Marc H. Ellis, Israel and Palestine. Out of the Ashes. The Search for Jewish Identity in the Twenty-First Century, London: Pluto Press, 2002.

Yakov Rabkin

Marc H. Ellis, Israel and Palestine. Out of the Ashes. The Search for Jewish Identity in the Twenty-First Century, London: Pluto Press, 2002.

Injustice and violence in Israel/Palestine in the last hundred years has been both in the headlines and in the hearts of those who take Judaism seriously. These may be Jews and non-Jews, and what unites them is the conviction that Judaism without justice and conscience is an oxymoron. They respect Judaism and the tradition that it has developed over two millennia, and are in pain at what they see happen to it.  So is Marc Ellis, a Jewish American theologian and a prolific author who has set his sights on the long term. Rather than discuss the minutiae of the oppression and the violation of basic Judaic norms that it entails, he boldly postulates that the Empire has won. Israel, aided and abetted by the United States, has expanded beyond any reasonable two-state solution. Politically, militarily, economically Israel must be declared the absolute winner. The victor may still use the rhetoric of the victim but it convinces nobody except those who cheer and share in the victory. Marc Ellis does not, and his book is a painful search for a Jewish identity in the 21st century.

His book is divided into four chapters, and is eminently readable as far as theological treatises go. It contains little new factual material but is rich in insights and novel perspectives on the fate of Judaism in the current era. The author strongly believes in the importance of free debate and associates it with the prophetic tradition in Judaism. “It is a struggle for the heart and soul of the Jewish people.” (p. 93) He deplores Constantinian Judaism” that has come to dominate, at least publicly, today’s Jewish life. It is “a militarized Judaism” that mobilizes “Jewish energies, creativity, wealth, and political power in Israel and the U.S.” to the service of the state. (p. 70) It also determines that those forms of Judaism that “identify with the U.S. and Israel without criticism” are “authentic” whereas those Jews who refuse to serve the state and power are deemed “inauthentic” and are persecuted by elements of the Jewish establishment.

Ellis is well aware of the courage it takes to resist Constantinian Judaism:

… the cost is high. Once labelled as a self-hating Jew or an anti-Semite, one’s character is undermined and distorted. Thus the fear of public speech in relation to Israel and on behalf of the Palestinians is substantial, chilling, for some, participation in what should be open, substantive debate.” (p. 88)

Yet, there is little cause for despair. The author concludes that such debate cannot and will not stifled:

Jews of conscience are on their own, and as amazing as the silence of the Jewish establishment is, their speech is audacious and plentiful. … There will always be Jews who speak truth to power. There will always be Jews who say no to injustice. There will always be Jews who refuse silence and accept exile rather than complicity in injustice. (p. 178) … Jews of conscience are like the ancient rabbis of Yavneh, retreating in the face of Roman power to rethink the tradition and its future. Ironically, the rabbis withdrew from Jerusalem as the Romans were conquering her; today Jews of conscience withdraw from the forces of that have placed Jerusalem firmly in the hands of Jewish power. (p. 181)

Ellis devotes an entire chapter to the prophetic tradition in Judaism and convincingly shows that dissent is an outstanding feature of Judaism throughout its history. Moreover, he associates dissent with halakha, the normative framework of Judaism, that constitutes “the argument for rationality and humanity in situations that propose injustice and suffering as the norm.” It is halakha that forbids the Jew to eat pork among people for whom pork is a staple and enjoins him to remain honest in the midst of widespread corruption. Ellis believes that “Jews of conscience carry halakha in the world; they embody the covenant as they travel into exile.” (pp.180-1) He draws support from the late French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who devoted much thought to the Judaic sensibility:

The most committed man, one who can never be silent, the prophet, is also the most separate being, and the person least capable of becoming an institution. Only the false prophet has an official function. (p. 94)

This brings to my mind the lonely figure of Jeremiah as well as those of three 20th century scientists Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Jerusalem, Albert Einstein in Princeton and Andrei Sakharov in Moscow. These three names may raise questions: only Leibowitz was a practicing Jew, and Sakharov was not a Jew altogether. How can they embody a Judaic tradition?

According to Ellis, one need not be Jewish in order to espouse Judaism’s moral values. He brings the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and other non-Jews who upheld the prophetic tradition while deploring the abandonment of this tradition by many Jews:

As long as hundreds of Palestinians are not being lined up and shot, but are killed by Israelis only one a day, are we Jews free from worrying about morality, justice? Has Nazism become the sole norm by which Jews judge evil, so that anything that is not exact duplicate is considered by us morally acceptable? Is that what the Holocaust has done to Jewish moral sensibility? (p. 28)

This quote of a Holocaust survivor raises important issues of the lessons to be learned from this tragedy of the 20th century. Ellis devotes an entire chapter to innocence, innocence in suffering that transmutes into innocence in empowerment. It is the latter that enables Israeli and Diaspora Jewish establishments to claim victimhood while Israel has become a major military power. Their ideologues conclude that “the religious duty of the Jewish community cannot simply revolve around belief in God. Rather, the survival of the people takes precedence, and because empowerment is crucial to that survival, empowerment takes on religious connotations.” (p. 55) This effectively replaces the normative religious ideals of rabbinic Judaism and leads to the emergence of a new belief system that may still use the language of Judaism but radically transforms and even negates the latter. The change appears more profound than the transformation that led to the emergence of rabbinic Judaism nearly two thousand years ago.

Just as at the dawn of Christianity, most Jews are drawn to the new religion (Rabbi Michael Lerner calls it “Settler Judaism” while Marc Ellis prefers “Constantinian Judaism”). At the same time, a recalcitrant minority refuses to embrace the new religion that revolves around the building of the State of Israel and thus replaces the 613 commandments of traditional Jewish religious life with ‘the 614th commandment’ that seems to owe more to Nietzsche than to Moses. The time may have come to differentiate between these two religions.

Indeed, Ellis admits that:

Jews are being split apart less in terms of their experience of Israel and America than in relation to conscience and what Jews are willing to do and what they refuse in terms of Jewish history and memory. Instead of splitting apart in terms of geography and culture, a civil war of conscience has begun. (p. 47)

However, he stops short of severing the history of Zionism from the history of Judaism. Yet, the founders of Zionism were overtly opposed to traditional Judaism, and one should not be surprised that what has grown from that political movement is quite at variance with the Judaic value system.

Ben Gurion and his comrades were consistently disdainful towards the Jewish tradition, towards Judaism, that some even considered the greatest misfortune that has befallen the Jewish people. They knew how to use the circumstances, including the massacre of millions of European Jews, in order to create and to strengthen a Zionist state. However, it would be unfair to blame them for distorting Judaism: they wanted the Jews to get rid of it. This explains the consistent and stubborn opposition that Zionism has encountered in traditional Jewish circles for over a century.[1]

It would also be unfair to blame Zionism for failing to heal the wounds inflicted by Europe’s violent anti-Semitism. The author is well aware of this when he observes that

By externalizing our pain and inflicting it on another people, we are becoming more distant from the sources and resources of our own possible healing. By seeing power as the only way forward, by feeling that with power comes dignity and respect, by projecting power as the only line of defence against a further violation, another holocaust, that very power unravelled the tradition, culture and religion that had itself been violated. What the Nazis had not succeeded in accomplishing – the undermining oat a fundamental level of the very essence of what it means to be Jewish – we as Jews have embarked upon. I witnessed this in the hospitals and in the streets where Palestinians, struggling to assert their own dignity, were being systematically beaten, expelled and murdered by those who had suffered this indignity less than fifty years ago. (p. 156)

Yet, those who suffered this indignity are not those who inflict it today on the Palestinians. The memory of the Holocaust may be invoked to justify this violence but Ellis is well aware that this is no more than an instance of organized political manipulation. In fact, his account is one of a new exile, an exile from the new religion.

On a more personal note, he refuses to “bequeath to my children an inheritance that places violence and atrocity at the heart of Jewish history; that the essence of Jewish witness is carried by helicopter gunships; that the Jewish covenant, now and forever, will be infected with dislocation and death.” (p. 174) He need not do so. Traditional Judaism has survived away from Zionism and the gunships. Today, it is the lot of a minority of Jews. Some are centred on Judaic study and practice; others uphold Judaism’s traditional moral values in the absence of ritual practice. But they have a lot more in common between them than any of the groups would admit. They are both in exile from the triumphant Constantinian Judaism that is all too often mistaken for the traditional religion. This exile may last as long as Jerusalem remains in the hands of those who bask in the glory of “Jewish power.”

[1] Yakov M Rabkin, A Threat from Within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, London: Zedbooks, 2006.

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Marc H. Ellis, Israel and Palestine. Out of the Ashes. The Search for Jewish Identity in the Twenty-First Century, London: Pluto Press, 2002.