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Mourning the age of Netanyahu

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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.

Yesterday the Guardian reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu was proposing new legislation enshrining Israel as a Jewish state. Of course, he guaranteed everyone else equal rights – whatever that could mean in real life. The Jewish state is being assaulted claims Netanyahu. Is it Israel’s critics or Israel’s policies of occupation and ghettoization?

Netanyahu’s language is interesting in this regard:

The state of Israel provides full equal rights, individual rights, to all its citizens, but it is the nation state of one people only – the Jewish people – and of no other people. And therefore, in order to bolster the status of the state of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, I intend to submit a basic law that will anchor this status.

Of course, there are those who do not want the state of Israel to be defined as the nation state of the Jewish people. They want a Palestinian nation state to be established alongside us and that Israel should gradually become a binational, Arab-Jewish state inside shrunken borders. But I simply say that one cannot hold the national stick at both of its national ends.

They cannot say that they want to separate from the Palestinians in order to prevent a binational state, which has a certain logic, and also sanctify a binational, Jewish-Arab state within the permanent borders of the state of Israel.

Did I miss something in translation or is Netanyahu asserting that those who still want two states, not the one state, are also calling for the destruction of the Jewish state because Palestinian citizens of Israel – exist?

9781451470109hRight before I read Netanyahu’s missive on undermining the Jewish state, my new book arrived, FedEx, with six author’s copies, on time and packed well. I left them in the box. I couldn’t face the book I had written. They were still there – boxed – in the morning.

Last night my dreams were haunted and this morning I cut my usual sunrise walk short. I am experiencing my book’s arrival like a summons. Perhaps I’m afraid to face the words I’ve written.

Am I afraid because my words remind me of my own commitments and their cost? Because I have failed in my commitments and still paid the price? Because I know that what I and many others want is, at least for now, stillborn?

Is it because Netanyahu’s reign has no end in sight?

Trauma comes in many forms. Writing is one of them. Reading your own words is another.

It was Franz Kafka who explored the trauma of the written word:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

So my books will remain unpacked for days and even weeks. But they won’t be out of sight. The books will remain in the middle of my living room, conspicuous, and in the way. Each time I cross the living room, I’ll make my way around them. My unopened books will not be forgotten.

The books sit on the floor, and wait.

The books sit on the floor, and wait.

The delay in unpacking books I’ve written has become a ritual of late. It started years ago with another traumatic book, the Bible. Some pages into the prophet Jeremiah, I began to experience his journey as a wound that might never heal. I stopped reading Jeremiah and left the Bible on the table where I sit in the early evening. Months later, no matter the book I was reading, I remembered Jeremiah.

You can’t close the book on trauma, Biblical, Netanyahu or otherwise. Once incurred, trauma shadows us. When you think you’ve packed it away, it reappears.

Even unopened and unread, an author is reminded that what he has created, once public, is no longer his. Perhaps the author is afraid that her words are already passé. That the world has moved on. That the sentences the author sweated over are irrelevant. Or, in the age of Netanyahu, too relevant.

My book won’t change Netanyahu or the direction of Jewish life. Besides, my book is flawed. It covers too many angles of Jewish life to be concise. It makes outrageous claims as if they are self-evident. My writing style is inconsistent. At times, my words are searching and poetic, at other times harsh and analytical. Every paragraph is open to argument.

I doubt many will listen anyway. The task before us is too immediate. My emphasis on the Biblical Jewish prophetic as it resounds in today’s world is too internal, too narrow and, let’s be honest, too Jewish.

Nowadays most Jewish thinking is associated with Netanyahu’s injustice or some progressive interpretation of Jewish life that surrounds Palestinians with a verbal Wall much like the concrete Wall they experience daily. Who wants to hear from Jews about Jewish history and theology, the Holocaust and the prophetic?

Perhaps books written by Jews of Conscience should remain for decades in the boxes in which they arrive. They could resurface in another era and be accorded the status of relics. Curious collectors could carefully unpack and expose them to the ethical light of day.

Would these books then function as an “axe for the frozen sea inside us?”

My book is a wake-up call. It is also a work of mourning.

In the age of Netanyahu, I experience Jewish life as a disaster. Is there any other word for it?

These words grieve me deeply.

Like the death of someone I love more than myself.

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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17 Responses

  1. annie on May 6, 2014, 12:21 pm

    Trauma comes in many forms. Writing is one of them. Reading your own words is another.

    ……my book is flawed. It covers too many angles of Jewish life to be concise. It makes outrageous claims as if they are self-evident. My writing style is inconsistent. At times, my words are searching and poetic, at other times harsh and analytical. Every paragraph is open to argument.

    this is a very endearing post of yours marc. and i love that photo of you looking down at the unopened box containing your new book.

    http://store.fortresspress.com/store/product/19293/Future-of-the-Prophetic-Israel-Ancient-Wisdom-Re-presented

  2. weiss on May 6, 2014, 12:42 pm

    Very poignant words indeed…

  3. pabelmont on May 6, 2014, 1:12 pm

    Netanyahu: “and that Israel should gradually become a binational, Arab-Jewish state inside shrunken borders”.

    OK, I understand that PRoR means, to him, binational. Maybe Palestinian human rights and civil rights as citizens (not nationals) of Israel also seems to him “binational”.

    But “Inside shrunken borders” ! How ghastly to have to rub shoulders with people of another nation inside a SHRUNKEN state! Ouch! (Of course, we New York city folks, perhaps most Americans rub shoulders with all kinds of people every day without trouble, even through we don’t honor those differences with the name: nationalities.

    But back to “shrunken Borders.”

    Does N’yahu claim, then, that Israel has bigger borders now, today? Bigger than what? does he claim Greater Israel out to the wall, including the Jordan valley? Is that what he fears will shrink?

    Or does he fear that a peace treaty with the Palestinians could reduce Israel’s size from its internationally recognized (provisional) borders, that is, those agreed to in treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the rest the provisional, armistice, lines of 1948?

    Or does he see international action coming soon as a result of the Kerry abandonment, and fear the unspeakable but doubtless heavy hand of the international community — let by nasty BDS-made ideas — falling on Israel and compressing it, shrinking it?

    Delicious, is it not? And will a further anti-democratic law in Israel make all this more likely or less likely?

  4. John Douglas on May 6, 2014, 1:20 pm

    Congratulation, Marc Ellis, on receiving your author’s copies. I hope you allow yourself to enjoy the sweetness of that always-special occasion. I can’t think of a more important message from the Tanakh to teach than the place and importance of the Hebrew prophets. During my inadequate attempts to teach freshman students some little about this, I was sure about very little except for the fact that this tradition of courageous critique was a cornerstone of the later ideas of freedom of speech.

  5. eljay on May 6, 2014, 1:43 pm

    >> But I simply say that one cannot hold the national stick at both of its national ends.

    Right – you can’t have Israeli state and “Jewish State”, so which one will it be?

    >> They cannot say that they want to separate from the Palestinians in order to prevent a binational state, which has a certain logic, and also sanctify a binational, Jewish-Arab state within the permanent borders of the state of Israel.

    Why not? One Palestinian state with Palestinian citizenship, and one Israeli state with Israeli citizenship. Works just fine.

    King Bibi, though, wants “Jewish State”…but there’s no such thing as Jewish citizenship and he’s not prepared to proclaim any such thing for fear of watering down the Jewish brand.

    Jewish supremacism’s no fun if you don’t get to exclude non-Jewish people… :-(

  6. James Canning on May 6, 2014, 2:17 pm

    Who argues for “shrunken borders” for Israel? ALL Arab countries have agreed to accept Israel WITHIN its pre-1967 borders.

    Netanyahu is of course a shameless liar.

    • MHughes976 on May 6, 2014, 3:13 pm

      The implied borders of Israel, in comparison with which the Arab-agreed territory would indeed be a poor shrunken thing, include all Palestine and perhaps, if certain Biblical passages are to be given full credit, run from the Nile to the Euphrates. The reason why extremely advantageous terms are offered but never agreed is that Zionism cannot bear to recognise that Palestinians are in Palestine by right.

  7. DICKERSON3870 on May 6, 2014, 4:15 pm

    RE: “Right before I read Netanyahu’s missive on undermining the Jewish state, my new book arrived, FedEx, with six author’s copies, on time and packed well. I left them in the box. I couldn’t face the book I had written. They were still there – boxed – in the morning.” ~ Marc Ellis

    RECOMMENDED PURGATIVE: Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), 1982, 300 minutes
    Plot Summary: Hans Castorp, fresh from university and about to become a civil engineer, comes to the Sanatorium Berghof in the Swiss Alps to visit his cousin Joachim, an army officer, who is recovering there from tuberculosis. Intending to remain at the Berghof for three weeks, Hans is gradually contaminated by the morbid atmosphere pervading the place. Wishing very much to be considered a patient like the others, he achieves his ends and stays in the sanatorium for …seven years. During this time, he has enough time to take part in the furious philosophical debates pitting against each other Settembrini, a secular humanist, and Naphta, a totalitarian Jesuit. And to fall in love with the beautiful but enigmatic Clawdia Chauchat. When he is finally discharged in 1914 – along with all the other patients – it is only to plunge into the horrors of World War I.
    ● Internet Movie Database – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084946/
    ● Netflix listing – http://dvd.netflix.com/Movie/The-Magic-Mountain-Disc-1/70065178
    Der Zauberberg (1981) Trailer [VIDEO 03:11] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goom4HBZYjI

    ALSO ON YouTube [ENGAGE TRANSLATION OF PORTUGUESE CAPTIONS TO ENGLISH]
    The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), Part 01 [VIDEO 1:25:11] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_0HsynZoBc
    The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), Part 02 [VIDEO 1:01:13] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTs3hXSjas4

    • Citizen on May 7, 2014, 10:10 am

      I read it long ago, but I still remember the scene in The Magic Mountain when a turkey or chicken gets its head cut off to feed the family. Probably because in my pre-teen days, my family lived in upstate NY, and we had chickens. And I experienced the same thing. It’s traumatic to see a chicken get its head cut off, and then to watch it’s body wandering around, shaking. Something there, a momentary window on everything, eh?

  8. Hostage on May 6, 2014, 6:09 pm

    Did I miss something in translation or is Netanyahu asserting that those who still want two states, not the one state, are also calling for the destruction of the Jewish state because Palestinian citizens of Israel – exist?

    No, you got that exactly right. They cannot say that they want to separate from the Palestinians in order to prevent a binational state, while potential Palestinian members of the nation of Israel still exist. They, and their family member’s right of return are negated under the law, while those of the Jews are entrenched and made exclusive.

  9. wondering jew on May 6, 2014, 10:59 pm

    Netanyahu is asserting the demographic threat constituted by the nonJewish citizens of Israel. I don’t really understand how a basic law designating Israel as the nation state of the Jews is going to obstruct a demographic threat, but that is what he is referring to. To those of us who accept that a Hispanic plurality in the US is not a demographic threat, but merely an eventuality of little substantive consequence, the Israeli/Zionist concern with a demographic threat strikes us as regressive thinking. And certainly the concept of a demographic threat has consequences regarding fairness and openness, as in the entire concept and equality really are not ideas that coincide. But Netanyahu’s assertion is not illogical.

    • Citizen on May 7, 2014, 10:32 am

      @ yonah fredman

      “I don’t really understand how a basic law designating Israel as the nation state of the Jews is going to obstruct a demographic threat, but that is what he is referring to”

      A state declaring that it is the state of the Jews? What’s not to understand? Imagine POTUS stating that USA is the state of the white Christians (but USA is a democracy too.)

      Given this, how is Netanyahu’s assertion logical? Thanks for clarification when you do!

    • seanmcbride on May 7, 2014, 10:53 am

      yonah fredman,

      This is the main point: on what grounds can Jewish nationalists (Zionists, Jewish supporters of Israel) object to every other group in the world from pursuing its ethno-religious nationalist interests?

      How does one reconcile liberalism (in the broadest sense) with Zionism? The truth is, they can’t be reconciled.

      Benjamin Netanyahu worrying about demographic threats to Jews in Israel is precisely like white Christians worrying about demographic threats to their interests in the United States and Europe.

      What is the difference between Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman on the one hand and David Duke and Patrick Buchanan on the other? This is why “liberal Zionists” now find themselves caught in a terrible ideological bind. Something will have to give.

      Your thoughts?

  10. LeaNder on May 7, 2014, 4:31 am

    Well, maybe some of us will “unpack” it for you. ;)

    Unholy Alliance looks interesting too.

  11. Pixel on May 7, 2014, 5:43 am

    “Like the death of someone I love more than myself.”

    10 words that say it all.

  12. piotr on May 8, 2014, 2:43 am

    ” And therefore, in order to bolster the status of the state of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, I intend to submit a basic law that will anchor this status.”

    This is a dream of a problem for a politician. How one can fail solving it? Thousands of irate citizens complaining that their status was not bolstered, in spite of honeyed words of the Prime Minister? Or demonstrators enraged that their status is not anchored? Never gonna happen! Now the Knesset will abjure the allure of unmoored existence, anchoring and bolstering the Jewish aspect of the Jewish state, paving the road to ever higher Jewishness, until the world will be forced to recognize Israel as the Very Jewish State.

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