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Judaism Does Not Equal Israel

Judaism Does Not Equal Israel

by Rabbi Marc H. Ellis. 

The New Press, 256 pages, ISBN978-1595584250

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Howard Cooper, a rabbi and a psychotherapist, considers why the author, also a rabbi, believes there is a civil war going on within the Jewish world.

It is almost a decade since Israel’s former attorney general Michael Ben-Yair, writing in the country’s leading newspaper Ha’aretz, broke the taboo. He described his country’s actions since the Six Day War of1967, “We developed two judicial systems: one - progressive, liberal -in Israel; and the other - cruel, injurious -in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime. We enthusiastically chose to become a colonialist society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands engaging in theft and finding justification for all this.”

Yet even if they avoid the tendentious word apartheid, when Jews outside of Israel give similar voice to their misgivings or sense of moral outrage about some of Israel’s actions in relation to the Palestinians, they can often be accused by other Jewish commentators of the sin of “Jewish selfhatred”. It is as if speaking from within the stream of Jewish prophetic (and rabbinic) consciousness about the centrality of justice within the Judaic world view is a betrayal of contemporary Jewish existence, rather than an affirmation of Jewish values and purpose.

How have we come to this depressing impasse? For Ellis, this accusation of “self-hatred” is a symptom of what he describes as a “civil war within the Jewish world”. It has its corollary in the way in which the accusation of anti-Semitism has become the default response from Jewish commentators and establishment figures to non-Jewish criticisms of the State of Israel’s more reprehensible policies and actions. “How dare you - after all you have done to us, from the false charge of deicide to the murderous barbarism of the Holocaust -how dare you rebuke the ways we, the victims, choose to defend ourselves against those who still seek to damage us?”

Ellis is acute in his diagnosis of the dilemma for Christians who have wanted, since the Shoah and Vatican II, to overturn a history of hostility and show solidarity towards Jews, “our elder brothers” (Pope John Paul II) - and yet who feel dismay, along with many Jews, at some of the consequences of Jewish empowerment within the State of Israel. But Ellis’ primary concern - along with his impassioned (but to my mind Utopian) hope for a reversal of injustice within a “shared life in one state, rather than the much discussed, delayed, and now virtually impossible two-state option” - is with the profound damage being done to Jewish identity as a result of Israel’s policies. “What is in contention is no less than what it means to be Jewish,” he avers contentiously. “Judaism and Israel may be on the brink of dissolution”. This is because “totemic Judaism”, the collective identification with Jewish suffering in the Holocaust which merges into identification with Jewish self-empowerment through Israel, has become what Jews now believe in: this is now the content of Jewish faith, “more important than religious observance”. In the face of his apocalyptic vision, “we as Jews have reached an end in our history”. The only hope Ellis sees for any morally viable Jewish future is in the rediscovery of “the prophetic” by those whom he calls Jews of Conscience. Although I share the author’s abiding sense that something deeply tragic has happened to the Judaic sensibility within elements of Israeli political life - and within those in the diaspora, particularly in America but also here in the UK, who defend the indefensible - I think that Ellis overstates his case. The overstatement is not his emphasis on the ways in which “Judaism and Jewishness can move forward only with the doing of justice” - which, although overblown in its formulation, is still an embattled affirmation of the essence of Judaism’s keenest purpose - but his dismissal of those Israelis (and there are many - lawyers, rabbis, humanrights and peace activists, physicians, journalists) who are committed to the cause of justice and reconciliation: “Jews of Conscience might have to renounce not only Israel, the state, but also Israel, the people.” For all his advocacy of the need to re-embrace (via Martin Buber and Levinas) prophetic Judaism, with its reiterated refrain that there are the direst consequences for the people (exile and disgrace) for their failures to adhere to the ethical demands of the covenant, if Ellis thinks that he might also have to renounce “Israel, the people”, then he places himself outside prophetic consciousness. Israel’s prophets denounced the people for their failures, but they never renounced them. This is the statement of an author and activist who, by his own admission, has been “shunned and exiled” for his views. He came to prominence in the United States over 20 years ago through his interfaith work and his influential ‘Towards a Jewish Theology of Liberation’, he now feels “excommunicated”. The hurt and anger is evident on every page of this provocative and anguished lament for what has happened to the Jewish people as a consequence of founding a state that was meant to provide a haven from the depredations of centuries of oppression. At the heart of Ellis’ mourning, having demythologised Israel’s foundational “myth of innocence”, the truth lies undisguised: “When one community’s redemption means the suffering of another, it cannot be redemption for either.”

This review was first published in The Tablet and is printed with permission


Featured in Bible Lands magazine, Summer 2010