Part II of a Speech by Marc H. Ellis
"I.F. Stone, the great Jewish political writer, said that all governments are liars and so, I would add, Is Israel."
Recovering the tradition of dissent and the inclusive liturgy of destruction demands of us the following admissions: First, what we as Jews have done to the Palestinians since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 is wrong; Second, in the process of conquering and displacing the Palestinian people, we as Jews have done what has been done to us over two millennia; Third, in this process, we are becoming every thing we loathe about our oppressors; Fourth, it is only in confrontation with state power in Israel that Jews can move beyond being victim or oppressor; and Fifth, the movement beyond victimization and oppression can only come through a solidarity with those we have displaced, a solidarity with the Palestinian people.
I often recall the quote from the German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz in referring to the future of Jewish/Christian relationships after the Holocaust. He wrote "We Christians can never go back behind Auschwitz. To go beyond Auschwitz, if we see clearly, is impossible for us by ourselves; it is possible only together with the victims of Auschwitz. The only way Christians in the West can move forward after the Holocaust is to carry Jews with them."
I would paraphrase that in relation to the Jewish/Palestinian struggle in this way: we Jews can never go back behind empowerment. To go beyond empowerment - if we see clearly - is impossible for us by ourselves. It is possible only with the victims of our empowerment, the Palestinian people. That is, our future is bound up with the Palestinian people in exactly the same way that Jews and Christians are bound in the West. If we understand that we can only move forward with the victims of our empowerment, then a confrontation with Jewish power is inevitable. Jews have confronted state power in the West for over 1500 years. We've been the victims of Western Christian state power. We became experts at confronting it, theologically . But we don't know what to do with our own state power. We're out of practice. We haven't had a state for 2000 years. I.F. Stone, the great Jewish political writer, said that all govemments are liars and so, I would add, is Israel. The United States govemment lies, the Russian govemment lies, and Israel, as a govemment, lies.
We need to begin thinking about the Jewish community in Israel and Palestine, rather than the Jewish state. It is self-governing, as other Jewish communities have been throughout history. It has 3 million Jews, it's a medium-sized city in Western terms. I often try to think of Shamir as being a councilman. That' s what he would be in the county I come from in Florida. The difference is that Israel has a military.
What will be remembered about Israel is the expansion of Jewish settlement in Israel and Palestine, but the state will not be remembered in Jewish history. That's significant. The state as it is now is a ghetto surrounded by people who aren't naturally hostile. And in that way, it is in continuity with the Warsaw ghetto. It is a militarized, and, yes, nuclearized ghetto. But there's only one way out of that ghetto: relativize the state.
When we think about the state, we think of redemption, innocence and redemption. But there are prisons, not just for Palestinians but for Jews in Israel. There's prostitution. There are banks. There is unemployment. There are classes. There's racism. There's wife beating. There's rape. There are drugs. It's a state like any other state. We don' t talk about it that way when we speak theologically, huh? It is this innocence. There's even political corruption and scandal involved as in other states.
And it's a system, not just individuals. A Palestinian on my last trip told me about his experience in Ansar 2 where a commander carne in, brought all the Palestinians together, thousands, and said "I want to tell you that I respect you, that you deserve a Palestinian state, and I am with you, and as long as I am here you will be treated with that respect."
The tour of duty in that concentration camp is usually 28 days. And of course like any state, you don't want the prisoners and guards to be around each other too long because they might become friendly. This commander was transferred out after six days. So, it's not that all Jewish-Israelis are terrible. That's not the issue. The commander was in a system of power in a state. And when he didn't toe the line, he was replaced. What is the vocation of the Jewish people, state-building or community-building?
I believe that the vocation of our people is crilical thought and activity . You don't get that in nuclearized ghettos. But they can lead to what Yahoshua Liebowitz, a great Jewish theologian, terms Judeo-Nazis. And if you want to hear somebody who's tough on Israel, you ought to talk to Liebowitz, who has been there since the 1920s. This doesn't mean that the Jewish community has no political dimensions, and that Judaism is without politics.
In diverse Jewish communities, including in Israel as a community, what is our empowerment going to be? Over and against another? That's the question. We have a right to be empowered, but not over or against others. So if we: confront the state of Israel; if we recover the communal aspects of Jewish life in diverse Jewish communites around the world, including the Jewish community in Israel; if we're asked the vocational task of Jewish history, we begin to create a Jewish theology which relativizes the state of Israel, critically addresses the history we are creating, and places the Palestinian people at the center of our concern in our theology. By doing this, by placing the Palestinians at the center of our theology, we are advised of who we have become. And we 're also challenged to ask the question, who do we want to be? Thus, the task of Jewish theology comes into focus, and that is to lay the groundwork for solidarity with the Palestinian people and ultimately to embrace the Palestinians. Any Jewish theology - conservative, liberal, and/or progressive - which does not place the Palestinian people at the center, is a theology which legitimates torture and death. It keeps the system going. Any theology that doesn't confront state power in Israel legitimates it.
The Hldden Tradition of Critical Thought
Recovering the tradition of dissent and the inclusive liturgy of destruction leads to a renewal of the third tradition, unmentioned in Holocaust theology. Remember, this inclusive liturgy of destruction is never mentioned in Holocaust theology. In fact if you look in Torn Segev's book, as the expulsion of the Palestinians was going on, a top level ministerial committee meeting was held. One of the issues discussed were some reports from the field and somebody said, "Those are Nazi actions." And another minister said, "We never use that term."
We've been taught to repress and suppress what is the deepest part of our history. So that third tradition, that unmentioned in Holocaust theology, is what I call the hidden tradition of critical thought, and this comes from Hannah Arendt.
What is this hidden tradition? It carne out of Europe, among European Jews who were in between European culture and Jewish culture. Someone like Hannah Arendt, but also Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, and in a very beautiful way, Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum. If you look at these two diaries of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum, if you read them again, you can see women who are searching for spirituality. They 're Jewish, but they're also willing to search other places too. They're liberated women. They think about community. They think of themselves. They are thinking about sexuality. They're free. They're emerging in the world. They're involved in the world. Etty Hillesum, for instance, could have escaped from Holland but chose to go to her death in Auschwitz. Anyway, this great aspect of Jewish thought emerged because of a creative tension between Europe and Judaism. That is Jews - maybe all peoples - think better when we are in dialogue with partners. Today we need a revival of that tradition, because on the most critical issues facing the Jewish people, we can no longer think.
So I want to suggest two dialogue partners: our former enemies (Western Christians) who have undergone part of the community of transformation because, partly, of their understanding of the suffering they've caused others (including Jews). People like Gustavo Gutiérrez, who has written a beautiful book on Job. People like Isabel Carter Heyward, an Episcopalian woman, a lesbian, who wrote a beautiful book on revolutionary forgiveness asking how the Nicaraguan people could forgive Americans for what they're doing. (They can only forgive them in the context of moving toward justice.) Rosemary Radford Ruether talks about false and prophetic hope and, of course, Johann Baptist Metz. I'm just mentioning very briefly these Christians who have taken our suffering seriously and now can help teach us if we are in dialogue with them. It's a paradox that former enemies can teach us. And of course we cannot think unless we have other partners. The Palestinian people are asking of us questions which we have to face by looking at the Uprising. We have to face the fact that we suffered in Europe, not in Palestine. We have to begin by talking about a democratic, secular, pluralist state. I went down and started a dialogue on Jewish Theology of Liberation in Cyprus with Arab and Palestinian theologians. There, I met a Palestinian Christian who said "I have a question about God just like your tradition does. You have had difficulty with God after your suffering. I have difficulty with God in our suffering." With these new partners, who are also ancient partners, our former enemies and our present enemies, we may be able to think again because they confront our history the way we, in times past, have confronted other histories.
But to begin that dialogue, we need the ecumenical dialogue in the West to change, and l want to speak one minute about that. There has been, since the Vatican Council in the 1960s, an ecumenical deal between Jews and Christians in the West, and here's the deal: Christians repented their sins of which we could speak forever, not just against the Jewish people, but against many peoples, and accepted Israel as central to Jewish identity. Any criticism of Israel means that you're no longer repenting of your sins, therefore any criticism of Israel is anti-Jewish. This leads Christians sometimes to a deafening silence about what we are doing and who we have become - "I can't speak about that. We've caused your people too much suffering." That's a frightened silence. On the other hand, because of that deal, we sometimes have a patemalistic embrace - "You're so beautiful. As a Jew, you're so beautiful" - you know the times when you get hugged so tightly that you can't breathe? I've been hugged that way.
We need neither a frightened silence nor a paternalistic embrace, but a critical solidarity. And I would say Chris tians cannot be in solidarity with the Jewish people unless they are in solidarity with the Palestinian people. If you're a friend of the Jewish people, speak before it's too late. But it's difficult, because part of Western Christian renewal has been to see the Jewish partner as innocent, as moving toward redemption. Jews have to move beyond innocence and redemption, and so do Christians.
How do I determine anti-Semitism in terms of anti-Zionism? Very, very simple. If a Western Christian hearing me says "There goes those damn Jews again," it's Jewish. But if they say "We have been torturing and displacing and murdering people for 1500 years, and we still legitímate it," then we have a new path of solidarity. So the ecumenical deal is over if you're going to call yourself a friend of the Jewish people. Now, a lot of Jews want that ecumenical deal to continue. They are begging for it to continue.
I want to close with the last paragraph of my famous or infamous article (depending on your perspective) that was published here. "In the coming months as in the previous years, the questions that I have raised will essentially remain unasked, at least in public. Those who raise them in public will be vilified. Jewish theologians will continue to legitímate Israeli behavior, or when this is no longer possible, at least, equivocate it. But the consequences of Israel 's power and the power it exercises to destroy a people are too serious to be ignored. The day of reckoning will come. By then, however, we Jews will survey with Walter Benjamin, the treasures of victory which have an origin, which we cannot contemplate without horror. That is the day Jews will relate with tears the history we have bequeathed to our children. To minimize that history, we must act now. We are very nearly to it."
(Ed. note: For Part 1 of thls artlcle see AGENDA, July 1990.)