The Middle East – An Alternative Jewish View

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 21, Spring 2001

Interview with Marc Ellis, international author and Director of the Centre for American and Jewish Studies, Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He was formerly Professor of Religion, Culture and Society Studies at the Maryknoll School of Theology, New York. He recently visited New Zealand.

CG: You speak of formative events for Jewish identity and the development of theology. What are those principle events?

Ellis: Well, the original formative event, the event that gave birth to what we call the Jewish community, was the Exodus. You can see different events from that and after that, for instance coming into the land, the destruction of the Temple, the fall of Jerusalem, the arrival of Constantine and Christianity. You have different formative events, but the original event that gave birth to the Jewish people, at least according to the Bible, was the Exodus. All other formative events bounce off against that. They’re sort of a relationship always between the present and the past.

CG: But that’s changed in modern times?

Ellis: Well, the Holocaust is a formative event that challenges and may even overwhelm the original formative event of Exodus. So for instance, Emil Fackenheim, a Jewish Holocaust theologian, would say where once we needed to be attentive or we were commanded by the commanding voice of Sinai, today it is the commanding voice of Auschwitz. And Sinai might be some place in Jewish consciousness, but it is not the loudest voice, and certainly not the only voice.

CG: The formation of the Jewish State in 1948. Would that be another formative event?

Ellis: Yes, and now it’s twinned with the Holocaust, although these are two separate events in the Jewish imagination and the Jewish narrative. You might even see these now as one formative event. Of course the Holocaust raises so many questions on its own. For instance, it questions the promise that God would be with us, that we were God’s chosen, that God would protect us. Israel, as it has become, raises other questions. For some it signals a return of God’s presence, but for others the nation state system and what is necessary or perceived to be necessary within that. How that relates to Jewish history is a question because suffering in one way may be easier to relate to Jewish history than empowerment. So now we have to think through not only our suffering but what our empowerment means, especially in relationship to the Palestinian people.

CG: When people think of Jewish history they do think of persecution and suffering and you talk at times about martyrdom, but you say it’s always contextual. What does that mean?

Ellis: Martyrdom always happens in the present, and even when we remember other martyrs it is always in the present. Just like we remember the Exodus in the present, the Holocaust in the present, and Israel in the present. Martyrdom is done in the present and remembered in the present, and the context of martyrdom shifts as society, history and culture shift. So something that was considered martyrdom six or seven hundred years ago might not be considered that today because the situation was so different.

CG: Would the victims of the Holocaust be considered in the context of martyrdom?

Ellis: This was the big debate between Richard Rubenstein and Elie Wiesel in 1970, where Rubenstein said Jews died by the millions for no reason except that they were Jewish or had Jewish background. You cannot, according to Rubenstein, call these Jews martyrs. Wiesel said that if these Jews are not martyrs, you will consign their life and death, indeed, all of Jewish history, to oblivion. They died in the context of Jewish history. In a sense, that’s why they are martyrs. And they are martyrs because they provide the seedbed for the future. Rubenstein didn’t see a Jewish future. And I think Rubenstein and Wiesel split over whether there was going to be a Jewish future and whether a Jewish future is going to be important. And the term and the concept they split over is martyrdom. Because without martyrdom or the possibility of martyrdom, many other aspects of faith, a communal journey and meaning in history break apart. In other words, if there is nothing to die for, what is there to live for? And most people today would say ‘there is nothing for me to die for in terms of commitment – I live for whatever I can get’. But in the faith community, if there is nothing to die for, why identify as a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim?

CG: Are there Jewish martyrs today? What about the soldiers of Israel, defending the occupied territories, for example, in the face of Palestinian demands? Are these considered as being martyrs?

Ellis: Israeli Jews would perceive Jews who have fallen in Israel’s wars in the line of martyrs, and of course those Jews in Israel who see that and who may have lost loved ones see that in different ways. Some of them see that in the 1948 war of Israeli independence, and the 1967 war, but don’t, for example, see that in the soldiers who died more recently in Lebanon or in the occupied territories. So there are some who believe that all of them are martyrs because they are all extending Israel to its proper place. So there is a division within Israel about that, but certainly those soldiers who fought are considered as martyrs. My own sense is that though you can’t expect people who lose family members in wars of nation states to simply forget them or to think that their deaths are wasted, you have got to ask the question in our time what is martyrdom? That would open up a lot of other questions. It could be that you could be a martyr in the struggle for Jewish empowerment at one point, and at another point be a Jewish martyr by going over to the Palestinian side and arguing for their freedom. It’s possible.

CG: Holocaust museums have been built in Europe and the US in recent times as a way to honour and remember the victims of Nazi brutality, but you question this process.

Ellis: Well, I want to ask what the museums are about. I’m not against or for them, but if they are monuments to our suffering, so that we are unaccountable for the suffering of others, then that is a huge problem. If they are monuments to our suffering to make sure that nobody ever suffers like that again, including Palestinians, then I’m much more open to it. But essentially they function in a way that freezes our history at a time when we did not have power, so it constantly reminds us of being powerless, even when we have power. So holocaust museums are not ways of Jews coming to grips with who we are. And because it continues to tell us who we once were, it leaves out the questions we need to ask now. So I am not against memorialising the Holocaust. But in the end it doesn’t help us to come to grips with the central questions of our communal life today, and that is, what we are doing with our power?

CG: What, then, is your understanding of the current Israel-Palestinian conflict?

Ellis: My current understanding is that Israel has expanded to a point where they control the area between Tel Aviv and the Jordan River, and there are millions of Palestinians in between, and Israel wants all the land it can take with the fewest Palestinians it would have to integrate.

Therefore, the Palestinian population centres are left for the Palestinians to control, but that doesn’t leave room for a viable state and a flourishing life for Palestinians.

It encircles them, surrounds them and places them in an impossible situation. And I think this is not only wrong for Palestinians to be in that situation, I think it is wrong for us as Jews to place them in that situation. So I believe that what we have done to Palestinians is wrong, and what we are doing to Palestinians is wrong, and we need to confess that to them and to the world and seek another way.

CG: What is your view of what is likely to develop in that Middle East situation?

Ellis: It doesn’t look good, because Israel is not going to give up what it has taken; the Palestinians cannot live in that situation, and the power imbalance is so great that the Palestinians cannot do much about it. So you have the meeting of a relentlessly expanding state and a people who cannot live that way, and what happens there I do not know. But it’s probably not going to be beautiful or pretty.

CG: In the context of your earlier remarks about martyrdom, do the Palestinians fit the criteria for martyrdom, for example, if they do suicide bombings?

Ellis: Well, among many Palestinians they are considered martyrs. Within the Palestinian struggle, within the Islamic and sometimes the Christian faith, they are considered martyrs. But I think also Jews have to recognise in their struggle for freedom that the Palestinians have become part of our history, and they are a challenge, or a question, to our history. So in some ways you could see them from the perspective of Jewish history also as martyrs, calling us to another way. So you could have the martyrdom from the Palestinian side, which is for them to decide. But also as Jews, we have to recognise that every Palestinian that dies is a stain on Jewish history. It is a stain on Jewish history in an intimate way. This means we can never be separated from Palestinians, and we need to move forward with Palestinians, with the blood of martyred Palestinians on our heads.

Marc Ellis on the Catholic Worker

I spent a year at the New York Catholic Worker in 1974-75. It was a tremendous experience for me. I studied with Richard Rubenstein, a Jewish Holocaust theologian, and William Miller, who was the first academic writer on the Catholic Worker and a great man. So I went there because of both of them. Rubenstein presented a very bleak picture of humanity with the covenant broken and solidarity broken and the need for power, endless power, to simply survive. And Miller, a Catholic. Though I didn’t understand elements of Catholicism I was attracted to his sensibilities, which said that through service to others and hospitality, we grow through those experiences and through having an openness to history. Anyway, I was fascinated with Miller.

And then I met Dorothy Day. She came down to visit. I was accepted to Vanderbilt University to do a Masters right after my undergraduate degree, which would have taken me to Harvard and all those good things. But I decided to go to the Catholic Worker. I knew when I made that decision that it would change my life, that this would be a big decision – I didn’t understand all of it – and my year there was a big part of my life although it was very difficult for me. I had never seen suffering like I saw there. I had never been in a Catholic environment. I had never been away from home in that way before. It was a very difficult and complex time for me, but in many ways it laid at least part of the foundation for my life.

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