This month my new book arrives in the bookstore and I am wondering whether its arrival is already too late. The subject matter is Israel and Palestine and carries two subtitles. The first, “Out of the Ashes,” is easily understood with the situation on the ground in the Middle East as it is today. During the last few months, Israel has reoccupied the West Bank and Gaza has been cut off from the world. An earlier statement by United States President George W. Bush that demanded Israel’s withdrawal to previously-held positions was ignored. All the while, and again recently, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck deep within Israel, a place once felt to be invulnerable despite the turmoil outside.
In the recent Israeli election, the Likud party, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, won a landslide victory and assurance of power for the foreseeable future. For many years the majority of Jews in and outside of Israel believed that Sharon was a peripheral and dangerous politician and outside of the Israeli and Jewish political and ethical consensus. Not only did Sharon become prime minister in 2001, he maintained a stable government and when he called for new elections Likud (under his leadership) again won the necessary votes to form the next government. As the New York Times reported during and after the campaign, Sharon ran and will govern as a moderate in the Israeli political system. And where decades ago the American Jewish community and its leadership voiced deep concern and opposition to Sharon’s policies and manner, his reelection passed almost without a comment from that leadership.
For some time-and I am not alone here among my fellow Jews-I have been feeling an array of emotions: anger at the violence that seems to have no end and a feeling of betrayal by my own com-munity’s participation in policies which were, in another age and in different circumstances, carried out against us. Ghettoization of an entire people, collective punishment for the resistance of the few, a pretense to innocence when the actions involved are against international law and a moral tradition embraced for centuries by the Jewish people, are difficult to accept as a person of conscience and as a Jew.
Yet I, also with other Jews, have been disappointed by the reaction of those who would call themselves Jewish leaders. Their voices have only called for unity against an “uncivilized” foe and for loving rather than criticizing the State of Israel. Unfortunately, there is more. Especially in America, Jewish leaders have begun a campaign against Jews of conscience who dare to say that they oppose Israeli policies, that the occupation, instead of being expanded, must end, and that the actions taken by the Israeli armed forces are not done in our name.
In fact, dissent among Jews is flourishing, providing some of the most gripping protests against injustice found anywhere in the world. I take solace in this amazing resilience and other dissenters against injustice should take heart. But self-congratulation, even when pursued by those who seek to impose a wall of silence, is short-sighted. The horrible truth is that our dissent is only a token and one decidedly without political or military power. Palestinians and Israelis are dying in a cycle of violence, occupation and atrocity and Jews of conscience are left only with the pen, the computer and the essay. And the recently arrived book.
Thus the second subtitle: “The Search for Jewish Identity in the 21st Century.” Jews of conscience ask what will be left of Jewish life and ethics if the occupation continues and somehow becomes permanent. Or perhaps Israel has already conquered Palestine and only the dispossession of millions of Palestinians awaits a final agreement. Does the war against Iraq provide a window of opportunity to seal the fate of the Palestinians, making them permanent refugees in lands they cannot call their own? What kind of Jewish identity would flourish then? Would a thick wall of injustice lie only inches below our history of struggle and suffering? Can we embrace and argue our Jewishness without justice and ethics being at the center of our identity?
I know that discussion of Jewish identity will not lift us out of the ashes. But what will? We all have our solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do we need more conferences, more national foreign policy initiatives, more international resolutions? Is there anything more to say, write or resolve about the issue that has eluded Jews and Palestinians, indeed the entire world, for more than half a century? We know that Jewish identity has become more and more militarized. Does discussing this militarization, as Jews of conscience often do, help us as a people face our history and this change? Or does it simply widen a gulf between Jewish leadership and Jews of conscience until the gulf is too wide and a division within Judaism becomes the norm?
From the Biblical period till today Jews have written their story in compelling narratives of hope and justice, lament and exile. In our time, we thought it might be different. We could turn our attention to other stories of other times and peoples. Yet now it seems as if the journey has come full circle. The urgency returns and so does the responsibility. With Jews and Palestinians in the ashes, pulling both out-and they can only be pulled out together-becomes a Jewish obligation. Yet the daunting reality suggests that even the written word may have arrived too late.
Clearly, the desire and attempt to censor Jewish and non-Jewish speech about Israel is misguided. Its intent is to maintain the illusion that Israel is innocent, that we as Jews are only innocent people and that those who speak are either anti-Jewish or self-hating Jews. Dissent and dissenters are complex in their motivations and agendas as are those who support the status quo. But to file dissent under the rubric of treason is to intentionally miss the point. It is to demonize the message that is so needed by the world. And in the end it is to make less and less accessible the very center of the tradition, in the Jewish tradition specifically, the prophetic. For Jews to demonize Jewish dissent is to demonize the prophetic. To demonize the prophetic is to eviscerate Judaism. Or more accurately, it is to render empty the Judaic, our great contribution to ourselves and the world.
Think about the following: without the prophetic how can we find meaning in the world? Without the prophetic the world collapses in upon itself and the great void, always waiting, reappears. After all the great biblical scholarship and the linguistic and archaeological studies of the modern academy, the prophetic remains as the thread that makes sense of our pilgrimage on earth. Of course we are aware of the squandering of the prophetic by all religious establishments. In this case the Jewish establishment is unexceptional. And that is itself important. What happens when those who gave the world the prophetic no longer embody it? And more, what does it mean if those-or at least the leaders of those- who gave the world the prophetic actually persecute those Jews who uphold the prophetic? For what is the prophetic if it is not a turn inward? Only critiquing other societies, especially societies in which you are a minority, is important. It becomes hypocritical when your own power is seen as innocent and when victims now empowered claim victimhood.
The truth is that it is not only the Jewish establishment that disciplines and censors speech. Among progressive Jews there is also an establishment that often tries to define the parameters of acceptable discourse. Some are found in the rabbinate, others in the academic circles of Jewish Studies: both proclaim definitions of Jewishness to maintain their own credibility vis-a-vis the establishment that persecutes them. Often it is the local branch of the Hillel Foundation which is the worst offender on the college campus as they see themselves as virtual thought police for Jews and non-Jews alike. How one builds identity without facing the truth is difficult to understand. Over the long run it is impossible to nurture a Jewish identity so at odds with its own foundational ideas and actions.
In the end we as Jews must come to terms with the fact that the idea of a Jewish state has failed, at least in the sense that it would embody values and aspirations different than other nation-states that make no claim to embody Judaic principles. I do not subscribe to the notion that the State of Israel is worse than other countries, if the comparison is with the United States, indeed any other nation that has a history of any duration. And it could be too much to complain that Jewish leadership has formed a Constantinian Judaism, bringing together religion and the state, when other religions, including Christianity and Islam, do this with a regularity that is astounding.
And here it is important not to romanticize the oppressed. Palestinians are no better or worse than other peoples; they deserve to be free because all peoples deserve to be free. What they will do with that freedom cannot be determined in advance and should not prejudice their struggle. The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto deserved to be free without reference to the past or the future. The policies of Israel today bear no relationship to the struggle in the Warsaw ghetto. As a Jew I can only observe the Palestinian struggle from afar or in Israel nearby as a complicated effort for self-affirmation in relation to Israel but also in relation to the surrounding Arab world. I am in solidarity with Palestinian Arabs because they have been wronged by Jews historically in the creation of Israel and wronged in the continuing expansion of Israel’s borders from the 1967 war until today.
In my view Palestinians should not use that solidarity as a blank check to advocate or to actualize a policy of destruction of Israel. Though Palestinians have the right of return in international law, I do not support its implementation or even the slogans advocating that right. They seem to me dead-end markers of a politics that has no future.
On the other hand, Jews who speak of the need to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza but fail to mention Jerusalem are shouting progress which is really a victory for Israel and a defeat for the Palestinians. The specifics are only superficial: slogans about ending the occupation mask the reality that the occupation is never going to end-if we mean by that a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. Another slogan-two states for two peoples-is equally illusory, if we mean by a Palestinian state a real state with full powers, land and possibility. Even Jewish progressives fudge on the details behind the slogan. Michael Lerner’s Tikkun is clear on this: only a small, demilitarized and dependent Palestinian state is envisioned with the guarantee of Israeli security more important than the right of Palestinian independence.
What is the possibility for justice and reconciliation? For some time I have been thinking and writing of the need to recognize Jerusalem as the broken-middle of Israel/Palestine where Jews and Palestinians could meet and begin anew in equality and justice. Once Jewish leadership confessed its transgressions against the Palestinian people, a new vision could arise of a shared land where the formation of identity would combine the particularities of history and contemporary life now lived in justice and reconciliation. Jews and Palestinians would maintain their particularities and over time a Jewish-Palestinian identity would come into being.
This would be part and parcel of a process I have called revolutionary forgiveness. Here confession is combined with a pledge and plan to reconcile the past through the creation of a just future. The movement toward that future itself involves a forgiveness that is concrete and experienced. Though the hurt of dislocation and death for both Jews and Palestinians remains alive in memory, that memory of suffering takes on new dimensions and possibilities in the search for justice. The memory becomes subversive against all future suffering of each people and both peoples, until the offense against one becomes an offense against the other. The process is revolutionary because it changes the relationship between the victor and the defeated and offers a hope of a future where the cycle of violence is ended.
It is clear today that the process of justice that might bring reconciliation is on hold, if not actually moving backwards. Just when we believe that the situation cannot become worse, it does. After the elections and with the coming war in Iraq the situation will worsen still. The subversive memory of suffering that could lead to a revolutionary forgiveness is further tainted until the subversive becomes only an act of vengeance, continuing and deepening the cycle of violence and atrocity.
The slogans remain-“End the Occupation,” “Two States for Two Peoples,” “The Right of Return”-but none of these slogans are meaningful today. They will not lift us from the ashes. They will not bring us closer to justice and reconciliation.
What we can do is to continue on. As Jews we can speak the truth without regard for the dual establishments of Constantinian Judaism and progressive Jewish activists. We can fight to speak our word in synagogues and universities. We can continue to link with Palestinians in Palestine and their diaspora. We can continue to speak the confession that is both simple and clear: What we as Jews have done to the Palestinians is wrong; What we are doing to Palestinians today is wrong.” And we can continue to say to our fellow Jews that side-stepping the central issue of our time through gender or textual studies or through the dialogue of Avrahamic faiths does not change or hide or lessen our complicity.
Finally, we must admit that the conception of Judaism taught in seminaries and universities as ethical and just, as a way forward for the world historically and in the present, as innocent in suffering and empowerment, has reached its limit. If we follow this path of innocence and redemption we repeat what we once railed against, the hypocrisy of Christianity and the nations. For in becoming a nation-state we have become, perhaps irrevocably, like the nations. And the rhetoric we employ to discuss Judaism and Jewishness is weakened, perhaps contradicted, by our actions and silence in the world.
Marc H. Ellis, Ph.D., is University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes; The Search for Jewish Identity in the 21st Century.