Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Micah meets...Marc H. Ellis

This month something special. To mark the publication of his new book, I have a review and an exclusive in-depth interview with the radical Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis.

Book review: Future of the prophetic

It used to be that you had to wait a few years between reading anything new from the leading Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis.

But times have changed.

Since retiring as Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University, Ellis has moved to Florida, set himself up on Facebook and become a regular, sometimes daily, contributor to Mondoweiss, the online platform for dissident comment and non-mainstream reporting on Israel-Palestine. A regular home on the web has allowed Ellis to reflect on the current twists and turns of the subject that has dominated his theological thinking. So now we can get the instant Ellis reaction on the growth of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, the failed Kerry peace initiative, American campus battles over freedom of speech and the almost daily examples of ethical chutzpah from the Jewish American establishment. Often his Mondoweiss writing can read like a stream of ethical consciousness pointing out the absurdities Jewish political life.

Retirement has also afforded Ellis the time to revisit the major themes of his career and test them against the latest developments and thinking in the Jewish, Palestinian and wider world. So, now we have a new book: Future of the prophetic - Israel's Ancient Wisdom Re-presented published in the United States and the UK last month (May 2014).

Before I go any further, a moment of full disclosure (and personal thanks) seems in order.

Ellis has been a major influence on my thinking on Israel-Palestine ever since I read Towards a Jewish Theology of Liberation (TJTL) published in 1987. That booked helped a whole generation begin to understand the complex impact of the Holocaust on Jewish self-understanding and the political role it has played in creating a narrative around the actions of the State of Israel that is built on innocence, redemption, eternal victimhood and endless vulnerability. All of which undermines, and leads to the active suppression of, any attempt to understand what has happened to the Palestinians as a result of the 'miracle of Jewish national rebirth'. When I starting writing Micah's Paradigm Shift three years ago, I knew that Ellis would form a major part of the blog's ethical infrastructure.

Through TJTL, and subsequent books, we have been introduced to a new lexicon of Jewish ethical descriptions: 'Constantinium Judaism', 'Empire', 'After Auschwitz', 'the ecumenical deal', 'Jews of Conscience', 'Prophetic consciousness'. For nearly three decades Ellis has been exploring the shattering theological and political impact of the Holocaust. Through all of his books he has attempted to find a way back to the Biblical moral imperatives of the Hebrew Prophets who challenged the immorality of Jewish power and individual behaviour in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ellis draws a straight line between the prophetic challenges to injustice made by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah and the modern Jewish dissidents who have refused to allow the narrow nationalism of Zionism to hijack traditional Jewish ethical understanding.

Future of the prophetic is his most detailed exploration of these themes since TJTL and brings the Jewish civil war (Empire Jews versus Jews of Conscience) bang up to date.

As Ellis makes clear in the new book, the prophetic continues to break through, and break out, despite all attempts to silence it: "Whether Jews like it or not, they are stuck with the prophetic". And in every generation there are new voices willing to witness to the unravelling moral disaster even if their views lead them into a new social, political and religious 'Jewish Exile'.

However, despite the resilience of the prophetic in Jewish DNA, there are some disturbing questions posed by Ellis that make it perfectly clear just how much he believes is at stake. For much of the book there is a pessimism and sense of mourning about the prospects for the Jewish future.
"For more and more Jews, Jewish life has reached a tipping point...these last decades have introduced a new question. Is there anything ethical left in Jewish life worth saving?"
For Ellis, the relationship between Jews and Palestinians is the defining issue. Everything else is secondary or informed by the layers of self-deception and denial that have accompanied the Jewish dream of empowerment through a modern nationalist project of 'return'.

Throughout the book, Ellis makes audacious and deeply challenging, sometimes disorientating statements that will disturb Jewish sensibilities: "Too often, the Holocaust demobilizes Jews rather than mobilizes them to act justly." The book is full of such thought provoking (and highly quotable) propositions that are then thoroughly explored.

Ellis has always championed, hidden, forgotten or new voices that are pushed to the margins of acceptable discourse or have dropped out of the standard history. Future of the prophetic maintains that tradition.

In these pages we meet again the lost voices of 'homeland', as opposed to 'statist' Zionism, from the 1930s and 40s (Magnes, Buber, Einstein, Arendt) whose warnings against an ethnic Jewish State have turned out to be horribly prescient. But we are also introduced to modern voices, Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli such as Jeff Halper and Mazin Qumsiyeh.

But perhaps the most arresting presence in the book is that of the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli born Jew. Atzmon's anti-Zionism has, in the view of many 'Jews of Conscience', crossed over the line into anti-Semitism because of his writing on Judaism itself which he sees as being an intrinsically racist and colonialist religion. Ellis holds Atzmon up like a mirror to even the most pro-Palestinian Jews and asks us whether these views, that appear beyond the Jewish pale, are an example of Atzmon out-propheting the prophets, taking to a new level even their scathing criticism of Jewish culture? And despite Atzmon's declared abandonment of all things Jewish, Ellis wonders if he is just another link in the chain of the ancient prophetic. It makes for a fascinating, and challenging, few pages in the book.

For Ellis, one way out of the current Jewish impasse is to radically broaden our understanding of the Holocaust and to lift it out of its Jewish-centric setting. This is in no way to deny or downplay the scale and horror of the Jewish experience in the mid 20th century. But Ellis does want to take it away from being only understood as the quintessential act of anti-Semitism. This way of viewing the Holocaust has, in Ellis' analysis, vindicated the need for an empowered Jewish State that then casts all Palestinian opposition as simply modern permutations of Nazism.

To support this new approach, Ellis introduces the work of the historian Timothy Synder and his book: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Ellis sees the implications of Synder's thesis as "explosive". Bloodlands widens the Holocaust field of view to take in all 14 million civilians murdered across Eastern Europe between 1933-45 under Nazi and Soviet empires. Inevitably, Synder shifts his readers to a universal reaction of humanity towards all of the victims of the terror. The cry of 'never again' becomes a call for human rights and obligations rather than a justification for Jewish nationalism.

In the final reckoning, Ellis believes that the maintenance of the Jewish prophetic, and in turn the preservation of a distinctly Jewish ethic, can only be achieved by broadening Jewish horizons to make the connections between our own suffering and those of others.
"When Jews expand their view of human and political rights outward and then apply it in their own backyard, a global broadening of the Jewish horizon is inevitable."
As Ellis has said previously in his work, we Jews need the help of the Palestinians to find our way back to the prophetic, back to the heart of that part of our tradition that has the greatest and most lasting relevance. The path to 'return' as the ancient prophets understood it (that is to say not merely nationalistic and territorial return) involves looking up and outward. The prevailing Jewish mindset, created by the Holocaust and the image of Israel as a threatened and persecuted nation, will not make this task easy.

By the end of the book the reader is left convinced of the tenacity of the prophetic in Jewish life. But like the ancient prophets themselves, the mission may be vital but the work looks overwhelming. It has to be done, but the chances of success appear slim.

Nevertheless, Ellis has made another highly significant contribution to what is becoming an existential debate on the future of Judaism. The Holocaust and Israel has left us at a crossroads and Ellis describes this moment better than any other writer. Some, as I did, will find this book stimulating and challenging, providing essential fuel for the ethical struggle ahead. But like the fate of the ancient prophets, still more will ignore or dismiss his words. Either way, the prophetic will live on.

An interview with Marc H. Ellis

Marc, welcome to Micah's Paradigm Shift.

Micah's Paradigm Shift: Seventy years on and the Holocaust remains the driving force in Jewish discourse. You write about how the Holocaust and Israel have: "overwhelmed the Jewish tradition". Is it simply that we have learnt the wrong lessons, choosing empowerment at all costs rather than universalising the implications of our experience?

Marc H. Ellis: The importance of Holocaust discourse is diminishing now. Its shelf-life – about twenty years or so – is about up. Part of this is time and distance. The other part is Israel’s outrageously aggressive behaviour over many years. How can one raise the Holocaust issue when Palestinians are being permanently ghettoised? The point isn’t universalising the implications of the Holocaust but taking the Holocaust, as a particular experience, in a different direction. Using the Holocaust to justify the end of Palestine is a dead-end for Palestinians – and for Jews as well.

MPS: You've just returned from a lecture tour of Germany. What did your audiences make of your take on the Holocaust and how it has shaped the Jewish story since the end of World War II?

MHE: On the whole Germans take the experience of the Holocaust very seriously. They may be the last community where on the Left, Jewish particularity can be spoken about openly. Having said this, more and more Germans are aware that repentance for the Holocaust has led to another injustice, this time against the Palestinian people. For the most part, Germans are stuck in this predicament. They know what’s going on. They cannot find the words to speak. Even as they are stuck in this predicament, Germany continues to arm Israel. That is why I wrote an essay before I left for Germany with the title – “Repentant Enablers.”

MPS: What is the additional power that linking to the ancient prophetic brings to the situation? What wrong with simply championing a modern understanding of human rights as a gold standard of human behaviour?

MHE: Human rights are important but limited. Human rights can’t do much without political rights. Both have to be grounded somewhere. Though many find that grounding in the Enlightenment – which is fine – this, too, is limited. For Jews the grounding is the evolving Biblical prophetic, when it is affirmed as important and especially its importance is denied. I see the explosion of Jewish dissent, almost exclusively secular, as a struggle against the final assimilation of Jews to power. It’s about idolatry, Biblically defined. Jews of Conscience aren’t going the idolatry route.

MPS: There are many who will think you have 'crossed a line' by quoting Gilad Atzmon and taking his views seriously. Most people think he is 'beyond the pale', what makes you find him a compelling voice?

MHE: Crossed what line - a line more important than the permanent ghettoisation of the Palestinian people? Atzmon is interesting rather than compelling, a provocateur if there ever was one. But focusing on him is a red herring. It’s misplaced. The question should be thrown back to those who pursue him. Do they seek to deflect the truly outrageous violation of Jewish ethics visited upon another people by being outraged by a Jewish Israeli who takes delight in slapping them in the face? The Biblical prophets were one-off types, disturbing the peace on all sides and refusing to be team players. So what’s new? I’ve never met Atzmon and my analysis of him is limited and specific. I don’t agree with some of his positions – I don’t even know all his positions. I don’t argue with those who refuse to work with him politically. I understand why people don’t want to work with him politically. But that’s a different issue than the one I am raising in my book. Jewish Israelis who leave Israel because they can’t take the injustice they’re commanded to commit are a varied lot. They aren’t a pacific mannered bunch. Israel’s conquering of Palestine is driving the Jewish prophetic to the edge. Look for more of this in the future.

MPS: So, Atzmon can't be off limits?

MHE: Atzmon might be an example of what I think of as prophetic insanity but if you want an edgier picture of prophetic insanity check out the Bible. When cornered, the prophets go scorched earth – from our vantage point they’re clearly irrational. Today they would be characterised as anti-Semitic. The prophets are relentless internal critics of Jewish hypocrisy. They aren’t folks you want at your local synagogue. Or, God forbid, at the Vatican prayer summit! This issue with Atzmon isn’t his politics or his hitting at the sacred in the Jewish community – Israel and the Holocaust. Atzmon is about the outer limits of Israeli abuses of power. Concentrate on injustice rather than the foibles of those who have become unhinged by that abuse. Eliminate discussion of Atzmon and you still have a conquered Palestine. So where should we focus?

MPS: You were unimpressed by Pope Francis and his pray-in at the Vatican with Peres and Abbas. I agree it had little political significance but what made that moment such a sham for you?

MHE: Awful. Everyone looked totally bored. Perhaps they resented being used for something that meant so little. When prayers become platitudes – in the face of great suffering – then it’s time to call these religious leaders to account. In my mind they become culpable enablers of injustice. Talk about the silence of God! I happen to be religious but such empty ceremonies confirm everything negative about religiosity. To have the global stage and fail so miserably, you have to shake your head – in disbelief. If Pope Francis was really interested in justice for Palestinians, if he really cared about the Jewish people, during his visit to Palestine he would have stayed in the Palestinian refugee camp he visited and refused to leave until justice was done. Or he could have prayed at the Apartheid Wall and stayed there. Anyone who wanted to pray with him – within that decision and embodiment – then I would listen to those prayers. Talk about the international spotlight! Pray if you like but for God’s sake make it meaningful. Prayer as a sacrifice for justice. Prayer embodied. In the ghettos and refugee camps of our world. Not the Vatican garden.

MPS: Are there aspects of the ancient prophetic tradition that we now have to abandon in order to keep the prophetic itself alive and relevant in our own time? I'm thinking about the way in which the Hebrew prophets never question the original conquest of the Promised Land. It was not given, it was taken. Does that allow present day ideas of Jewish exceptionalism and the hierarchy of suffering to continue at the expense of the Palestinian people? This is the Gilad Atzmon position again.

MHE: The Jewish critique of exceptionalism – is exceptionally Jewish. Like Sholmo Sand’s deconstruction of Jewish history and identity. It’s so Jewish! For thousands of years, Jews have thought themselves exceptional. Exceptionalism, or, as I prefer, a sense of Jewish destiny, isn’t going away. Nor should it. What is important is the direction that the sense of exceptionalism/destiny takes. Why give up on a source of meaning in the world? Besides, if you diminish Jewish destiny, you give up the prophetic. But the Jewish prophetic is a great gift now shared around the world. The world can’t be better off without the Jewish prophetic. Rather the Jewish prophetic should be nurtured as the primal root of the global prophetic. In my book, I explore a number of figures who have radical positions on Zionism. Like Yakov Rabkin who, as an Orthodox anti-Zionist Jew, believes that the Holocaust was punishment for Jewish sins and that the state of Israel, in and of itself, is tempting God to unleash another catastrophe upon the Jewish people. His book has been translated into a number of languages and he tours the world to communicate his message. I find his theology wrong-headed. Nonetheless, he is right to claim that he is within the Jewish tradition. Why read him or others out of the tradition when they clearly are within it? Meanwhile, the oppression of the Palestinians continues unabated with many honors going to those who perpetrate that oppression. So honors for Shimon Peres and reading the riot act to others? Then there is the radical Palestinian, Joseph Massad. I spend many pages on his provocative analysis of the Palestinian Authority as akin to the Jewish Councils that presided over the Jewish ghettos in Nazi Europe. I would pay more attention to Massad than Atzmon or Rabkin. But each has his say.

MPS: Okay, let's leave Gilad Atzmon for the moment. You say in the book that if we want to jettison the Biblical colonialism involved in taking the Promised Land, then we also risk losing the Exodus paradigm of liberation that is so central to the development of Jewish ethics? We are caught in a bind. Is there a way through this? Or do our sacred texts forever inhabit both Empire and moral consciousness?

MHE: Sorry to say but it’s both. My favourite part of the book is my take on the Biblical inheritance. Of course, I know much of the scholarly literature on the Bible and enjoy reading it. However, the Bible is an essential part of Jewish identity and deconstructing it for scholarly effect doesn’t leave us much at the end of the day. I want to know and embrace what it means to be Jewish and make my statement on it. In the Bible, the land is promised to Israel but the prophetic takes precedence. The prophetic – not the land - is the indigenous of the people Israel. It is the essential element of Jewishness and worth fighting for. Having said that, there is no license for taking Palestinian land and Jews of Conscience today are intervening in the prophetic tradition – decolonizing it if you will. Whether consciously or not, the Biblical promise is being reinterpreted from the vantage point of the prophetic in what amounts to a Biblical re-do in the creation of the state of Israel. That’s why the modern day Jewish prophetic is so relentless.

MPS: You talk about the actions of Jews of Conscience being a "last-gasp fling with Jewish identity". Is that the fate of those, like yourself, who find their solidarity with Palestinians the strongest articulation of their Jewish identity?

MHE: We are down to the basics. The Holocaust stripped us of the last vestiges of Rabbinic Judaism. Though horrible beyond words, the Holocaust presented Jews with the essence of what it means to be Jewish. Some take the empowerment over others route – I call them Constantinian Jews. Others take the prophetic route – I call them Jews of Conscience. Deep in exile, Jews of Conscience grapple with the difficult embrace of the prophetic. In fact, they embody it. After that embodiment, what’s left? That’s anyone’s guess but there will always be those on the other side of power who need the prophetic voice. Of all the issues in the world, Jews of Conscience galvanising around the question of Israel-Palestine tells us something. Behind the political secular veneer what is at stake is the entirety of Jewish history. Jews of Conscience aren’t about to let Jewish history go down the drain.

MPS: What is it about the 'Jewish condition' that makes for this prophetic disposition? Why does it keep breaking through? Is it just another reaction to a history of persecution? In fact, the flip side to the reaction that leads to the idolatry of empowerment? And if our secure comfortable lives (in the UK or USA) have brought an end to that suffering, does the prophetic end too?

MHE: The indigenous of Jewish is the prophetic. No matter how much others want the Jewish prophetic to die and no matter how much the Jewish establishment wants it to die, the Jewish prophetic is here to stay. The Jewish prophetic will never die. I think of this as persistence of the prophetic and no matter how many qualifiers one throws in – how many contextual variations that “explain” the Jewish prophetic - such explanations don’t exhaust that persistence. Jews have always been on both sides of the empire divide and will continue to be. Empire is the Jewish hope for normalization but it is consistently undermined by the prophetic. As it turns out the instability of Jewish life – which comes from the prophetic – is our stability. Of course, it is also true that the God of Israel is unstable. Jews and God are quite a pair.

MPS: Labels like 'Jews of Conscience' and 'Empire Jews' feel like they are loaded with self-righteousness. Even though I may want to align myself to the Jews of Conscience camp it doesn't feel entirely comfortable. It shuts down the potential for dialogue and caricatures both sides. In fact are most Jews in neither camp?

MHE: The dialogue is false, manipulated, corrupt. That includes dealing with Progressive Jews who have held back dealing with the real issues for decades. In terms of self-righteousness, I find much of the Left superficial as well. Norman Finkelstein’s charge that BDS is a cult only means the cult he cultivated is leaving his side. Like International Law, BDS has its place. Both are part of the mix and limited. Neither deals with Jewish or Palestinian particularity at a deep level. As well, outsiders who take up the Jewish or Palestinian cause should check their anger at the border. They often come from cultures, religions and political entities that are knee-deep in Jewish and Palestinian blood. Cheerleading is fine at a football game but when it comes to thought we need thinkers who call it as they see it. There aren’t any enforcers who demand that you listen to me or others. If you don’t want to think along these lines, don’t. But when people are suffering like the Palestinians are and Jewish history is on the line, niceties, often construed as being constructive, have to be jettisoned.

MPS: You take a pretty hard line Marc

MHE: Jews who exercise their conscience are Jews of Conscience. Those who feast upon and enable empire are Constantinian Jews. It’s a civil war out there and in the war of words and institutional power, Constantinian Jews wield a more powerful platform. Constantinian Jews, along with their allies in the Christian establishment - they’re brutal – and wrong. They persecute Jews of Conscience, bring them up on trumped-up charges, payoff witnesses and defame the character of those who seek justice in the world. It’s a slander machine but then most of the persecutors are bagman. They take their bribes in dollars and empty tributes.

MPS: For a theologian you do not leave much room for God in your writing. You see Him as silent yet you remain convinced that the Jewish covenant breaks through even when it is voiced by those who would describe themselves as thoroughly secular. How do you see that working?

MHE: It’s more complicated than that. The silence of God in the Holocaust is one thing – that’s theology stumped. That silence, however, is trumped by the prophetic: The prophet embodies the possibility of God – and meaning - in the world. Neither are assured. In a world where God is silent – a premise I take to be self-evident – and where there is no rescue from ourselves – another self-evident reality – we are faced with the prospect of nothingness. At the end of the day, though, that’s a superficial rendering of the human condition. When we come to face to face with the prophet and the prophetic, we are called to a deeper encounter with history, our world and ourselves. That encounter raises the question of God.

MPS: How hopeful are you that the prophetic tradition can ever overcome the forces of empire and empowerment' 'Constantinian Judaism'? The ancient prophets didn't seem to have much luck on this score themselves.

MHE: All is lost – that’s where we need to begin. In the darkness where is light? That’s the next step. The prophet gathers light in the darkness. What remains after the constant shattering is what we have. Why not admit it and get on with life? We are at the end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it. Full stop. But then aren’t Christians at their end? Muslims? The believers in the world’s most powerful faith, modernity? At the end is our beginning. The end is exile and the beginning is the recognition that we aren’t returning to our birth communities and that the diverse and growing world of exiles is our community. I call this exile community the New Diaspora.

MPS: I want to finish by asking about your Facebook posts. Apart from sharing links to your Mondoweiss pieces, you often post your photographs of Florida sunrises and sunsets taken on morning and evening strolls near your home. Does the sheer beauty of creation continue to root you in some form of belief?

MHE: Yes I am being identified as “that guy who does the sunrise photos” and I am now working with a web whiz who wants to partner with me in publishing my photos with my commentary. In this harsh civil war that I have been involved in since 1987 people classify you in ways that don’t fit the reality. It’s like an out-of-body experience. They use my name but I cannot identify myself in their speech about me. I conclude that they must be speaking about someone else with the same name I have. I have been writing poetry since I was child and I love the beauty of the world. Your question of belief doesn’t fit here since again the only reason to be Jewish is to embody the prophetic. Embodying the prophetic is Jewish belief. The two hours or so I spend in and around the beach each morning isn’t about belief or unbelief. It’s about the beauty, sounds and silence of the world and our inner being connected to the world. I also sit on a cushion in the morning, Zen-like, to clear the junk from my mind and get to a still point where I can hear my heart beat. Inside the prophetic is an internal life – little has been written about it. My sense is that justice is only the outer shell of the prophetic. I am trying to explore this inner world and photograph aspects of it. As has been said, the rest is commentary. In exile, I have time to explore the heartbeat of the prophetic. Why not?

MPS: Marc, thank you. Good luck with the new book and with the website project.