He past his beliefs on to the Canaanites, which were later
    accepted by the ‘tribes’.
    A King Ziusudra lived in Mesopotamia. He helped save a ‘barge’ of ‘live stock’ stuck on a ‘hill’ in the great flood of the ‘euphrates river’ making a ‘sacrifice’ & ‘thanks’ to his God ca. 2900BC .
    This story sounds familiar with the prerequites of the ‘Great Flood’ in Genesis taken
    from the Cuneiform writings of the Sumerians after freedom of the Judean descendents in Mesopotamia in 536BC. Hebrew written vowels first get completed , ca 100BC.
    PS Whether anyone believes the mythological tales of the past, they don’t belong in today’s world or the advancement of civilization.

  4. DICKERSON3870 on October 6, 2013, 5:12 pm

    RE: “When you have a state, synagogue history won’t do. Otherwise you end up with state theologies like those European Jews experienced. State theologies are for self-appointed guardians of all that is good and precious in the universe.” ~ Marc Ellis

    SEE: “The Moralization of American Exceptionalism”, by Andrew Levine,, 10/04/13

    [EXCERPTS] . . . Being exceptional, America can make whatever exceptions to international law it pleases – not because it can, but because it is good. This is true now more than ever because now America is led by someone obviously trustworthy and wise — a Nobel laureate, no less.
    The same holds, in diminished degree, for countries that participate in America’s essential goodness – Israel, of course, and the UK and sometimes Germany and France along with other obedient, EU countries.
    On the other hand, lesser states and peoples, the unexceptional ones, must follow the rules – without exception. When they don’t, or when Obama thinks they don’t, they can rightfully be beaten into submission by any means necessary and suitable to the exigencies of electoral politics in the United States. . .
    . . . Thus by declaring itself “the state of the Jewish people,” Israel claims a right to do as it pleases to Palestinians or anyone else in its way – because of what the Nazis did to European Jews more than a half-century ago. Sometimes it is even suggested that victimhood is essentially part of the Jewish condition, and that this somehow frees Israel from the usual norms of international conduct.
    At least the Israelis can mount a spurious case in defense of that contention; that Obama would even suggest anything similar for the United States defies credulity.
    But even if there were a case to be made, it would be irrelevant.
    There is no way to argue for exceptions to the requirements of morality by appealing to the exceptional morality of those for whom the exceptions are claimed. The very idea is self-contradictory. . .
    . . . The neoconservative-humanitarian interventionist purchase on American exceptionalism also comes with a lineage that conflicts with the drift of the political line its proponents nowadays advance.
    For them, American exceptionalism is a tool in global capitalism’s arsenal. It was not always so.
    As remarked, the turning point came during the Reagan presidency. It was a by-product of an ideological blitz that drew substantially on Anglo-Protestant, especially Puritan, theology, and on related political currents that had lain dormant for two centuries or more.
    Reagan’s reference to “the shining city on the hill,” at the 1984 Republican Convention, is a well-known example.
    The more or less intended effect of this way of presenting America’s role in the world is to move the discussion onto a quasi-theological plane — depicting America’s essential goodness as a transcendent property of the state. . .


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