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.