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‘The end of ethical Jewish history’

Israeli rabbis join in prayer on November 18 at the western wall for the success of Operation Pillar of Defence, November 14-22, 2012. The killing of 174 – 177 Palestinians compared to six Israelis was presumably the answer to their prayer. Photo by Oren Nahshon / FLASH90

If the occupation is permanent, is an ethical Jewish future possible?

By Marc H. Ellis, Mondoweiss
October 25, 2017

The following lecture was given on October 24, 2017 at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Marc Ellis’s book Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation. To read Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss visit the archive page.

For the last week, I have been teaching and touring in the Old City of Jerusalem. Much has changed in the forty plus years since I first arrived in Jerusalem. It was 1973, six years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in October; the 1973 war began while I was here. In the ensuing years, I travelled here many times and written many words that emerged from experiences in Israel-Palestine. During this time I have pursued a vision that came to me early on – that the future of the Jewish people is bound up with the fate of Palestine and Palestinians. On this, the 30th anniversary of my book, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, I offer the following fifteen short meditations on where we have arrived and where we are heading, Jews and Palestinians together.

1. Thirty years ago, in Jerusalem, at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, and in my book Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, I raised an unprecedented challenge to Jewish theologians, Jews interested in spirituality broadly speaking and Jewish seekers of justice from any perspective, whether articulated or not: What does it mean, after the Holocaust, for empowered Jews in America, for empowered Jews in the state of Israel, for empowered Jews in the United Kingdom, in Argentina and wherever Jews live, to come into solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle to be free in their own homeland? It has been many years, truly a lifetime it seems, and the answer did not arrive.

Now I ask a second, related challenge, thirty years later, again in Jerusalem, at Tantur and now at the Jerusalem School of Theology where I am teaching these weeks, to Jewish theologians, Jews interested in spirituality broadly speaking and to Jewish seekers of justice from any perspective, articulated or not: What does it mean after the Holocaust and after Israel, meaning by that after what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people, for empowered Jews in America, for empowered Jews in the state of Israel and wherever empowered Jews live around the world, to understand that the occupation of Palestinians and Palestine is permanent and that, therefore the possibility of an ethical Jewish future is foreclosed?

2.  I will return to the challenge of solidarity and a permanent occupation in a moment. First, though, a rehearsal of what has occurred between the time I spoke in Jerusalem thirty years ago and this evening, again in Jerusalem, as I speak. There are many, many details and more than a few seminal events to detail, yet the overall picture is our focus.

The state of Israel has successfully pursued a series of military, political and economic policies to extend Israel’s reach into Palestine and  diminish Palestinian politics, culture and religion.

Simply put, through hook and crook, the state of Israel has successfully pursued a well-defined, if only partially articulated, series of military, political and economic policies to extend Israel’s reach into Palestine and consistently diminish Palestinian politics, culture and religion. Thirty years ago the occupation of Palestine and Palestinians already may have been permanent. Today, no analyst anywhere worth anything can deny the permanence of Israel’s occupation. In fact, every plan put forward by Israel, by the Palestinians and by the international community – in substance if not in rhetoric – recognizes Israel’s superior power and geographic expansion as permanent. Every plan put forward by Israel, the Palestinians and by the international community – in substance if not in rhetoric – proposes only a limited autonomy for Palestinians, an autonomy further contained by military forces from various countries and entities that includes, among others, the American and Israeli military. There is no serious political or military force in the world that proposes an end to Israel’s occupation. And further, during these thirty years a startling increase in overt strategic military cooperation with Israel has occurred within the Arab world. In short, Israel has become a permanent occupier of Palestine and a strategic asset of major players in the Arab world.


Once a Palestinian shop in Hebron, now closed and shuttered by Israeli soldiers, perhaps the ones who added the star of David. Photo by Lauren Surface.


A warning for those who seek to push back Israel by way of catastrophe. In  Israel-Palestine the catastrophe could mean mutual destruction

3.There is no need to define permanent as duration, as forever. Or to speculate on scenarios as to how the permanent occupation of Palestine and Palestinians can be reversed. History is open; unforeseen events occur. The change agent of catastrophe is always possible. But thinking catastrophe, if catastrophe is upped – since the Middle East has experienced catastrophe for many years and is in the midst of a series of catastrophes as I speak – those who wish for catastrophe must be willing to pay the price with their own lives and treasure. Thus a warning for those who seek to push back Israel by way of catastrophe. In the Middle East and Israel-Palestine especially, the catastrophe could mean mutual destruction. If, afterward, there is a last man or woman standing it may not be worth his or her survival. So, for my exploration, by permanent I mean over the next years, certainly my lifetime and beyond, for the next fifty or one hundred years. As well, the scenarios for reversal of the permanent occupation I hear now, I heard thirty years ago: if only the world knew; if only Americans knew; the Arab world will rise up; Israel will collapse of its contradictions; demographics will win the day. Meanwhile, the occupation is consolidated.

Unholy Alliance: Religion and Atrocity in Our Time
By Marc H. Ellias
Published by Fortress Press
February 21, 1997 240pp,
ISBN: 978080063080



4. Regardless of the length of time, whether it is twenty or fifty or hundred years or until the end of time, whatever the end of time can mean today, Jewish life has been and is now permanently scarred by the occupation of Palestine and Palestinians. To those who ask whether Jews, after the Holocaust, can participate in ethnic cleansing, our answer is hardly theoretical. Historically, factually, the answer is: “Like others before and after us, yes, after the Holocaust, in the creation and expansion of Israel, Jews are ethnic cleansers, too.” To those who ask whether Jews, after the Holocaust, can participate in state sponsored and systematic, planned, terrorism, our answer is hardly theoretical. Historically, factually, the answer is: “Like others before and after us, yes, after the Holocaust, in the creation and expansion of Israel, Jews are participants in and enablers of state sponsored and systematic planned terrorism.” These historical and factual statements amount to a confession that I made in Jerusalem thirty years ago and I make again this evening: “What we as Jews have done to you, the Palestinian people, is wrong. What we as Jews are doing to you, the Palestinian people, is wrong.” Like the occupation of Palestine and Palestinians, this confession is obvious. It is also permanent. And how much more obvious and permanent it is today than it was thirty years ago.

5. However one parses our permanent occupation of Palestine and Palestinians, Jewish identity, whether religious, spiritual or secular, is now permanently infected with atrocity. I first wrote about this subject in 1997 in Unholy Alliance: Religion and Atrocity in Our Time. That was the title my publisher gave to the book; marketing experts do have their say. Yet when I think of Unholy Alliance, I first think of the title I gave to the book and which is relevant to my lecture this evening: “Atrocity and the Language of God”. My book is less about how religion and power come together in atrocity, others have covered that territory and been heartily rewarded for it. Rather my book is about how atrocity, mass death but also genocide and ethnic cleansing, leads to, must have, and is in intrinsically bound up with, distortions in language and religion. After mass death, genocide and ethnic cleansing the language in which these horrors were carried out  carries the trauma it enabled. So, too, religion that blesses atrocity.

The once restricted and sacred language of Hebrew has emerged into the history of the Jewish state with a violence that continues 

In Atrocity and the Language of God, I began with the Holocaust and the scholarly work on the effects Nazism has had on the German language and religion. Then, I extended my analysis to Hebrew. After all, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the formation and expansion of Israel was carried out in many languages, including Hebrew, and modern Hebrew was formed within the events that brought about and sustains the state of Israel. Since that time Israeli state policies, religious beliefs and political rhetoric that have brought ruin to Palestinians has been thought, spoken and executed in Hebrew. This once restricted and sacred language emerged into the history of the Jewish state with a violence that continues as I speak. Can such a language escape the distortions that atrocity mandates? In the formation, sustenance and expansion of Israel, Judaism and Jewish identity has likewise been actively employed, indeed has been militarized and, yes, infected with atrocity. Because once religion and identity become accomplices to atrocity it must disguise that atrocity and twist it to conform to an innocence and redemption that is now visited, as a form of oppression, on the Other, in this case the Palestinian people.

Rarely, if ever before, has there been a collective Jewish empowerment to the extent we see it today

6. True, no identity or religion is free of wrongheadedness, injustice and violence. Judaism, Jews and Jewish identity have existed in many and varied contexts over a long history. Yet the situation of modern Jewry is arguably distinct in Jewish history. Rarely, if ever before, has there been a collective Jewish empowerment to the extent we see it today. That empowerment is found in the status, freedom and access to venues of power that Jews have within at least two empire formations, the United States and Israel. And this within an almost global sense of Jewish entitlement and international indebtedness, for antisemitism, the Holocaust and thus the recognized need for Jewish empowerment in state form. While arguments can be made for a lack of Jewish innocence before the emergence of the state of Israel, the situation of post-Holocaust Jewry and its now permanent entanglement with the empowered state of Israel, makes the situation unique. Too, Judaism and Hebrew, being upfront in empowered Jewish life and across the Jewish spectrum, has taken the loss of Jewish innocence to another level. The permanence of the situation places previous eras of Jewish empowerment on the back burner. Where else in Jewish history, for example, do we find rabbinical students in a faraway land, America, required to spend a year or more in Israel imbibing its culture and learning the language of Hebrew as central to their Jewish identity, in a Jewish state formed in the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people with a powerful military armed with nuclear weapons?

7. The issue remains: What are Jews to do with the permanent occupation that leaves Jewish identity permanently infected with atrocity? Christians have dealt with this issue or should have. After all, in many ways the dominant form of Christianity most Christians inherit thrived within atrocity. How else would Christianity have gone global? Unfortunately even those victims of an atrocity-filled Christianity now carry that very same Christianity deep within their interior life. Most of the world’s Christians have been, as I wrote in Atrocity and the Language of God, “conquered by the Gospel.” I also suggested there that these “historical Gospels” be read regularly in church – the Gospel of 1492, the Gospel of Colonialism, the Gospel of Auschwitz, all with their special “unholy” readings. On the Jewish side, I think of the Jewish cycle of Torah readings. The obvious congruent voice would be readings from the Book of Palestine.

8. Like the other books of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Palestine is fascinating. It is not a linear history as we might study in a primer on the history of Israel-Palestine. In the Book of Palestine we find a creative narrative, full of the unexpected, with seemingly random appearances and disappearances and silences and words spoken out of time and out of turn. God appears, mostly from the sideline, a God who was once in full flower, a diminished God known by name in the Book of Palestine as I AM, THAT WAS. Or sometimes, when God is named in a more positive vein, when God is present rather than AWOL, God’s name resounds, I AM, WHO LOVES THE PROPHETS.


By Naim Stifan Ateek, Anglican priest and founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem.

Published by Orbis Books, 2017

ISBN 1626982600, 9781626982604

When parsing Israel’s history we read of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. There are words from Edward Said on exile and return, and from other Palestinians, like Naim Ateek, who narrates a section of his Palestinian theology of liberation, his story of expulsion and how he found his voice.

Palestinians report being tortured by Israelis speaking Hebrew. Jewish leaders in America describe these reports as forms of antisemitism. Other Jews ask: Could this be true? Descriptions of settlements abound, as do stories of Palestinian resistance. Jerusalem appears frequently in the Book of Palestine, as it is imagined, whole and just, and as it exists in real life, divided and unjust. A Jewish Theology of Liberation comes briefly on the scene. Some Jews jeer. Others embrace its arrival. A fascinating and disturbing image flashes before us: In the Ark of the Covenant the Torah scrolls are gone, replaced by Star of David Helicopter Gunships. There’s no word if the Torah scrolls return. Early and later in the story we read of Palestinians martyred at the hands of Israeli soldiers. We hear Jews of Conscience cry out in the dead of night. They mourn the end of ethical Jewish history. Palestinian mothers grieve and fathers too. Palestine is falling. Destruction is the order of the day. What is to be done?

For if not an ethical people, at least in aspiration, why be Jewish? 

9. If it seems my rendering of the Book of Palestine seems far afield from the issue before us – if the occupation is permanent, is an ethical Jewish future possible – think again. For the prophetic, including its translation in the rabbinic era, has set the ethical trajectory of Jewish life from the beginning. The issue has never been ethical perfection – is the Jewish community as a whole living an ethical life – but rather the possibility of a personal and communal ethical life has been the benchmark of Jewish destiny. For if not an ethical people, at least in aspiration, why be Jewish? And if not an ethical people, at least in aspiration, how to come close to a God who demands justice as the only way to belief?

Whether Jews are in fact an ethical people or, in a related way, chosen for a special destiny, is arguable. That the sacred scriptures Jews affirm and the formation of Jewish identity through time has revolved around ethics and chosenness is unarguable. There is no “Jewish” without these conceptual categories that demand implementation in real life. There is no time in Jewish history when Jews, in one way or another, have thought themselves like the other nations, except when the prophets accuse Jews of diverting from Jewish destiny. Jews have always felt themselves singled out among the nations for a special destiny and in a special relation with God, even and especially when God seems to be asleep at the wheel or AWOL. So, yes, against the grain of post-modern thought, Jewish exceptionalism is the bedrock of Jewish existence. Problematic to some and for good reason, the ultimate question in Jewish life is in what direction this sense of exceptionalism leads us, to embrace a solidarity with the prophetic tradition for ourselves and in relation to others or to use that exceptionalism over against and as oppressive to our own ethical values and to others.

In sum, an ethical Jewish future, at least as an aspiration, is a command. It is essential to the very future of the Jewish people. This is why the contradictions of contemporary Jewish life are extreme and why a Jewish civil war, down and dirty, is being fought today. If an ethical Jewish future was not at stake, as the proper and highest stake of what it means to be Jewish, why not simply accept our new found power as a good to be used however we want and need to? If an ethical Jewish future was not at stake, as the proper and highest stakes of what it means to be Jewish, how does one explain, in the midst of Jewish flourishing and power, the emergence of Jews of Conscience, the identifiable heirs of the Jewish prophets?

Rabbi Irving Greenberg cautioned that a prophetic critique of Israel was the excommunicable sin of our era

10. Holocaust theology, the theology pioneered by my teacher, Richard Rubenstein, with Elie Wiesel, Emil Fackenheim and Rabbi Irving Greenberg, was structured around remembrance of the Holocaust and support for Jewish empowerment, most especially in the state of Israel. These theologians saw support for Israel as a political and religious communal command after the Holocaust. Holocaust theology is complex, with a number of moving parts, but central to it is the warning against the application of the Jewish prophetic to post-Holocaust Jewry and the state of Israel. The fear of Holocaust theologians? That the Jewish prophetic, so central to Jewish life over the millennia, in fact the essence of Jewish life from its origins, if applied to the state of Israel, would undermine Israel and eventually lead to its destruction. This is why Rabbi Irving Greenberg cautioned that a prophetic critique of Israel was the excommunicable sin of our era. Yet, just as Holocaust theologians warned against the return of the Jewish prophetic, it happened, is happening. In a time of unparalleled Jewish empowerment an ongoing explosion of the Jewish prophetic, focused directly and relentlessly on the unethical policies of the state of Israel in relation to the Palestine and Palestinians, is occurring.

In light of Holocaust theology, prophetic Jews, Jews of Conscience, in Israel, America and beyond, risk excommunication and exile from the Jewish community. The penalties are extreme, from charges of self-hate and encouraging anti-Semitism and laying the groundwork for another Holocaust, to online stalking, disappearing job opportunities and alike. The question before us, then, is why these Jews speak out regardless of the penalties involved. On the one hand, it could be simply a matter of justice, righting the wrong Israel is committing against Palestine and Palestinians. It is that and something more. What Jews of Conscience rail against and give their lives for is the loss of the possibility of a Jewish ethical future – without which there is no “Jewish.” Jews of Conscience are fighting a high stakes battle against the final Jewish assimilation to unjust power which, in their view, articulated in overt Jewish language or not, signals the end of Jewish history.

Star of David built by settlers on Palestinian land in the West Bank. Photo by Guy Hircefeld

11. Many years ago, a noted Jewish scholar, was asked about the issue of intermarriage in Jewish life. For many in the Jewish community the marriage of Jews with non-Jews foretells a dwindling of the Jewish population and Jewish commitment. The scholar’s response was interesting and pertinent to my thoughts here. He said that though every Jew who marries a non-Jew has their own story, often that he or she simply fell in love with a non-Jew and that was that, the aggregate number of such cases represents an unconscious desire to be at home in the broader non-Jewish culture. Thus, intermarriage is less a personal choice than a Jewish desire for security and acceptance. Perhaps, too, this safety valve also represents a desire to escape some of the external and internal pressures associated with being Jewish. Whatever one makes of intermarriage, the issue of assimilation in Jewish history is longstanding and complex.

So, too, is my argument that the explosion of the Jewish prophetic in our time, against all odds and every prohibition, is a refusal of a final assimilation, assimilation to injustice. For Jews of Conscience to come into solidarity with Palestinians is to cross every redline in normative Jewish life. Jews of Conscience who did so decades ago fled the Jewish community, have no association with it and, if asked, have primarily negative opinions about Jewish life in general. What in God’s name has brought so many of these Jews back into the Jewish arena if not as a heart and soul protest against the crossing of this ultimate redline of injustice? Still, it is doubtful that the protest against assimilation to injustice will succeed. The injustice of Israel toward Palestinians is permanent. Can we say the same for prophetic protest?

12. Theologically speaking, the prophetic has its own existence. Once having arrived in history during Biblical times, the prophetic periodically makes its presence felt. In earlier times, God was at the command but more recently God is questioned and often dismissed. The prophetic remains, perhaps as a witness to the GOD THAT WAS. Regardless of how we explain the perseverance of the prophetic, we know the prophetic when we see it. We see it now. Yet the prophetic fails; history rarely changes course. Rather history evolves in various directions. The straight lines of the prophetic can be drawn historically, yet they remain on the margins of the canvas. Jews, like humankind in general, can endure only so much of the prophetic.

In the case of Israel-Palestine, the permanent occupation and permanent infection of Jewish life with atrocity, will continue. The exploding prophetic of our time will fail. It already has. This means that the great Jewish witnesses found in the Book of Palestine, those already mentioned, and others like Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, B’Tselem, Jewish Voice for Peace, even the congregation I just joined, Tzedek Chicago, will likewise fail. They already have. Whatever happens in the future, whether their witness is listened to often or at all, what they want and believe will only, and this if they are lucky, factor into something they cannot accept or has not been expected. For the Book of Palestine is a witness document not a political roadmap. It is read as a lament and a hope. As a testimony, too, a documentation as it were, of the end of ethical Jewish history, at least as we have known and inherited it. Alas, the Jewish prophetic has consistently documented our end. It is doing so as I speak.

Israel, once a point of pride, influence and status increasingly becomes a liability in Jewish and public discourse.

13. The Jewish prophetic will survive; it will continue to accompany and haunt those Jews who enable and perpetuate injustice against Palestinians. These Jewish enablers of injustice – I call them Constantinian Jews – will triumph. But the Jewish narrative of innocence and redemption so important to post-Holocaust Jewish identity will not survive the prophetic insurgency. In fact, on this, rather than the political front, the Jewish narrative for the future has already been decided. Without the claim of ethics and justice, the memory of the Holocaust recedes and instead becomes an accusatory image used against Jewish claims on the world. Israel, once a point of pride, influence and status increasingly becomes a liability in Jewish and the broader public discourse.

Having ceded the ethical high ground, Constantinian Jewry in Israel, America and beyond will negotiate the Jewish future through extension of their power over against Palestinians and Jews of Conscience and others who challenge Israeli policies. Jews of Conscience will continue to agitate, witness and lose, though not completely and not forever. There will come a time when Jews of Conscience negotiate the prophetic. The Jewish civil war is the first step of the negotiation between prophetic and Constantinian Jews over the Jewish future. Whether the children and grandchildren of Jews of Conscience will continue the struggle is unknown. Constantinian Jews have political and financial reasons to hone their message. For the most part, Jews of Conscience have only exile to call their home. Duration is a factor here as Constantinian Jews have more strategic depth than Jews of Conscience. The difficulties of exile wear on the exiled and their children. The prophetic is the deepest embrace of Jewish life; it is the only reason to be Jewish. Still, hardship and the permanence of defeat may make the prophetic less and less viable as a way of life over time.

14. The only way for Jews of Conscience to survive the Jewish civil war and carry on their witness is in exile, an exile that deepens by the day in Israel, America and beyond. Like the occupation and Jewish history infected by atrocity, this exile is permanent. The trauma of injustice and assault that Jews of Conscience experience by the Constantinian Jewish establishments in Israel and America are longstanding and deep. They increase by the day. Exiles always think they are returning home. Mostly they don’t and if they do the landscape is so changed they return to a foreign country.

Jewish Israelis who leave the physical space of Israel or the cultural space while remaining in Israel are gone for good. Jews in America who leave the Jewish community are gone for good. Already, the primary community for Jewish exiles are other exiles from every religion, culture and nationality. I call this community the New Diaspora. In the New Diaspora, Jews mingle with other displaced people, lick their wounds, protest injustice and try to salvage the shattered remains of the tradition they grew up within. In the New Diaspora, no overarching symbolic, cultural or religious structure is desired. Rather, the community comes together in an openness to the spirit and the struggle for justice. Many Jews are already in the New Diaspora, finding life among the ruins, but naming the final exile in the New Diaspora is still in process. Naming this reality is as difficult as the exile itself; it is like anticipating, then hearing, the final bell tolling. Exiles tend to delay what will come soon enough.

Mutual solidarity becomes the watchword; an injury to one becomes an injury to the Other – who is no longer Other.

Many Palestinians reside in the New Diaspora as well. Here Jews and Palestinians forge important bonds of justice seeking and mutual support. Sometimes in exile within Israel-Palestine and often outside it, the lessons of the harsh history between Jews and Palestinians are hashed out, aspects of a divisive history are acknowledged and overcome. A revolutionary forgiveness is approached. Mutual solidarity becomes the watchword; an injury to one becomes an injury to the Other – who is no longer Other. The hope of many was that revolutionary forgiveness could begin in Jerusalem, with a confession from Israel and move to a programme of sharing Jerusalem – joint governance, shared education, integrated policing and grocery shopping, in theory and practice a shared life of Jews and Palestinians. For our permanent moment, at least, that shared life has begun in the New Diaspora. Will that witness one day become a homecoming?

15. I end with a contradiction or perhaps a fulfilment. I ask you to be the judge. Perhaps it was a coincidence that when I wrote my Jewish theology of liberation, my oldest son, Aaron, was emerging into life. Perhaps. It may also have been a subconscious sense that I was preparing to hand down what it means to be Jewish to my children. Since that that time, Aaron, and his brother, Isaiah, have become my life companions. So in closing, I share with you the fragments of Jewishness that Aaron has inherited and articulated in response to my life’s journey. The first is a definition of the prophetic Aaron wrote as a commentary of the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Spanish edition of my Jewish theology of liberation:

“Indeed, I have inherited an interpretive framework and existential directedness, a way of life toward which to strive. I have been given the tools with which I may now seek an intentional orientation toward myself; toward various communities, my own included; toward others; toward the Other; toward the divine; toward the world.”

The second, and here I close, is Aaron’s response to elements of my lecture this evening via Facebook. Note that Aaron and other young Jews of Conscience are up for the challenge I presented this evening. Aaron writes:

“Despite all the plans cementing the occupation, millions of Palestinians’ steadfastness and increased international awareness and activism and divestment and more, all point to a possible future. History has a way of moving and shaking the foundations of expectations. Doomed to destruction? I don’t think so. One democratic state. Equal rights for all. Is on its way. Which doesn’t mean by the way, that Judaism is any more redeemable than Christianity after the Holocaust. All I am saying is that it will happen in my lifetime.”

L. Marc.H. Ellis – Robert A. H. Cohen interviews him about himself and  the prophetic tradition in The Prophet in Exile – an interview with radical Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis

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