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Collecting Our Witness: Marc Ellis on his new book

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My latest book may appear to be something of an anachronism. Burning Children: A Jewish View of the War in Gaza is a collection of pieces I wrote on the latest war in Gaza for Mondoweiss. Some have asked, “Why bring together commentaries in a book on Israel’s Gaza war that have already been published online?”

The online audience is more immediate and larger.  In breathe and duration, cyberspace amplifies historical memory.  In comparison books seem retro.  Why bother?  Better to get on with things.

81FQlik5mZLYet on issues where the present has a long history behind and a yet to be determined future, collecting commentaries in book form is about something else.   It’s about witness.  Gathering a stance. Letting that witness speak boldly over time.  Even in another epoch.

Collections transcend the moment, precisely because the moment is so intensely felt.  What collections lose in immediacy, they gain in depth.  Bound together the deeper substance of daily writing is experienced anew at a distance.  The essential questions are thought through again.  What is the writer saying to history and the world?

On the issue of Israel-Palestine, the time has been now – seemingly forever.  But the now often lacks historical depth.  In Israel-Palestine depth is crucial.  There, we find the intersection of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Jerusalem and the Holy Land, East and West, historical and contemporary colonialism.  The list is long and the history to be mined is varied.  One might say endless.

Too, the struggle within and between Israel and Palestinians hasn’t gone away.  It won’t be going anywhere soon either – at least in a positive way.

The reckoning that the Gaza war was supposed to bring isn’t happening.  I don’t mean only the reckoning on Israel’s behavior, the divisions in Palestinian life, the divided and reacting Arab world and the complicity of the United States and Europe.  The (un)reckoning is among those who seek to bring Israel to account and are in solidarity with Palestinian freedom – the NGOs, churches and United Nations.  That reckoning isn’t happening either.

Nor will it.  There is too much self-interest at stake.  Sadly, it’s a stake in the continuing conflict.  Even among progressive activists of all stripes, enlightened, self-interest reigns supreme.

Contemporaneous commentaries are part of the reckoning that will occur at some point in the future.  What isn’t happening, what perhaps cannot happen right now, will occur at another moment.  The new path is being prepared, awaiting its moment, when history opens and a new path becomes vital and recognized.

We are constantly in danger of losing sight of the essential – our witness is less a prescription than a preparation.  Pushing away witness in favor of success is appropriate.  The suffering in the present is overwhelming.  We act to make the crooked straight.

The suffering we have just witnessed in Gaza will continue. Israel will never voluntarily relinquish its death-hold on Palestinian life.  Palestinians lack the power to break Israel’s death-hold.  The international community postures toward Palestinians but is too heavily invested in a fortress Israel.  For now at least, the hope that suffering will end if only we elevate the struggle is an illusion.

Witnessing to endless suffering is far from acquiescing in injustice.  Rather witness details and records suffering and injustice for a later date when justice comes to pass.

Witness is a preparation.  There will be a redemptive moment when the unjust are held accountable.  The oppressed are finally free.


More likely, present injustice will give way gradually to a different and more just arrangement.  That is, if even a greater cataclysm doesn’t occur in the meantime.

If the cataclysm is avoided, other forms of injustice will surface.  The struggle will continue.  However the future unfolds the importance of witness to past injustice as the key to a just future remains.   Even if that just future is long delayed.

From a Jewish perspective, and as a Jewish partisan, gathering my commentaries for the future is my witness within Jewish history.  It is what I have to say as an individual Jew, within and among the broader arc of Jewish history.  I see other Jews in this witness light as well:  Noam Chomsky, Adam Horowitz, Allison Deger, Max Blumenthal, Philip Weiss, Richard Silverstein, Amira Hass, and Sara Roy exemplify this Jewish witness.  Collective Jewish voices like B’tselem, Jewish Voice for Peace, Mondoweiss and parts of Haaretz should likewise be seen in this witness light.

We are at the end of Jewish ethical history as we have known and inherited it.  Witnessing to that end means bringing the past into the present as a possibility for the future.  It means that Constantinian/Settler/Colonial Jewishness has the power to oppress but not the final word on what it means to be Jewish. Though all struggle for justice now, in the end these Jewish partisans will be remembered for witnessing to what Jewishness ought to be, is no longer and might be once again.

Is witnessing worth the effort?  Is offering a witness rather than immediately dealing and winning the issue at hand pessimism elevated to a higher principle?  Is concentrating on a Jewish witness itself a sense of self-aggrandizement, a continuation of Jewish privilege in what some see as a solely Palestinian struggle that Jews with others are welcome to join?  I leave these questions for others.

That we as Jews have embarked on a history of violence, occupation and oppression, especially after the history we have suffered, is inexcusable.  That there are “burning children” because of our policies and enablement is inexcusable.

The struggle against “Jewish” as a form of catastrophe for others, especially Palestinians, will not be won in our day.  Nonetheless, our legacy is the hope that one day justice will come to fruition.

Collecting our witness.  In all sorts of forms, including books.  That we were here and said “no.”  Which, of course, was our “yes” in the broad arc of Jewish history.

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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4 Responses

  1. Talkback on October 7, 2014, 9:04 am

    I always prefer books! It is more productive to contemplate about its content and I like use a pencil for personal remarks and markers to highlight what to read a second time.

  2. W.Jones on October 7, 2014, 1:26 pm

    It means that Constantinian/Settler/Colonial Jewishness has the power to oppress but not the final word on what it means to be Jewish.
    Constantinian Jewishness seems like a bit of an oxymoron. Constantine legalized Christianity and brought it to prominence. In Palestine and the US, Judaism has been legal for centuries, as far as I know. I don’t know that bringing a mainstream religion to prominence is itself necessarily bad, as I think Ellis is implying.

  3. Pixel on October 7, 2014, 5:20 pm


    Congarts on the new book, Marc!

  4. Citizen on October 12, 2014, 4:28 am

    Maybe Schlomo Sand answers Marc Ellis, when he explains how he stopped being a Jew?

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