This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
The world is awakening to the news of the death of Shimon Peres, the last liberal lion of the founders of the state of Israel. He was 93 years old. Yet the real meaning of Peres’s life will be decided in the future. That future is troubling. It has already arrived.
As a military and political person, Peres did it all from the beginning of the state of Israel. Peres fought for the new born state of Israel, held many and varied political offices during the course of Israel’s history, including Prime Minister and President, played a key role in Israel’s development of nuclear weapons and encouraged and augmented Israel’s settlement project in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
As important was Peres’s role in portraying Israel as a Jewish and democratic state around the world. In this latter project, so important to Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, Peres succeeded magnificently during most of his long life. Yet, it is exactly here that Peres faltered in his later years, partly as his age increased but more importantly because the tide of history turned. Today, portraying Israel as a refuge for Jews, as innocent, under siege and as a beacon of light, is unacceptable. It is impossible.
From the beginning, Palestinians knew a different Israel and, with time, more and more Jews do, too. Though Peres will be widely celebrated in the upper echelons of American and European power in the coming days, like Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust sage, who died some months ago, Peres will be remembered for enabling a narrative of Jewish innocence and redemption that was, also, something much more sinister from the beginning.
With Peres’s death, the issue of the future of Israel and Jewish life becomes more urgent. Though, again like Wiesel with the Holocaust, Peres sought to create a lasting legacy enshrined in Jewish history, now their legacy and Jewish history itself are in doubt. Building on the legacy of the Holocaust and Israel seems dubious. The ground beneath our feet is uncertain.
Entering the Jewish High Holiday season, a time of reflection and confession, what are Jews to do? Wiesel and Peres dedicated their lives to a project that deflects Jewish culpability in the oppression of the Palestinian people. Though world leaders will gather for Peres’s funeral in the coming days, Jews need to mourn aspects of the violence Wiesel and Peres enabled. The idea of Jews simply finishing the job that Wiesel and Peres began, viewing their legacy as simply unfinished, won’t do either.
Israel has embarked wholesale on the displacement and ghettoization of the Palestinian people. The trajectory Wiesel’s and Peres’s life is a dead-end for Palestinians and Jewish history, if one believes that without an ethical center, Jewish life is truncated, if not voided altogether.
Was Shimon Peres’s life wasted, culpable, to be derided in Jewish history and the history of peoples around the world, including and especially the Palestinian people? In the coming days, we will hear more about Peres’s accomplishments than explore the content of these dissident thoughts. To speak about the end of Jewish innocence will be seen as a betrayal.
Perhaps a rabbi or two will parse Peres’s life during the upcoming Days of Awe. More likely, however, most rabbis, like our political leaders, will laud Pere’s life and further postpone the confession so central to the Jewish future.