Out of the Ashes by Marc Ellis
Israel and Palestine- Out of the Ashes: The search for Jewish Identity in the Twenty-first Century
Book by Marc H. Ellis, Pluto Press
Book Review by Mazin Qumsiyeh
I am always suprised at how many books one can read to find a book that truly reflects the inner voice of teh author, a book taht is not simply collecting an alphabatical soup to support an ideology the author is committed to without the authentic voice of teh author. Many recent authors speaking on Israel, Zionism etc provide canned and regurgitated mythologies without speaking from their own heart and mind and using their own inner voice. Ellis provides a different perspective that is truly a genuine voice unencumbered or shackled by ideology. But he does much more, he forces the reader to think. Here is a simple example:
Has the trauma of the Holocaust, which is remembered, recited and ritualized today more than at any time in Jewish history, led to a healing of the Jewish people? A Corollary question is whether Jewish empowerment in the West and in Israel has healed Jews of fear, anger and the brokenness which post-Holocaust writers and artists have portrayed so vividly. Can a healing between Jews and Palestinians become a bridge within and across the Holocaust? Is the desire to live with Palestinians in a renewed and transformed homeland for both peoples-the creation over time of a binational Israel/Palestine based on citizenship rather than ethnic or religious identification- a way of remembering the Holocaust for the future?
These and many other questions are raised and discussed in this book by Marc Ellis, a Jewish theologian and intellectual. Simply raising these questions is powerfully reminiscent of questions raised 60 years ago by another great Jewish philosopher: Martin Buber. I think Buber was ahead of his time. What Ellis succeeds in doing is not giving us packaged answers to the questions he raises but forcing us to think outside self-imposed mental chains. Ellis’s expose is timely as we are arriving at a point of history where these things are, if not openly discussed, beginning to be whispered in Jewish community centers, synagogues, and among hundreds of Jews in the peace movement.
Ellis’s book should thus be read not only by Jews of conscience, but by all of us who care and who profess to state that after the genocides in Europe, “never again.” Ellis begins a conversation that should be expanded and intensified because failing to do so will only lead us to repeat the mistakes of the past. Those who fail to reflect on Ellis’s questions are doomed to live in the pathology of self-imposed mythological fantasy increasingly delinked from reality.
Ellis argues that “the sin of twentieth –century Jewish settlements is less the desire or need for space and some form of autonomy than it is the uprooting and domination of the Palestinians inhabiting the land” (p. 77). This is what raises many ethical and moral questions that are organically linked to the Holocaust but that only few Jews seem to address. Ellis puts it thus:
“ Instead of healing and normalizing of the Jewish condition, the force of Israel has deepened our wounds. In a paradoxical way, by externalizing our pain and inflicting it on other people, we are becoming more distant from the sources and resources of our own possible healing. By seeing power as the only way forward, by feeling that with power comes dignity and respect, by projecting power as the only line of defence against a further violation, another holocaust, that very power unraveled the tradition, culture and religion that had itself been violated.”p. 156. People like Buber, Ellis, and Hanah Arendt embark on a journey to reconstruct the values so attacked by the Holocaust while other Jews chose to respond to these violations by dumping these values and defending an imperfect clone of eth same ethnocentric nationalism that perpetuated these violations.
Ellis quotes Irena Klepfisz, another conscientious Holocaust survivor, poignantly:
“What is it that we have been asking everyone to remember? Is it not the fields of Ponary and those nameless fields on the outskirts of dozens shtetlekh that we’re all pledged to remember? Am I to feel better that the Palestinians from Rufus were not shot by the Israelis but merely beaten? As long as hundreds of Palestinians are not being lined up and shot, but are killed by Israelis only one a day, are we Jews free from worrying about morality, justice? Has Nazism become the sole norm by which to judge evil, so that anything that is not its exact duplicate is considered by us morally acceptable? Is that what the Holocaust has done to Jewish moral sensibility?”(p. 28)
Klepfitz wrote these remarks in the 1980s well before this current Israeli crackdown. In three years Israeli forces have killed 3500 Palestinian civilians, nearly 650 children, and injured over 30,000. Home demolitions are at an all time high. Now 6 million of the 9 million Palestinians are refugees or displaced people (the largest such population in the world today). Ellis also does not address the wide scale massacres of the 1947-1949 era. Much of the history of ethnic cleansing and atrocities accompanying this process of transformation of Palestine to a Jewish state is now easily available. Israeli, Palestinian, and other historians and researchers have exposed much of the facts. More came out after declassification of governmental documents. Such academic research is also now available on the internet through such sites as Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem(the best resource on history by eminent researcher Issa Nakhleh, from my hometown of Beit Sahour) and Palestine Remembered (the best resource on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine).
The negative impact of Zionism on Palestine and Palestinians is addressed in hundreds of available books. Ellis rightly concerns himself with the effect of political Zionism on Jewish morality and asks about Jewish alternatives going forward especially in terms of dealing with the Holocaust. This aspect is rarely addressed by critics of Zionism (including the thousands of Jewish critics of Zionism). It is a question that is most relevant because support for Zionism today is originating mainly in Jewish quarters. Christian Zionists had a key role in starting political Zionism in Britain in the 1840s (discussed in my book "Sharing the Land of Canaan") and are now very visible in the US among a section of Southern Baptists. If peace is to prevail in this part of the world, both self avowed Zionist Christians and Zionist Jews would have to face the reality of Zionism. I think Ellis's book starts the conversation brilliantly and effectively in the Jewish community. A similar book on Christian ethics and morality vis a vis the Palestine question may yet be written. The closest I can think of is Elias Chakour's "Blood Brothers" and Stephen Sizer's book on Christian Zionism posted at http://www.christchurch-virginiawater.co.uk/articles/czarticles.htm.
In approaching these questions, Ellis opens a conversation. In some instances he does not shy away from giving human and humane answers. When he does this, he is realistic and yet hopeful. “The struggle in Israel/Palestine follows the ancient pattern of invasion and settlement, victory and defeat, but the pattern of integration and evolution is also to be seen here” (p. 76) and “citizenship free of ethnic or religious identity holds out the opportunity and possibility for normalizing life in the land by undercutting, at least in the public realm, the very ideas and attitudes that have led to the cycle of dislocation and destruction.” (p 78).
In discussing the value of the prophetic tradition in Judaism, Ellis states:
“In its deepest moment, the prophetic calls for a mutual accounting that will help all, including the prophet, confess the limitations and transcend them. And if the call is not to transcend the faults and limitations, since the prophet points to a world and a history that features betrayal, then it is to create structures and belief systems that help us travel a more just and peaceful path.”(p. 113). In another area, Ellis states that “many of the prophetic voices in the twentieth century were either secular or religious in self-critical way and that is also why the prophetic community in our time is made up of people from various traditions and cultures… from Mahatma Gandhi, a hindu, and Martin Buber, a Jew, to Martin Luther King Jr, a Protestant Christian, and Gustavo Gutierrez, a Latin American Catholic.” (p137).
I think these quotes about others actually reflects how I think of Ellis. He follows in the best of the prophetic traditions of our time. He helps us see the possibilities of forging a new future and see that the strands of that better future are already here:
“At some point, and there is evidence of this beginning to take place now, a solidarity based on inherited and often romaniticized identity groupings will give way to an identity in formation characterized by shared values that emerge in common struggle for the possibility of ordinary life and human flourishing” (p. 146).
Buy this book and give it as a gift to those you care about, Jews and non-Jews, friends and foes (future friends?), liberals and conservatives. All humans need to hear the prophetic voice more and open our hearts and minds.
“Love, by its very nature, is unworldly. And it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but anti-political, perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces.” (Hannah Arendt quoted in Ellis, p.160).